[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 9 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Dispelling Work Haze and Vacation Daze.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
From royals relaxing at summer palaces to wealthy Americans seeking out natural surroundings for the sake of health during the Victorian era, vacations have historically been a privilege of the social elite. It wasn’t everyone who could afford a second house by the sea or a trip out to the wilderness to escape the cramped conditions of cities. Yet both rest and connection with nature have always been basic human needs whatever your station in life.
These days, the world’s cities, cultures, and natural landscapes are often marketed as prepackaged commodities available for consumption to anyone who can pay the ticket price (which still includes people with money, and excludes people who are poor). But this purely materialistic understanding of vacation is a destructive oversimplification of God’s creation. As consumers, we are encouraged by industry executives and advertisers to narrow our focus to the monetary cost of our trip. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to be concerned about the rest, health, and wholeness of the places and people we visit as well as our own. This is the base line of the Old Testament commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus expanded the definition of neighbor to include not only friends and family, but also strangers, foreigners, and even our enemies. Then He took this idea a step further by giving His disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus placed the needs of others ahead of His own, loving His disciples sacrificially to the point of death.
When we vacation, are asking underpaid workers, their families, and the ecosystems that sustain them to foot our bill?Christians are to recognize all human beings as neighbors. An understanding of the complex ways in which we all participate in this global community, affecting others and being impacted by them, demands that we consider the wider effects of our vacationing practices. If we want to love our neighbors as Jesus commands, then the ecological and human costs of the tourism industry around the world require us as Christians to consider simple, ethical, and sustainable ways to vacation.
There are myriad issues to consider when it comes to tourism—especially international tourism, in which travelers’ choices are often made more complex by the extreme income disparity between themselves and the local people. Here, I consider the ethical concerns surrounding three of the most common industries that Americans are likely to encounter when planning a vacation: cruises, all-inclusive resorts, and air travel.
Cruises are a popular vacation option for just about everyone: students on spring break, families on vacation, newlyweds on honeymoon, or couples enjoying their retirement. Who wouldn’t want to visit tropical islands and spend relaxing days at sea, especially when room, board, and transportation can be purchased together at a bargain price?
But the luxurious experience of cruise ship passengers varies wildly from the nightmarish conditions to which workers are subjected below deck. Although owned by North American or European companies, most cruise ships fly under the flags of small nations like Panama, Bermuda, or Liberia—countries that won’t enforce international maritime standards. Cruise lines incorporate their businesses in those places to avoid accountability in the form of labor laws, environmental regulations, legal systems, and tax codes in their home countries.
As a result, cruise ship workers often work long, stressful hours seven days a week for months on end, earning less than minimum wage. Complaints about working conditions or sexual harassment from management can result in harsh punishments, including instant job termination and repatriation to the workers’ country of origin. Sadly, the cheap cruise deals offered to us are being subsidized by the cooks, maids, and cleaners you may never even see during your trip: people from developing countries whose poverty means they can’t afford to demand fair treatment.
All-inclusive vacation packages are becoming increasingly popular with travelers as a way to vacation affordably without the stress of navigating a foreign environment or facing unexpected expenses once they reach their destination. Unfortunately, these resorts are another example of an unbelievably good deal offered to tourists at the expense of local people.
According to a recent report by British charity Tourism Concern, most of the profits from all-inclusive resorts go to the Western companies who own and operate them rather than to the local community. The all-inclusive model discourages tourists from ever setting foot outside their resorts, which can be devastating for other local entrepreneurs. Tour guides, taxi drivers, small guesthouses, restaurants, and shops are sometimes forced to close down after all-inclusive resorts squeeze off demand for outside services. And fierce competition between resorts to offer the cheapest packages to travelers means that locals who find employment in the resorts themselves face long, stressful hours for low wages and are sometimes pressured into working unpaid overtime. Management positions are often given to foreigners rather than locals.
These resorts thrive in some of the poorest nations on earth. In 1999, the government of Gambia banned all-inclusive resorts in the impoverished West African nation, but was later forced to back down after foreign tour operators threatened to pull out of the country all together. Like so many other developing nations, Gambia’s economy is so dependent on tourism that its government is powerless to reign in destructive tourism practices.
In general, all-inclusive resorts perpetuate inequality by insulating tourists from meaningful interactions with the local community (who are kept off of the most pristine beaches in town by resort fences and security guards) and by creating privileged bubbles in which tourists use disproportionate amounts of water and energy—and create disproportionate waste—compared with local people.
Over the years, air travel has allowed me to take advantage of exciting work and study opportunities, to keep in touch with far-flung family and friends, and to vacation in beautiful places. I’ve often browsed flights to warmer, more exciting destinations when I’ve been stuck in the daily grind and weary of bad weather and work. And I’m not alone: No matter where or how we vacation, we’re likely to be on the hunt for cheap airfare or package deals in which flights are included. In America, many of us have come to think of air travel as a normal and necessary part of life.
In reality, however, all of us who have set foot on a plane can count ourselves among the lucky five percent of the world’s population who has ever done so. The rapid expansion of the aviation industry and the ever-cheaper fares it is able to offer us are only possible because the true costs of flying are not reflected in ticket prices. The long-term effects of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are externalized costs, billed to the future instead of to the present-day consumer. Both we—and the environment—will pay these costs eventually, in the form of health issues, extreme weather, food shortages, and other problems, but these effects aren’t immediately obvious as we in the elite five percent go about booking our vacations.
The fact is that on a global scale, flight is a luxury—something we would do well to remember, since air travel, with its unregulated carbon emissions, has become the fastest-growing contributor to climate change. And because only a select few of the world’s 7 billion people enjoy the perk of air travel, the sobering reality is that we who fly are shifting much of the true cost of our “affordable” vacations onto the vast majority of the world’s people who will never be able to afford a vacation at all.
How Can We Respond?
With such glaring inequality and widespread injustice in the worldwide tourism industry, how can we as Christians vacation ethically, in ways that refresh and benefit not only ourselves, but also the people and the natural ecosystems of the places we visit?
In terms of how much our vacation will cost socially, economically, and ecologically, there are no solutions for avoiding our impact altogether, but there are ways to minimize it. The truth is that travel and tourism will always have a cost, so the crucial questions are: How much, and who pays?
Compared with a cruise or an all-inclusive resort, room rates will likely be higher at a hotel that is paying its workers well and consciously working to preserve the fragile beauty of the surrounding landscape. Yet if we continue to depend on low wages, unsustainably sourced food, and ecologically damaging activities to make our vacation affordable, then what we are really doing is asking underpaid workers, their families, and the ecosystems that sustain them to foot our bill. We are shrugging off our responsibility for diminishing the long-term well-being of a place through participation in an unjust economy, exhaustion of natural resources, degradation of coral reefs, or loss of wildlife habitat.
Ethical travel is not necessarily more expensive than irresponsible travel in real terms, but it does force our bank accounts to absorb a higher percentage of the total cost. Ethical travel takes away the luxury of being able to deny the full implications of our leisure. Here are some things you can do to better love your neighbor on your next vacation:
- Hold resorts accountable. If you are considering a stay at an all-inclusive resort, ask ahead of time for examples of ways they are intentionally working to benefit the local economy and to minimize their impact on the environment. Resorts can improve their business model by sourcing food locally, partnering with local tour agencies, hiring local musicians to provide guest entertainment, allowing local vendors to sell their crafts inside the resort, and reserving summer jobs for local students, among other things. But if a resort doesn’t have written documentation of these efforts, it’s almost certain they aren’t addressing these issues at all.
- Support fair practices. Look for hotels and tour operators that have been awarded certifications for meeting government or internationally recognized standards of ecological sustainability and social responsibility, such as EarthCheck, GreenGlobe, Fair Trade Tourism, the Rainforest Alliance, and others. Certifications vary by region, but a full list of criteria and certifications around the world can be found on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s website.
- Help sustain local businesses and resources. Wherever you travel, spend money in the local economy by hiring local guides and supporting small businesses like family-run restaurants, small guesthouses, and local shops. Minimize your own ecological impact on remote, natural areas by staying on marked trails, packing out everything you bring with you while hiking, and throwing away trash responsibly. Conserve local resources by using water and electricity as efficiently as possible and by opting for a reusable water bottle rather than drinking plastic bottled water. Even in places where clean drinking water is a concern, you can often make use of filtered water at your hotel, boil water, or buy water purification drops in your home country to take with you on vacation. Bottled water may be the only option in some circumstances, but consider it the last resort.
- Protect local children. Be aware of the dangers that tourism poses to children in poverty. In many vacation destinations, kids are often pulled out of school to beg from tourists if this proves to be a lucrative option, so don’t hand out food or money to kids on the streets. Be mindful that any level of comfort street children develop interacting with—or receiving any kind of physical affection from—strangers can also make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Refuse to visit orphanages that cater to tourists with short-term volunteering opportunities, tours, or shows, as these practices create unsafe environments for traumatized children, exploiting them for fund-raising purposes and increasing their risk of abuse.
- Contribute to a just economy. Respect local people by negotiating fair prices for goods and services rather than bargaining down to the last penny—remember that those few extra pesos, dollars, or baht will matter more for the local people’s income than they do for yours. Ask permission before taking photographs, and if you are interested in cultural tours exploring rural areas and villages, only participate in “village tours,” which are run by the local residents themselves. This ensures that they are given control over the nature and level of their interaction with tourists and that they will directly benefit from tourism in their area. Tours run by outside operators often exploit rural or tribal minorities—even if the company is government-run or based in the destination country.
- Minimize your ecological footprint. The reality is that everyone reading this article will likely get on a plane at some point or another (myself included). But in terms of air travel, the only way to minimize the negative effects of flying is to minimize your flying. When it comes to transportation, seek to minimize the environmental impact of your travel. Can you manage with public transport rather than a private vehicle? Can you take a train, bus, or ferry between destinations instead of flying?
All this begs the question: How much flying or geographical distance is necessary in order to enjoy a fun, relaxing vacation in the first place? I grew up in a family that was all about the deluxe holiday: traveling far away (usually to a beach), staying in a nice place, and packing as many adventurous activities into the time as possible (typically surfing, hiking, snorkeling, or cliff jumping). I have great memories of many of these trips and was elated each time to have the opportunity to explore new territory, but it was not unusual for me to return from these adventures more tired than when I left.
These days, my husband is tied to a full-time job with only two weeks of vacation that will take the next year of work to accumulate. With neither the time nor the money to travel very far, the need to reframe vacation has become a very personal and immediate concern for us. We need to find truly restorative rest that doesn’t require expensive or lengthy travel to an exotic locale. We need to reconnect with nature, with ourselves, and with one another through soulful rest right where we are—or at least nearby.
So instead of hopping on a plane this summer, we’ll be taking advantage of things to do in our local area. We’re a bit spoiled living in a city with beaches, hiking trails, and bike paths all minutes away from our apartment, but regardless of where you live, there are likely free attractions like museums, parks, libraries, art shows, street festivals, and cultural events to take advantage of. Plan a picnic or a bike ride with a friend. Go for a hike, or at minimal cost, take a weekend camping trip at the nearest state or national park. Explore a new neighborhood in your city on foot, try a new restaurant, buy tickets to see a play or attend a concert.
There’s definitely something to be said for the rejuvenating experience of getting out of our usual orbit and patterns of activity, but deep relaxation has more to do with our state of mind than with the specific location or activities involved. It’s about getting out of task mode and into being mode; choosing to be fully present with friends and family, and slowing down to mindfully enjoy the small aspects of our days. I find that my conversations take on a different quality when I am fully focused and attentive to the person who is speaking to me, and the flavors of food give more pleasure when I settle down to enjoy a meal without trying to write an email or pay a bill at the same time.
For that matter, simply turning off your phone or staying away from your inbox for a day or a week can significantly increase the restorative value of a vacation. Whether you’re lounging on a faraway beach or simply declaring a staycation at home, unplugging from technology will make the time more life-giving than if it is continually invaded by social or work obligations.
An Alternative Vision
We can live without vacation, in the sense of a flashy, tropical adventure with parasailing or steak dinners or suntans—or whatever details fill out the image of the cultural ideal for you. And given the unsustainable nature of the current travel industry, many of us will need to! But we cannot live without rest. We cannot live without Sabbath, and the biblical idea of Sabbath rest is meant to be woven into the whole tapestry of our lives rather than squeezed into two weeks of vacation time, anyway.
Perhaps in planning our vacations, we should think of them within this framework of Sabbath. Rather than an escape from normal life, vacation should be a restorative activity, which allows us to re-enter our day-to-day relationships and work with increased energy, clarity, and perspective.
We should also remember that in the Old Testament, God’s vision of Sabbath rest is not limited to just the Israelites. Passages like Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 5:14–15 make clear that God’s people were required to extend the right of rest to foreigners, slaves, animals, and even the land itself: Sabbath is part of God’s wider vision for wholeness in the world. As followers of this God who cares deeply about all of creation, our own rest should never come at the expense of the wider community to which we belong.
Our habits and attitudes toward vacation have been deeply ingrained through years of personal experience and social conditioning. It will take time and effort to change. Yet if we choose to intentionally cultivate a holistic, loving approach to vacation, the result will be well worth the struggle. It is possible to tend to our own well-being—to rest deeply and to thoroughly enjoy life—without neglecting the well-being of others. We will discover a deeper connection with our neighbors, with God, and even with ourselves as we authentically live out our faith with compassion and justice, seeking the Kingdom in every area of our lives.