How do we Teach Kids to be Ethical Travelers?

How do we Teach Kids to be Ethical Travelers?

ethical travel for kidsI recently read an article about the ethical treatment of elephants in Thailand. I feel sometimes when I travel with my daughter, we do often go for what is easy. We stay at resorts, or approved hotels or vacation rentals. We shop at Target to replenish our stocks of clothing soiled by potty-training fails. When I read the article about the elephants, it made me wonder, how do we teach kids to be ethical travelers? If we were in Thailand, and saw the billboards about elephant trekking, we would be hard-pressed to resist my daughter’s entreaties. She loves elephants. Still, though, it makes me wonder.

goats at farm
goats at a local farm sanctuary

How far does this go? Does going to zoos in foreign countries reinforce animal captivity? Do we have to visit only animal sanctuaries? Do we need to investigate only local tour operators, that may not be associated with the cruise line or hotel? Is that safe with a child?

Granted, we have not traveled yet in developing nations with my daughter. The biggest change to her usual way of life was when we briefly visited Ensenada aboard the Carnival Inspiration. We wandered down the quay past the hawkers and tourist traps to a small local restaurant. My daughter asked about the children who approached us and tried to sell her pieces of candy, but we did not buy any. We smiled at the children and told them “no” briefly before continuing on our way.

Pico Iyer wrote, “We travel initially to lose ourselves. We travel next to find ourselves.” We want to travel more with our daughter, expose her to different experiences, new ways of life. Our personal travel experiences have been the most rewarding of our lives.

My First Recollection of Need for Ethical Travel

When I was in college, my family and I went to St. Lucia. Filled with collegiate self-importance from a recent reading of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, I insisted we leave the protection of the resort (the beautiful Windjammer Landing). I wanted to see the island, the real island. We drove along a treacherous jungle road, potholed and steamy. On our journey, we passed billboards encouraging HIV testing, watched women carry water home along the sides of the street, children playing in schoolyards. I thought I could handle it.

We passed this scene barely a few miles from our luxurious resort. When the hurricanes recently battered the Caribbean, it seemed to reveal the truth about the tourism industry. While a major component of most countries’ GDP, studies estimate that nearly 80% of tourist dollars leave the country. An article in USA Today reported that some hotels import 70% of their food and cleaning supplies, leaving local suppliers struggling to compete.

So, how do We Teach Kids to be Ethical Travelers?

  • Travel more often. Whether in our own backyard or overseas, at a resort or in a remote homestay, all travel experiences help. Every time we venture beyond our doors we see a new world, new people.
  • Eat and buy more locally. When traveling with little ones, it can be so tempting to stick with the chain restaurants. Hey, every Hard Rock Cafe has fries and every Starbucks has muffins. If we do that, though, we miss out on exposing them to things they may love. I distinctly remember my daughter trying Apfelstrudel in Vienna for the first time, or freshly caught fish in Ensenada. I just have to keep this in mind when I need to pick up new clothes because I packed twenty outfits for my daughter and none for myself.
  • Check out these tips in Epicure and Culture, an online magazine dedicated to “responsible tourism and respectful travel.” I think my favorites of these tips are to research more beforehand, and explore more in your own backyard. The latter helps your carbon footprint, too. I feel I often fall into the trap of planning my visits last minute. If I take more time to research, I could find more places that support locals.
  • Encourage children to learn new languages, or learn something about the place you are visiting. My aunt always reads a novel or biography of wherever she is traveling, to get a different perspective.
  • If you are traveling to a developing nation or will be spending time with people from a different socioeconomic bracket than you, talk to your kids about what that means.
  • Research the culture and learn the language yourself. If you don’t do it, why should your kids? This way too you can help guide them on local customs.
  • Start volunteering or giving back at home. The more kids recognize differences in their own communities, they will be more attuned to it when traveling and more invested in a successful ethical travel experience.



  1. Sustainable Tourism for Kids from Biosphere Tourism. This post reviews some ways to instill a sense for sustainable tourism in your kids. It talks as well about ecotourism, including ways to start a garden.
  2. How Tiger Says Thank You by Abigail Simoun. This board book for young travelers will teach them to express gratitude in several languages. Every little bit helps.
  3. Check out this list of Best Travel Books for Children from Travel Mamas. We have a whole series of the This Is books by M.Sasek. They have one for many different cities all over the world, and we love reading them.
  4. Around the World: A Colorful Atlas for Kids by Anita Ganeri. My daughter loves looking through the pictures of different countries. I was taken aback though when she randomly asked one day to go to South America.
  5. Travel Matters, a website with a holiday search and tips on ethical travel.
  6. Responsible Tourism Partnership. Kind of a one-stop shop for resources and contacts.
  7. Teaching Kids Responsible Travel from Globetotting. An excellent resource.
  8. I have posted here as well about Ways of Teaching Toddlers Gratitude and Board Books to Teach Kindness. I think gratitude and kindness live at the heart of ethical or responsible travel.

Tell Me What You Think

I think that part of what helps kids go from being tourists to travelers (or toddlers to travelers haha), is to understand what it means to travel. Kids need to understand the impact of what they do. You might say, “Kids cannot grasp the idea of waste.” I beg to differ. We live in LA, land of drought, and started teaching our daughter very early about conserving water. Now she tries not to turn on the water unless she has asked us first, and turns it off when we tell her it has been enough time. She only just turned three, so hopefully she won’t forget that.

I know many of my past travel experiences have not been “sustainable, ethical travel.” I have not been elephant trekking, but we have taken cruises and stayed in resorts, visited amusement parks and chain restaurants and stores. Now that we have our daughter, we do try to follow more of these suggestions for ethical and sustainable travel. If we want to teach our kids how to be ethical travelers, we all have to start somewhere, right?

I would love to hear your suggestions, resources, ideas. Do you think it is indeed possible to teach kids to be ethical travelers at a young age? What challenges have you faced?

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13 thoughts on “How do we Teach Kids to be Ethical Travelers?

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. Since your son is not quite 3, we’re just starting to have to think about these things. It definitely helps that we prefer off the beaten path type places, but we will definitely need to be mindful as we travel in the future to make sure we are educating as well as simply exploring.

    1. I think mindfulness is something I need to embrace too. I often plan our trips kind of on a whim, and I need to put more effort into it.

  2. This is such an important topic. When children learn empathy and concern for others and our environment at a young age, it makes for a broader world view and better critical thinking. Skills we all need in our adult world too!

  3. Thank you for such an important reminder. You’re right, when traveling with kids, we do what is easy, but it is so important that they understand the realities of the world we live in! Beautiful post.

  4. This is a great post to get people thinking about something that is very important. Having respect for people and compassion for people who live in a different part of the world and may do things differently than we do, is an important point of view we hope to instill in our kids. We are looking for more ways to serve while traveling as our kids get older and capable of more.

  5. This is such a great post! I really think we need to think more about our role as travelers to the homes of others. And yes, that starts with the kids.

  6. We love to travel as well (and are also in LA!), and this has been on my mind as our son gets older. You have some great points that you’ve shared, and thank you also for sharing some valuable resources. Great topic to spread the word on!

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