Managing Ethical Consumption in Tourism
Edited by Clare Weeden and Karla Boluk
Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-71676-5, January 2014 – 260 pages
A path-breaking volume which succeeds in filling a void in the literature, largely avoids productivist, neoliberal, moralistic and neo-puritan pitfalls, discusses ethics mostly in relation to alternative forms of tourism and, despite its economistic-sounding title, and refreshingly for an academic book which has to meet 'neutrality' standards, it discusses ethics from a largely ecological and socially progressive angle.
Compared to other academic disciplines and economic sectors there is neither a lot written about tourism ethics and tourism business ethics in tourism academia, nor a specialist tourism journal; as if when holidays start, ethics take a holiday too; as if academia ignores that there is a growing environmental & social justice awareness and that more travellers care about being 'ethical' or 'responsible' while on holiday. Religious radicalisation in the global south may have also influenced the trending of ethical travel, while the recent/ongoing global financial crisis (which has itself ' highlighted the absence of ethics in corporate life' as the Editors point out) may intensify or radicalise the trend. On the other hand, Sarah Quinlan Cutler in Chapter 11 demonstrated that ethical content in 2012 editions of three best-selling english-language guidebooks on Peru has decreased compared to their 2004 editions. One would have liked to hear the guidebooks author's explanation as well - is ethical tourism already becoming trite in the views of the publishers or is it a case of cost-cutting due to falling demand for guidebooks?
The editors/publishers apparently decided not to focus on thoroughly defining 'Ethical' either as a concept or as a tourism segment or a market, or to hold an ethical contest between the trendier, relevant adjectival tourisms (ecotourism, responsible, sustainable, pro-poor, fair-trade, slow and volunteer tourism). They chose to include various aspects and cases of 'ethical consumption' and let readers 'make up their own mind about what it means to be ethical in tourism' and about how meaningful/ realistic/ practical ethical tourism is as a notion. The result of this approach is that each individual author defines 'ethical' and 'ethical consumption' in a different way, which on the one hand results in pluralism and on the other may confuse readers used to a coherent analysis grounded on solid conceptual and ideological frameworks.
Definitions aside, defining or quantifying a tourist's ethics and motivations in a credible manner or even determining if a tourist is 'ethical' is in any case difficult: beyond the conundrum of whether the observer/researcher should also be or not be 'ethical' (whatever that may involve), there is the infamous attitude-behaviour gap between a tourist's aspirations and promises that their holiday should benefit local people, and how s/he actually interacts (or not) with the local community. Conversely, personal morality and personal philanthropy influence only a part of the sociopolitical footprint of an already-packaged holiday, and perhaps a larger part in an independent holiday.
The book is split into three parts: 1. the 'debates on ethical consumption in tourism' (the politics, contradictions, practical and theoretical), 2. 'situating the self in ethical consumption' (how travellers try to conduct/experience ethical tourism using empirical studies), and in the third part titled 'helping consumers make ethical decisions' which analyses the many challenges facing those 'helpers', the implicit assumption being that helpers are needed. Most chapters provide recommended bibliographical references and website links, while chapter ends with two or three incisive questions aimed at stimulating classroom discussions. The most spicy ones are clearly those ending Colin Michael Hall's chapter: "How the f***, can just about every tourism destination and major tourism body in the world such as the UNWTO, actively seek to increase the number of tourists each year and yet still tell us that tourism can be sustainable"..."Do something. Protest. Occupy. Change the courses they teach at your university (you are now meant to be a consumer after all)...." There is an even geographic coverage of the global south (Uganda, Cambodia, Peru, South Africa) and of the global north (United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia). A chapter on tourism ethics in Cuba and Thailand could be included in a future work. Of the 17 contributors, nearly all are academics while one is an activist-researcher.
Among the most interesting case studies in the book is Maria Koleth's empirical study of Australian voluntourists in Cambodia and Peru, that reviews the 'ethics of a neo-liberal agenda whose goal is the accumulation of human capital rather than eradication of human poverty'. In the same vein is a comprehensive review of medical tourism's origins by Kirsten and Brent Lovelock and discuss ethics against a neoliberal agenda that privatises, outsources and commodifies healthcare. On the other hand, Michael Clancy in the fourth chapter doubts that slow (ethical) tourism is economically sustainable or particularly beneficial for host communities. In the fifth chapter, Andrew Holden goes deeper discussing the principles of deep ecology and the intrinsic value of all beings irrespective of any value given to them by humans (consider those who try to calculate a dollar figure on the tourism value of live elephants compared to the value of poached ivory). Holden wonders if the defence of a protected area in Uganda against agroindustrial (biofuel) uses thanks to its 'ecotourism' value is an ethical or even safe solution.
There is an implicit consensus through the book that individual action by ethical travellers is not enough. Kelle Caton in the first chapter argues that 'holiday impacts cannot be solved through transactional ethics' while the editors propose in the conclusion that change will come through 'the collaborative effort of many consumers and business ventures'. But one who suspects that Ethics is far larger than tourism consumers and tourism producers, demand and supply, would prefer Colin Michael Hall (chapter 3) succinct remark that 'focusing on consumption behaviour and lifestyle alone, without challenging the role of structure and the cultural forces of production' is not enough to create an alternative path. Certainly, we do need to change the system of (tourism) production and democratise/ethicise the ownership of the means of tourism production. It is necessary but not sufficient to change our life-styles so as to be recognised as ethical tourists or ethical tourism practitioners, we need concerted grassroots action.
This volume discusses a selection of themes as diverse as medical tourism ethics, voluntourism, low wages, deep ecology, consumerism, ethical food and tourism marketing ethics. Understandably, not all issues can be covered in depth, and some key themes to consider for a sequel, would be networks, initiatives and organisations currently working for ethics in tourism, ecolabelling, travel boycotts, sex tourism, industry concentration and the role of multinationals, climate justice and tourism, displacement, gentrification and enclosure of the commons by tourism and holiday home developers, all-inclusives, diversion of water, tourism worker conditions and worker rights, commodification of indigenous people & culture, alcohol and narco-holiday destinations, wwoofing and last but not least, recent trends like couchsurfing, direct online room rentals and tax evasion.
In the concluding chapter the editors argue that 'ethical consumers are probably a specific and identifiable market.' Expanding and rephrasing this, based on the evidence produced by the book, we would add that ethical travellers are an identifiable constituency in the broad movement for climate justice. Therefore, this multifaceted book is recommended for tourism students and academics at all levels and indeed for all those who understand (or hope to see) tourism as much more than an industry, those who consider it an integral element for ecological and social justice (climate justice).