Travel Notebook

A Conversation with Ethical Traveler’s Jeff Greenwald

I was thrilled to have the recent opportunity to attend the Ethical Traveler Destination awards – a cause close to my heart. It was fantastic to hear what these developing countries are doing to improve environmental protection, social welfare and human and animal rights. I was so inspired that Charlie and I have now decided to visit at least one “ethical” country per year – time permitting, of course. Among our top choices: Mongolia, Chile and Palau.

The inspiring Jeff Greenwald was the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony and provided an informative background on his organization, Ethical Traveler, and their mission. Greenwald has long stood for sustainable and ethical travel and today runs the organization along with a board of advisors that encompass expertise in the fields of travel, environment, economy, health and world policy. Ethical Journeys is an offshoot of Ethical Traveler, a collection of small group tours that adhere to the highest environment, fair trade and human rights standards in an effort to educate travelers on sustainable and ethical travel and to maximize benefits to host communities. A lofty goal, to be sure, but one that Mr. Greenwald is certainly meeting every day.

We took a moment to pose a few questions to Jeff Greenwald and would like to share this discussion with you.

Q: How does Ethical Traveler deem a destination worthy of that moniker?

First, our team of volunteers creates a spreadsheet of all the countries in the developing world. Next, we rate these countries based on how they perform on more than two dozen well-respected global indexes. These include UNICEF childhood health and mortality, women’s rights, freedom of the press, land and coastal protection, LGBT rights, renewable energy, the treatment of indigenous groups and many other factors. 

Once we have a short list of 15 to 20 countries, our researchers look at each one surgically: reviewing the past year’s local newspapers and international stories, seeing where progress or backtracking has taken place and determining whether or not the country is living up to its promises. Also — of course — each winning destination must make a trip worthwhile!  

In the end, the countries that win our Ten Best Ethical Destinations award are places where social welfare, human rights and environmental protection are revered and promoted. Not only that — these are countries where our tourist dollars will make a difference, help them sustain their best practices and inspire neighboring countries to follow their example.

For our recently released 2017 list, by the way, visit

Q: What is next on your ethical travel bucket list?

For the organization, we are going to devote the first part of this year to retooling our mission and finding new ways to unite and empower travelers in this highly networked age. When we started in 2003, letter writing was an effective tool; these days, social action is championed more effectively by social media. We are also eager to form new partnerships, hopefully with airlines and outfitters as well as travel providers. And, of course, our work on the 2018 “Ten Best Ethical Destinations” list will begin again in August 2017. 

On a personal level I hope to visit Norway, take an intensive Spanish course on Oaxaca (Mexico) and spend more time exploring the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. 

Q: What’s one easy thing most travelers can do, no matter where they are in the world, to travel more “ethically”?

I’ll suggest two easy things! First, travelers can follow the money. Make sure that their visits are supporting local businesses and individuals as much as possible. Travel is at its most ethical when it directly benefits the people we are visiting — especially in the developing world. Second, I would urge all travelers to be good listeners. Be curious. Hear, understand and share the thoughts and concerns of our hosts in far corners of the world — many of whom feel (and are) marginalized by the highly industrialized countries. Travel at its heart is diplomacy, and we are well served to be mindful of this. For more suggestions, by the way, readers can read Ethical Traveler’s “13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador” at

Q: Tell us a bit about your work with Camp Hope, an organization that Design for Life also supports.

Camp Hope is a settlement of Nepali refugees who had to flee their destroyed villages after the catastrophic earthquakes of 2015. Originally set up by a small team of Portuguese travelers and the management of Dwarika’s Hotel, it has become a model of communal living and cooperation. My own role has been modest. With the help of Looking Glass Photography in Berkeley, California, and Rebecca Recommends, I arranged for digital cameras to be brought into the camp. These were given to the Camp’s 80-plus children, who were taught how to document their experiences during the many months before their villages are rebuilt. The talent and vision of these young photographers is so compelling that we are having a formal exhibition of their work at the Looking Glass gallery on April 25th: the second anniversary of the earthquake. Here is a link to the full story, which is part of the gallery’s website:

Q: What do you never leave home without when traveling?

Personally? I always pack along one of those ultra-light inflatable sports seat cushions. They’re great as extra padding on trains and buses, and also serve as perfect lap desks in a pinch. You can use them to cushion fragile items in your luggage, or provide lumbar support in a rental car. And if you take one with you on a day hike, you can sit on just about anything, anywhere (stay away from thorns, though!). 

I also try to bring something educational, so that I can engage with local kids without handing out candy or money – something like a prism, an inflatable world globe, a gyroscope, etc. 

For our suggestions on how to help your clients travel ethically in 2017, please contact me at [email protected]