Jeff Greenwald has been an active and respected member of the world travel community for over 25 years — an award-winning author of six travel books and hundreds of articles. He has traveled throughout the world, reporting on prison labor in China, female circumcision in Africa, human rights in Tibet, Nepal’s environmental challenges, wildlife stewardship in Vietnam, and coral reef conservation from Belize to Palau.

Jeff has used his passionate humanitarian voice to co-found Ethical Traveler in 2003 — encouraging travelers to change the world using the economic clout of tourism to protect human rights and the environment.

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Jeff Greenwald on assignment in northern Vietnam, 2009

After all these years, what continues to inspire you as a traveler?

Crumbling palaces and exotic bazaars are wonderful, and it’s great to experience new vistas I haven’t seen before. But every story I write or tell has a human encounter at its center. And most of the things I value most about travel — its ability to peer behind the media curtain, and see other cultures and societies with a fresh point of view — well, all those benefits rely on interpersonal contact. So though I may be drawn to a place in the hopes of catching a colorful festival, trekking to a ruin or seeing a gorgeous temple, those attractions are just the catalyst. Travel, for me, is all about the people.

Girls celebrate Diwali in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Girls celebrate Diwali in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Tell us about the work Ethical Traveler does in the area of mindful travel. How does your work contribute to the change you want to see in travel and the world?  

Mindful, of course, means aware – aware of the decisions we’re making, aware of our encounters, aware of our conduct, aware of our impact, both personally and globally. Ethical Traveler was created as a resource for discovering and acting on the best information available about what makes travel sustainable, fun and enlightening.

The idea for ET first took shape in 1996, when Ang San Suu Kyi requested that travelers not visit Burma while her country was under military rule. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post, suggesting that travelers heed her suggestion and “vote with our wings,” using our economic power to send a strong message to the junta. In October 2002, after months of discussion, the result was Ethical Traveler.

We’re now in our 13th year, and things are going very well. We feature great “Actionable News” bulletins, useful resources for travelers, and offer some wonderful trips – I’m personally leading a great Lithuania arts and culture trip in June.

But our signature project is our “World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations.” A team of more than 20 researchers studies the world’s developing nations and ultimately select those that are making the most impressive progress on human rights, environmental protection and social welfare. The hope is that we can steer travelers toward destinations that have very high social values, and reward those kinds of behaviors.

Child in broken down Tibetan Temple

Child in broken down Tibetan Temple

You urge travelers to “vote with their wings.” Could you tell us which destinations are doing ethical tourism best according to you?

We just released our list of the “World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations” for 2016.

Aside from the winning countries, of course, many others excel at promoting sustainable tourism. A list of our past winners will give travelers lots of ideas. But there’s great work being done in Ghana, Lithuania, Costa Rica, South Africa, Colombia — to name a few. A new generation of travel providers is taking the cause very seriously.

Buddha in Sukothai, Thailand

Buddha in Sukothai, Thailand

What has been the most unique wildlife experience you’ve had in your years of travel?

I’ve had a couple of great wildlife experiences, but the three that stand out most were studying langur monkeys on Vietnam’s Cat Ba Island, seeing a Bengal tiger up close and personal (almost too up close, it literally took a swipe at our elephant mount) in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, and — wait for it — rescuing a baby snow leopard from animal traffickers in Lhasa, Tibet.

How has your volunteer work contributed to your growth as a traveler? What kind of Voluntourism programs would you suggest our readers try?

My growth as a traveler really began with my volunteer efforts during the Cambodian civil war. But to be honest, I rarely volunteer when traveling; usually I’m brought in and paid for my efforts. When I worked on tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, for example, I was employed as a Communications Director for Mercy Corps; when I did volunteer reef checking with EarthWatch in Thailand, I was on assignment for a magazine; when I taught English in Nepal I was a teacher at the American Language Center.  The only time I really served as volunteer was in 1979 at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, during the Pol Pot regime.

A young earthquake refugee in Nepal with Jeff Greenwald

A young earthquake refugee in Nepal with Jeff Greenwald

One exception is my work with Ethical Traveler, which is an all-volunteer non-profit. Yet Ethical Traveler doesn’t endorse voluntourismprojects. We’re dubious about them. I personally believe they can create a strange kind of cynicism on the part of the receivers, with well-meaning travelers ducking in for one or two days without building real relationships or truly understanding the issues involved. There is no question that many are motivated by generosity of spirit. But while short stays (e.g., less than two months) can appear useful for labor-intensive jobs like painting or building, they can also be a bit self-serving—there is no genuine investment, just a few hours of labor and a photo-op for travelers. And having anonymous foreigners popping in and out of a school, community center or clinic can be disorienting, as those kinds of superficial relationships (which we are quite used to!) are alien to members of isolated, close-knit communities.

I feel very differently where animals or scientific research is involved. I am fine spending a weekend, or even an afternoon, taking a reef census of white-tipped sharks, or identifying birds on a raptor count. It’s when we come into a community, forge quick and superficial ties (often and especially with children) and leave—the “revolving door” syndrome—that disturbs me. That’s a recipe for mutual exploitation.

That said, programs where someone really enters and commits to a village or school or program are a very different situation. I’m hugely supportive of people who volunteer with schools, villages and shelters on a long-term basis. But I don’t call this “voluntourism”—and I don’t think people coming out of those experiences do, either.

 Buddhist stupa in Sri Lanka

Buddhist stupa in Sri Lanka

What is the role of travel in improving the world? How can travelers contribute to a positive change in the lives of the communities they visit? 

There are many ways that travelers can contribute to positive change, both financially (by supporting locally-owned businesses and NGOs) to personally. Travelers often serve as “de facto”ambassadors for their country — just as the people we meet serve as ambassadors for theirs. Knowing this, our interactions with locals in every walk of life, from children to seniors, become a valuable part of international diplomacy. Maybe the most important thing, at least for travelers from the United States, is to learn how to listen; people in the developing world often feel marginalized by the big powers, and it is a mark of real respect to listen and absorb with an open mind when people express their concerns and grievances.

Monks at the Pema Choling Gompa above Phakding, Nepal

Monks at the Pema Choling Gompa above Phakding, Nepal

How much of a role do you think local governments have to play versus private entities in conservation and protection?

Governments have an enormous role to play, especially in developing nations. But they — as well as large INGOs — are often very slow and hampered by huge bureaucracies. Recently we’ve seen a great many nimble, locally-based NGOs take the lead in socials and environmental programs.  Often these are partnerships with large corporations. But frankly, no one knows the needs of local people better than locally elected officials. So local government will always have a very big profile in fields like education, health, housing and infrastructure.

Eyes of Buddha on an earthquake-cracked stupa in Nepal's Khumbu region

Eyes of Buddha on an earthquake-cracked stupa in Nepal’s Khumbu region

What do you envision as the future of travel, specifically ethical travel? 

I see ethical travel growing steadily as people become more mindful about their travels, and countries realize that sustainability is a more sensible business model than exploitation. But let me add a caveat for travelers, because we are the ones who actually get out into the world.

It’s getting harder and harder to be where we are without mediating the experience through the screen of some cool electronic toy. Lord knows, I’m guilty too—I created the first international travel blog in 1994! So my advice is to unplug your devices as much as you can, and really engage face-to-face with the people around you. We’ll have the rest of human evolution to pursue our love affair with technology, but you’ll probably only visit Luang Prabang once! Memorable and story-rich travel is all about person-to-person connections. Accept no substitutes!

Buddhist-stupa-in-Nepals-Khumbu-region

Buddhist stupa in Nepal’s Khumbu region