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The Interview: Jeff Greenwald, Ethical Traveler


Jeff Greenwald is a veteran traveler, journalist, author (Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World) and arguably the most persuasive guy around for ethical travel. In fact, he co-founded Ethical Traveler, “a global community dedicated to exploring the ambassadorial potential of world travel.” I heard Jeff speak at the Adventure Travel Summit in Quebec in October of this year and later on, had a chance to ask him some questions.

Okay, so what exactly is Ethical Traveler?
Ethical Traveler, which I co-founded in 2003, is the first international alliance uniting adventurers, tourists, travel agencies and outfitters — everyone who sees travel as a positive force in the global community –  into a single action group. We work to maximize the positive impacts of travel, and band together in the service of human rights and protection of the environment. Our mission — and I admit it's ambitious –  is to empower travelers to change the world. We're working to create a shift in the way travelers view themselves, and their influence within the global community. The time is right, I think. Travel is now the world's biggest industry — even bigger than oil. There's a growing ability   and maybe an imperative –  for travelers to play a more active role. Our core belief is that motivated travelers, mindful of our planet's social and environmental concerns, can be instrumental in creating a better world.

I've read your 13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador (see below). Are these tips at the heart of being an ethical traveler?

Absolutely. Because Ethical Travel, simply, is mindful travel — travel with a moment-to-moment awareness of where you are, and how you engage with the people and places you're visiting. Mindfulness is key to inspiring, enlightening travel. As Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English historian once said:  "If an ass goes a-traveling, he'll not come back a horse."


el comercio peru / Miguel Bellido ©2007

Can you give me examples of some of the issues that Ethical Traveler is addressing? For example, there's something on the website about Peru's ongoing problem of sex trafficking. What can members of Ethical Traveler do about it?

Through our action campaigns, Ethical Traveler inspires the community of world travelers to stand together and speak out  — to governments that rely on our tourism dollars — about issues affecting their indigenous people and natural resources. We've taken action to prevent human rights abuses in Nepal and Burma, to protect the old-growth forests of Tasmania, to support rangers working in the Cocos and Galapagos Islands, and to defend the health of coral reefs.

You asked about our recent Peru campaign. I'll use that one to show you how our campaigns operate. The prevalence of child sex trafficking in Peru — and the failure of Peruvian authorities to combat this trend — was brought to our attention. We determined that this could be a viable campaign, since Peru relies heavily on tourism. Next — to prevent ineffective action on our part — we partnered with other organizations actually located in Peru. Finally, we publicized the issue on our website and began a letter-writing campaign by our members. This culminated in our "snail-mailing" hundreds of letters against sex trafficking to Mercedes Araoz, Peru's Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism. The letters are pretty simple. They remind Minister Araoz that we travelers have a choice of where to spend our tourism dollars — and that we're less inclined to spend them in a country that turns a blind eye to the sex trafficking of girls and boys.

What are some of the most troubling things you've seen in your travels in recent years, issues that to some might seem insolvable?

As most of us who even glance at the news are well aware, there are many issues that seem intractable. Not because humanity lacks the tools to solve them, but because the world leadership lacks the will to address them. We saw this recently on the vote to continue to allow the fishing of blue fin tuna, a species now down to 15% of its former population levels. We saw it in Copenhagen, when leaders couldn't agree on sensible climate targets. Personally, I — and many travelers — continually see people suffering in the developing world because of over-population,  poverty, the lack of clean drinking water or clinics, the failure to educate children, child sex trafficking, the clear-cutting of ancient forests, and ethnic conflict. None of these problems are a stone-carved part of the human condition. All of them can be solved and many can be solved quickly. But greed seems to trump all. It's especially galling in countries where corrupt leaders are so shamelessly padding their bank accounts with development dollars. Okay, that's my rant for the day.

You began traveling in earnest about 30 years ago. Are there any places in the world that have improved — in terms of human rights, poverty, corruption — in your view?

Some countries really have improved   many of them directly because of their potential for eco-friendly tourism. Every year, Ethical Traveler publishes a list of "The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations" (see list below). These are places where tourist income has become an important part of the national economy, creating a sustainable, people- (and plant!) friendly industry. Some of the countries on our 2010 list have made great strides in improving social welfare and the environment through tourism — Namibia, Argentina and Suriname are a few examples. In some other countries, whole ecosystems have been saved or restored because they have been protected as world-class destinations. I'm thinking specifically of Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park, Chile's Patagonia region, and  — hopefully, eventually  — Tasmania's Tarkine rainforest. Of course, these gestures are meaningless if climate change continues unabated .


Sadhus at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. Photo by Everett Potter.

I was reading your blog this morning and you speak a lot about Kathmandu, which figured prominently in your book Shopping for Buddhas. I was just in Kathmandu in May for the first time. And I left with the sense that Nepal was on the edge, in so many ways. What are your feelings about the country these days?

That's a love/hate relationship too long and maddening for this short interview! Politically, yes, Nepal is on the edge. No one seems to be in power; there's no consensus of who should govern, or how. The murder of King Birendra and his family, in June of 2001, left a vacuum not only in Nepal's power structure, but in the self-image of the country. It's never recovered. The Congress Party, the Maoists   they've all been huge disappointments. Nepal has nearly 100 ethnic groups, from the Terai to the Khumbu. Who can govern a place like this? It would be a challenge to the most enlightened government — and Nepal's current government is very far from being enlightened. I'm afraid Nepal is on the edge of becoming a failed state — but I can't say I'm sure what that would mean. And for the general visitor, of course, it's a sometimes charming, often absurd shambles. On the one hand, the country seems to get worse and worse; modern Nepal in general, and Kathmandu in particular, is the product of decades of horribly bad decisions, rampant corruption, and mindless growth. On the other hand, I adore the place with the blind passion of a man still infatuated with a lifelong lover now well past her prime. I expect I always will.  

What can't you leave home without when you travel?

On the rational, creature-comfort level, I always pack along a ThermaRest sport seat — a small inflatable cushion that serves as a seat, neck support, even a lap desk on a train or bus. I also bring my iPod nano, and a wonderful little plug-in speaker that can fill even the dreariest hotel room with Babar Maal or Beth Orton. On the irrational side, my passport pouch holds a small drawstring sack containing amulets and good luck fetishes I've picked up during my travels — they range from a tiny dried rose given by an ex-girlfriend to a small eye meant for a Hindu god.

Where are you off to next?

I try to return to Nepal almost every year, and I'll be going back to Kathmandu in the Spring of 2010 to put the finishing touches on my new book, Snake Lake.  Otherwise  well, I don't know! Let's see what comes down the 'pike. That's the great thing about being a travel writer; you rarely know what awaits. And despite the increasingly antiseptic and dehumanizing aspects of air travel, I still believe in that wonderful sentiment expressed by Kurt Vonnegut: Strange travel suggestions are "dancing lessons from God."


1) BE AWARE OF WHERE YOUR MONEY IS GOING, and patronize locally-owned inns, restaurants, and shops. Try to keep your cash within the local economy, so the people you are visiting can benefit directly from your visit.

2) NEVER GIVE GIFTS TO CHILDREN, only to their parents or teachers. When giving gifts to local communities – from schoolbooks to balloons, from pens to pharmaceuticals – first find out what's really needed, and who can best distribute these items.

3) Before visiting any foreign land, TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN BASIC COURTESY PHRASES: greetings, "please" & "thank you," and as many numbers as you can handle (those endless hours in airport waiting lounges, or aboard trains and boats, are all opportunities for this). It's astonishing how far a little language goes toward creating a feeling of goodwill.
4) REMEMBER THE ECONOMIC REALITIES OF YOUR NEW CURRENCY. A few rupees, baht or pesos one way or another is not going to ruin you. Don't get all bent out of shape over the fact that a visitor who earns 100 times a local's salary might be expected to pay a few cents more for a ferry ride, a museum entrance, or an egg.

5) BARGAIN FAIRLY, and with respect for the seller. Again, remember the economic realities of where you are. The final transaction should leave both buyer and seller satisfied and pleased. Haggling for a taxi or carpet is part of many cultures; but it's not a bargain if either person feels exploited, diminished, or ripped-off.

6) LEARN AND RESPECT THE TRADITIONS AND TABOOS OF YOUR HOST COUNTRY. Each culture has its own mores, and they're often taken very seriously. Never, for example, pat a Thai child on the head, enter a traditional Brahmin's kitchen, or refuse a cup of kava in Fiji!

7) CURB YOUR ANGER, AND CULTIVATE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Anger is a real issue for westerners even the Dalai Lama remarks on this. It's perversely satisfying, but it never earns the respect of locals, or defuses a bad situation. A light touch and a sense of cosmic perspective are infinitely more useful. As former Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy says: "When you lose your sense of humor, it's just not funny anymore."

8) It makes an enormous difference if you ARRIVE WITH A SENSE OF THE SOCIAL, POLITICAL, AND ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES faced by the people you are visiting. Our site will direct you to good profiles of most travel destinations; we also recommend you read the political and historic sections of your guidebook (Lonely Planet, Moon Publications, and Rough Guides are especially good for this). Many countries offer English-language newspapers, as well.

9) LEARN TO LISTEN. The ability to listen is the essence of diplomacy, on both the personal and international levels. Many of the world's conflicts arise when people feel marginalized. Travelers from the USA in particular should be aware that many people especially in developing countries believe that having the ear of an American is tantamount to having the ear of America. So wherever you're from, listen well and with respect to all points of view.

10) LEARN TO SPEAK. People from wealthy and powerful countries often express their opinions as if they are the absolute truth. Such preaching invites anger and resentment. We suggest tempering conversations with phrases like "I believe," or "My view is," rather than, "Everybody knows…."

11) The single most useful phrase any traveler can learn: "CAN YOU PLEASE HELP ME?" Rarely, in any country or situation, will another human being refuse a direct request for help. Being of service, and inviting others to reciprocate, is what the phrase global community is all about.

12) LEAVE YOUR PRECONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE WORLD AT HOME. The inhabitants of planet Earth will continually amaze you with their generosity, hospitality and wisdom. Be open to their friendship, and aware of our common humanity, delights, and hardships.

13) NEVER FORGET KURT VONNEGUT JR'S BEST LINE: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." In other words: go with the flow, and give free rein to your sense of adventure!

For more information, visit Ethical Traveler

Ethical Traveler’s 2009/2010 list of "The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations."









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  1. December 3, 2009 at 5:40 am — Reply

    Jeff Greenwald’s appreciation of the economic and social circumstances of those parts of the planet away from North America leaves so very much to be desired. These annual listings of Ethical Destinations seem to be merely a publicity stunt that secures media attention for Jeff’s activities. We challenge Jeff to demonstrate to us that his list is based on sound economic and social research. He refused last year and we believe he will react in the same way this year. It is a measure of his sheer lack of understanding that he judges Poland and Lithuania to be in the Developing World.
    The Editors
    Hidden Europe Magazine

  2. December 3, 2009 at 11:15 am — Reply

    Dear Editors,
    You are more than welcome to review our research, as you were when we last released our report in 2008. As I mentioned then, and repeat now, the country reports are quite long, and we do not have the budget to mail them to you. You had planned to come by to pick up some of the documentation, which was compiled and is still available to you at my San Francisco office. I’ll be happy to email you our basic spreadsheet, which helps us create our “short list.” But we are somewhat protective of our full methodology; it’s our intellectual property.
    As a small non-profit we do not, of course, have the resources to survey and measure every country in the world. We work from available, usually open-source research. On the three scales we use, both Poland and Lithuania (as well as Latvia, which was also on our short list) are listed as “Upper Middle” level developing countries by the World Bank. Poland is a trickier issue. The CIA lists Poland as a developed country, while the IMF abstains from a listing. We believe, however, that Poland — which is clearly on the verge of becoming a fully developed country, and will soon be ineligible for this list — will be glad to see us steer travelers in its direction.
    Both Latvia and Lithuania are listed as developing or upper-middle level developing countries on all three scales we use. These are easily accessible to you on the Web.
    It’s unfortunate that you now find our effort a “publicity stunt.” The countries we list are usually very pleased to win this ranking, and we hope that travel to these places will encourage their earnest efforts to support human rights and the environment, and build a sustainable tourism industry. And yes, we do hope that the report will draw some attention to Ethical Traveler’s mission, as well.
    Jeff Greenwald

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