Respecting Human Rights While You Travel

It’s the age-old question we all face: what can we do to respect human rights while travelling? Read on to find out!

The increase of awareness and applications of responsible and ethical travel is a multi-faceted topic to discuss, made all the more critical than when talking about respecting human rights while you travel. Somehow, it seems infinitely easier to make choices in regards to environmentally-friendly or socially-conscientious tourism practices, for example, yet when faced with the dilemma of human rights violations, the options seem to be much more difficult and much more important. Is it right to visit a place where people are being discriminated against and unfairly treated? Is it ethical to visit a country that’s been accused of human rights violations?

Ethical tourism has come under the spotlight in recent years, most especially in less-developed countries going through tremendous social unrest. For years, it was always believed that one need only worry about unethical travelling when one is visiting some back-of-beyond nation on the other side of the planet. Yet Amnesty International’s recent naming and shaming of the top 10 countries in the world with deplorable human rights records has highlighted the fact that this is, in fact not the case at all. The #1 spot belongs to the USA and Europe and Australia have the inglorious honour of being equal 10th. So, what shall we do? Shall we all pack our bags, farewell our families and move to Sweden? I love Sweden, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t fancy pickled herring for breakfast and I quite like my home country despite its obvious flaws. Besides, I’ll be doing my country a great disservice if I simply bail out. Perhaps, by being more vocal in our loathing of our country’s human right violations, we’ll have a more beneficial impact on the situation than if we were to simply bail out. The Vietnam War was ended on the sweat and tears of protesters. History has shown time and time again that a tremendously loud collective voice has much more impact than blind indifference.

Besides, if we were to really discount any travel destination with a dubious human rights record, we’d never go anywhere.

Responsible travel

Native Brazilian man from the Tupi Guarani Tribe in Brazil. Credit: Shutterstock


Shouldn’t we travel and raise awareness, instead? If the last decade of social media advancement has taught us anything is that what all victims of human rights violations the world over crave is a voice. They want help from the outside world, they take videos and post them online, begging people to share them and raise awareness, asking us to lobby our nations for help. They want to be heard, seen, understood. Visiting countries whose people are suffering can offer foreigners a priceless chance to really understand the situation, learn more about it and let the world know.

Ethical boundaries are necessary, no doubt, yet they are also very personal and where you draw the line is completely up to you. Some causes touch the heart-strings more than others. Everyone has a cause to which they feel more attached. Some people boycott Japan because they hunt whales, others will bypass the US because of the latest hate-filled rhetoric that’s becoming a daily occurrence. No matter what you read (even here, obviously) you’ll undoubtedly instinctively know what you are willing to accept. I’ll just ask that you keep an open mind and read further.

The Practicalities of Respecting Human Rights While You Travel


When it comes to practicalities, there are quite a few things you can do when visiting a country whose human rights violations are well-known. You need not become a social activist in situ of course (lest you get yourself in a spot of bother) but if you’ve clicked on this article it means you care about the issue and don’t wish to add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Here are some tips for respecting human rights while you travel:

Educate yourself on local issues before visiting – Human Rights Watch has stated that tourists shouldn’t keep away from troubled countries although urge visitors to be well-educated on the current situation. A pivotal part of ethical tourism is knowledge, respect and reflection on what is happening in a country rather than just ignoring it while sunbathing on a pristine beach.

Stay, eat, do and shop local – The best way to help locals in any country is to spread your travel funds among them, directly. Take local cultural tours and cooking classes, eat in local family-owned restaurants and buy souvenirs directly from local artists. When you do have this option – as opposed to when countries demand foreigners stay in government-run hotels, for example – you can directly help those who are being oppressed whilst simultaneously not indirectly supporting a government whose policies you don’t agree with.

Consider how you spend your money – The most ethical tour operators will usually have socially-conscientious policies of giving back to their immediate community, be it by employing locals or funding programmes to help educate and empower the most marginalized and impoverished in their community. If you’re travelling and booking tours anyway, why not ensure your hard-earned funds are spent wisely? Every agency who’s doing all the right things will sing it from the rooftop if they can, so ask! Upset about the treatment of Mapuche indigenous people in southern Patagonia? Visit a Mapuche village and learn more about their fascinating history and culture. Partake in a native cooking class and buy their gorgeous carvings and weaved textiles as souvenirs. This is what helps them feel respected and treasured. You have choices even when you don’t think there are any.

Responsible Travel

“indio Picaro” (rogue indian) and other Chilean souvenirs in Santiago, Chile. Traditional carvings and souvenirs made by Mapuche indians. Credit: Shutterstock

Be compassionate and open – Many of us want hassle-free, relaxing vacations yet just as many want to take more than a suntan and happy snaps home. No matter where you go and if you show enough interest, you’ll have the pleasure of talking to locals, many of whom may want to tell you their stories and share their grief. Compassion and a willing ear can do wonders for those who feel they don’t have a voice. Engaging with locals in any travel destination can be immensely beneficial, certainly more so than if you were to never visit at all and, moreover, this will gift you the kind of travel experiences you simply cannot buy.

Refrain from voicing judgements – In all my travels, I have learnt that no matter how critical a local is of his or her government, it is never right for me to do the same. No matter what cause is being discussed, be it LGBT rights or the mistreatment of minorities, the key is to listen without passing judgement and to be as diplomatic as possible. Moreover, many countries with atrocious human rights violations have quite strict policies on government critique. Be mindful of where you talk and how loud the conversation gets. You may well be let off with a warning as a foreign guest yet your discussion-mate will suffer a much worse fate. Let social media be your medium when you get home and get that message out.

Buy Fairtrade – A large chunk of human rights violations have to do with workers’ exploitation and child labour in farms and factories. Aid the cause by ensuring any product you buy adheres to Fairtrade practices.

Search by ethical standards – Granted, most people travel abroad with a specific wish in mind, be it to see a UNESCO-listed treasure or a stellar city they’ve always dreamed of visiting. Yet the rise in concerns for ethical tourism has created a wave of travellers who will choose destinations based on their ethical values. In Latin America, the most commendable nations are Uruguay, Chile, Colombia Belize and Costa Rica, bright beacons of social inclusivity, environmental protection and swift ethical progress. Uruguay is a particular world-favourite with stellar records on human rights, peace, freedom as well as lack of corruption. Ironic that Uruguay is one of the lesser-known gems of the continent.

As travellers, we may well hold the golden ticket to helping improve the situation of human rights victims wherever we happen to travel. Aside from an unforgettable and enlightening journey we also have the chance to directly help those most affected.

It may be infinitely easier to simply ignore a country in turmoil but that, to me, sounds like the least ethical thing to do.

At Chimu Adventures, we endeavour to operate in a sustainable and ethical manner running tours in Latin America, Antarctica and the Arctic, doing all we can to empower local communities with the help and support of discerning and conscientious tourists. We showcase more than the famous jewels, take you off the beaten path and include cultural experiences to enhance your journey. Visit our Chimu Adventure page to know more.

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”