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How is tourism unethical? Understanding the issues

Did you know tourism is responsible for displacement of people, poor working contitions, exploitation of women and children, water shortages and environmental degradation? Explore how tourism can have a negative impact on holiday destinations. See examples of the key issues on our interactive map and read more about the negative effects of tourism on this page.

Displacement caused by tourism development

Tourism development has caused many communities to be forcibly displaced. Indigenous groups, people living in informal settlements, or who lack official title deeds to their lands are particularly vulnerable to displacement or loss of access to lands and waters essential for their livelihoods. This often happens with little or no warning, compensation or alternative provision.

Water injustice and tourism

Tourism is a thirsty business. Peak tourist seasons are generally during the driest months of the year. Tourism development is most intense in coastal areas and on islands, where potable water is typically scarce. Vast amounts of water are needed during the construction phase, as well as once the tourists have started to arrive. However, local communities are often not allowed to access infrastructure built to ensure safe drinking water for tourists. Tourism also generates significant quantities of waste water, which many destinations in poor countries do not have the infrastructure to process effectively. Often, sewage generated by resorts is dumped into waterways or pumped out to sea.

Indigenous people and tourism

Indigenous peoples frequently suffer greatly due to tourism. Indigenous peoples are self-defined groups of ethnically and culturally distinct peoples, whose language, traditions and social institutions have largely withstood the impacts of colonisation or other incoming groups and cultures to a region. They typically have an intrinsic, spiritual link to their lands.

Working conditions in tourism

Some eight per cent of the global workforce is employed in the tourism sector. However, endemic poverty, lack of opportunity, a heavy dependence on tourism to generate income plus weak adherence to international labour standards creates fertile ground for the exploitation of workers at the bottom of the tourism supply chain in countries all over the world. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to abuse, including sexual exploitation and harassment.

Climate change and tourism

Climate change is already having a devastating impact upon the lives of people around the world. Many of the poorest people and countries in the global South are suffering the worst of its effects, despite wealthy, industrialised Northern countries being largely responsible for its causes. Furthermore, poor Southern countries have the least resources and capacity to mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change. These include rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and changing weather patterns leading to increased and prolonged periods of drought and flooding.

Slum/Favela/Poverty tourism

Today slum tours are sold as an alternative to traditional tourism and a more realistic form of experiencing a country - getting in touch with real people and the local culture. It is estimated that 40,000 tourists visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro each year while around 300,000 visit the townships in Cape Town. Tours are also widespread in India, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries in the developing world.

Volunteering and gap years

With volunteering overseas on development projects rapidly growing in popularity and increasing numbers of adventure tour operators offering ‘voluntourism’ packages, serious questions have arisen about how some such projects are managed and how the benefits are being shared. It is also a challenge for prospective volunteers to identify organisations that embrace best practice.

Economic exclusion by the tourism industry

All inclusive holidays are becoming increasingly popular with tourists. However, the implications for employees, other local businesses, the destination economy, and the tourist experience in terms of meaningful cultural exchange, throws up some serious questions about the sustainability and ethics of this tourism model.

Cultural impacts of tourism

As tourists, we are lucky to see and share experiences with people whose cultures, beliefs and world views differ from our own. New cultural experiences, including dress, food and festivities, are an essential ingredient of fulfilling travel for many of us. However, all too often, those very cultures that help to make our holidays so special are being violated and exploited.

Exploitation of children

Around the world, between 13 and 19 million people under the age of 18 work in an occupation tied to tourism, according to the ILO. This represents some 10-15% of the tourism workforce. Underpinning these high numbers is poverty. For children from families too poor to send them to school, tourism can present opportunities to earn an income. In many destinations, this is a stark example of how the supposed wealth generated by tourism is not being equally shared across society. It can also leave children open to one the most abhorrent forms of exploitation – child sex tourism.

Exploitation of women

According to the International Labour Organisation, women make up 70% of the labour force in tourism industry and half are under 25 years of age. Yet women are often the most undervalued, underpaid exploited workers within the tourism industry. The UNWTO states that women in tourism typically earn 10% to 15% less than their male counterparts, and many undertake unpaid work in family tourism businesses. Women are often excluded from decision-making and see less of the tourism’s benefits. They are more vulnerable to exploitation from sex tourism, fuelled by poverty and unequal power relations.

Supporting sustainable community tourism

Community tourism (sometimes called community-based tourism) is a form of tourism which aims to include and benefit local communities, particularly indigenous peoples and villagers in the rural South (ie 'developing world'). For instance, villagers might host tourists in their village, managing the scheme communally and sharing the profits. There are many types of community tourism project, including many in which the 'community' works with a commercial tour operator, but all community tourism projects should give local people a fair share of the benefits/profits and a say in deciding how incoming tourism is managed.

In this section


Water injustice

Indigenous people

Working conditions

Climate change

Slum tourism


Economic exclusion

Cultural impacts

Authoritarian regimes

Exploitation of children

Exploitation of women

Supporting sustainable community tourism

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