Studying abroad can be one of the most expansive learning experiences during our time at college. Whether we travel for a semester, May term, or summer, innumerable opportunities for us to grow as students and people await.
Participation in these experiences, though, necessitates a certain responsibility—one in which we must be educated, ethical, and respectful guests in the places we visit.
What is ethical travel?
Ethical travel is a complex topic, but it essentially boils down to being a responsible visitor. Worldpackers says it requires “being mindful of the consequences that being a tourist has on the environment, animals, and people” and having the awareness that our visit “has the potential to either make negative or positive impact.”
Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Travel Gregory Miller echoed this sentiment, stating in an interview with Verge Magazine that to be ethical, “travellers need to be more thoughtful and deliberate and look at the natural, cultural and spiritual resources of a destination.”
Ethical travel can thus be summarized simply as informed travel that does more good than harm. This can mean being respectful of the culture and environment, avoiding contributions to practices that harm the local community, and using the things we learn for a good cause.
Why should I care about ethically traveling?
As fun as traveling is, we should acknowledge that the tourism industry can negatively affect the people who live in the places we encounter. The local people are usually last to reap the benefits of our visits, despite the tourism industry economically funding the country.
It’s also no secret that many countries are home to uncomfortable and unfavorable histories—and presents. Often, the deeper we examine the past, the worse the tragedies we unveil—our own country being no exception.
The desire to create an improved present and future should drive us to be more educated and globally conscious. Learning from the past is how we form a better future—if we don’t address our mistakes, we will inevitably make them again.
So, when we are presented these wonderful opportunities to study abroad and feed our travel bug, we should feel a responsibility to be ethical and informed. This doesn’t mean your trip can’t be a fun experience—it just means we need to be responsible.
Elizabethtown College Study Abroad Advisor Jaime Ramos urges us to remember the impact we have abroad. He said, “Everything you do, everything you say, every action you make, [and] every choice you decide on is a representation of the ethics that you have and a representation of [the] College.”
If we go abroad and make poor decisions, not only can we hurt the people we encounter, but those people will then think negatively of where we come from. Ethical traveling requires us to be respectful visitors and good representations to make this two-way street as positive as possible.
We should strive to make the best impression possible, not only out of a sense of integrity and respect, but also a responsibility to our homes, families, and friends whom we represent.
How can I be ethically responsible abroad?
In the study abroad process and experience, Ramos says that ethics come into play as “the difference between action versus non action.” Not only should we gain an understanding of the culture before and during our trips, but we should also be cognizant of our behavior. This can come down to even how we speak, as Ramos reminds that “ethics is not just this understanding, but it’s also the action that goes into it.”
Thus, gaining awareness and maximizing your learning of and connection to a culture while studying abroad can aid in your pursuit of being an ethical traveler.
Worldpacker urges that being a responsible visitor requires us to “have the awareness of the economic, political, or social issues going on in the country.” This rang especially important to me, and here are a few ways I tried to practice this during my two-week May term in England.
Research before—and after—you leave
Before I left for England, I was familiar with the country’s disappointing history with the colonization and exploitation of minority cultures from years of studying English literature. The British don’t have a good track record with upholding human rights or respecting foreign peoples, and it’s no secret that many artifacts the country displays are stolen and contested.
I knew that I would be visiting some places that benefitted from these terrible practices—such as the British Museum—so I made sure I had the proper awareness before entering these spaces. Ignorance is an inhibitor of progress, so I made sure I was culturally conscious and empathetic before visiting in person.
Even though I went in with this mindset, the British Museum doesn’t list every piece of stolen history it displays. I got a weird feeling in some of the exhibits, especially when I wandered into the large room of Parthenon sculptures. My immediate thought was why aren’t these in Greece?
It turns out that Greece has this question, too. After returning home, I did some extra research into the pieces I viewed, and found the sculptures on the museum’s contested objects page. In fact, they were called the “Elgin marbles” after the British ambassador that took them for a while—but this isn’t mentioned by the museum.
The British Museum cites its dedication to giving its “visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect – whether through trade, migration, conquest, conflict, or peaceful exchange” as part of why they don’t return artifacts to their rightful homes.
More pieces than those on the contested objects page have a complex history of getting to the museum. Notably, Egypt has been asking for the return of the Rosetta stone, according to History.com. It’s disappointing that they’re allowed to excuse away—and other times just not address—theft like this, but knowing the truth is better than honoring the museum unknowingly.
I found that this research into a controversial location, both before and after my visit, clarified and maximized my learning. This shows that questioning what you encounter is important. While I was able to see amazing historical artifacts all in one place, my extended research added another layer of understanding to the experience. This allowed me to explore the relationship of the country I visited with the modern world more deeply, and I wouldn’t have gained that without some extra studying.
Don’t be scared to get uncomfortable
I also found some activities for my free time abroad that would be educationally insightful. In researching this, I came across the Original Uncomfortable Walking Tour of Oxford, England.
On Uncomfortable Oxford’s site, they say the tour addresses “histories of empire, inequality, and race, class, and gender discrimination, highlighting how these legacies have an enduring impact on our modern lives.” When I was abroad, I wanted to try to recognize the painful histories of the places I visit and give money to, so I felt like it was a good fit.
Though it’s impossible to avoid engaging in every place with an uncomfortable history, it’s not impossible to educate yourself about it.
And educated I was. I had walked around the city for a day and a half before taking the tour, but as soon as the discussion-based tour began, I realized how mindless and ignorant my wandering had been. I’d walked down High Street half a dozen times, yet I never noticed the statue of Cecil Rhodes atop Oriel College, placed above English monarchs and looking down on the street. I even knew that the statue was there since I investigated the city’s history after booking the tour. Still, it was above me the whole time and I’d never looked up to acknowledge it.
Our guide also highlighted the frustrating nature of some of Oxford’s claims to fame. For example, the women’s colleges have amazing and expansive libraries, but that is only so because women weren’t allowed in the other colleges’ libraries due to their gender.
And even though some of these libraries are legendary, they hold disgusting mementos, like the blatantly racist caricatures of Christian Cole in the Bodleian Library. Cole was the first Black African to be awarded an Oxford degree, and even though he did so in the era of photography, the gross artistic depictions are what remains of his likeness.
In discussing this phenomenon, our guide asked us what factors influence how historical figures get remembered. Another attendee said just three words—“money, power, white.” And she was undoubtedly, and saddeningly, correct.
The tour helped me contextualize the city in which I was staying and opened my eyes to the reality of the prestigious colleges’ reputations. These were uncomfortable truths to discuss, but necessary for true learning. If you can find a similar tour in the place you visit, I’d highly recommend.
Be a part of the solution
It’s easy to go abroad without caring about any of the underlying complexities of where you go—but ignoring truth doesn’t make it go away. It’s the harder and more challenging option, but investing in being a responsible and ethical traveler makes us better people. And better people make a better society for those that follow.
Etown psychology professor and “Peace and Conflict in South Africa” trip leader Dr. Michael Roy related ethical traveling to the College’s motto—“Educate for Service”. He says ethical traveling “fits with the motto because in order to serve others, you need to be empathetic and open toward them. Only by being open and receptive to others can you truly be helpful.”
We should remember this when we study abroad, making it our ethical responsibility to address difficult truths and learn from them. Ignoring history and other uncomfortable truths only benefits the oppressor—and pretending like they don’t exist creates ignorance. We owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to be better than that. Only then can we return home more educated and capable students and people, prepared to help the world heal and grow.
About the Author: Ashley Conway ’23
Ashley Conway is a senior at Elizabethtown College majoring in Applied Mathematics and English Professional Writing.
Ashley created this piece as a part of her Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts, and Research Project (SCARP) titled Travel Writing: Capturing British Culture through Prose and Image.
Ashley attended the Regional Writers of England May-Term Faculty Led Experience in May 2022. There she got to engage with her English education through locations such as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Jane Austen’s House, The Charles Dickens Museum, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
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