In past columns I have touched on the topic of a travel agent's responsibilities when it comes to certain moral and ethical issues that arise when mucking about in lands not our own.
My concerns have had to do more with the ethical responsibilities of the travel seller than with the behavior of the client as a stranger in a strange land:
Should we advise our clients that they are not getting their full fill of onboard oxygen on the flight over unless they demand it?
Do we discuss the crime rate against tourists in certain popular cities in South America?
How much do we speak to our clients about eating mussels or clams?
What about cleaning the channel changer and washing out the glasses in the five-star hotel bathroom despite the fact that they are covered with a paper lid?
And how should we react to the minitrend of "poorism," the concept of taking tourists to visit some of the worst slums on the planet? Should we embrace it or condemn it?
But there is another layer to the ethics of sending people abroad to nations that have less than we do. To what extent, I wonder, will we embrace econo-tourism and its ethical derivation, the notion of tourism that is actually responsible? A good surgeon prepares a client for surgery, explaining what to expect. The accountant explains how we might behave as we undergo an audit. But, for the most part, the travel seller takes the deposit and runs. This is particularly true of click-to-deposit travel sites.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Kevin Salwen, a writer and advocate for responsible tourism, lays out a sort of mini-handbook for the modern traveler, an informal book of rules that will help answer the perennial questions: "How much should I tip?" and "What should I give beggars?"
One of the best ways to help out in a developing country is to buy more handmade gifts than you actually need. Purchasing something that helps generate jobs, however poorly they pay, is a more dignified method of helping out than just handing out cash. This is seen as far preferable to giving money to kids and adults begging on the street, because begging encourages dependency.
But Salwen begins his piece with an interesting observation, one that had never occurred to me.
He carries around McDonald's gift cards to give out when he runs into someone who looks like they need a meal. This is a bit more dignified than cash, and McDonald's allows its patrons to use its restrooms. Best of all, the money will go for food, and it isn't hard to find a branch in many parts of the world.
I will be recommending this to my clients, although I fear some of them may use the cards for their own between-meal snacking.
Haggling over price is inherently demeaning to those who are only trying to earn a wage off the tourist trade. The handbook suggests that travelers bargain up for quantity instead of bargaining down for price. That would mean that men would try to get two rip-off Liberty ties for the price quoted for one.
The piece becomes controversial when Salwen suggests that responsible tourism means that travelers ought to be buying stuff from street vendors instead of high-rent emporiums of style.
In our struggling economy, with travelers trying to find bargains where they can, you have to imagine that fake Rolex sales are up dramatically. It might just be that expensive and authentic bling has lost some of its luster. This only serves to foster the growth of counterfeit products.
Of course, no travel agent wants to advise clients to buy illegal knockoffs. But I was curious as to what the "originals" really cost to create such a worldwide demand for inferior copies. What is the price to be paid to obey the law and to respect superior merchandise from highly respected brands?
I just left the Hermes website, for example, where I lingered long enough to learn that the current price of a nicely patterned silk scarf was $750.
One week ago, I visited the new Crystals retail space in the CityCenter complex in Las Vegas. I wandered into Louis Vuitton to examine a purse I had admired in the window. It was $840.
In most countries, of course, anyone who purchases knockoff merchandise is violating the law. Yet most Hong Kong itineraries direct tourists to illegal rip-off markets like Stanley or the misnamed Ladies' Market.
In travel planning, we get to have it both ways. We generalize about shopping opportunities, knowing full well that in certain cities this means that clients are looking for illegal merchandise under the radar.
The fact is, the better the travel adviser the more likely it is that the subject of clients' bling purchases will be discussed. One way or another, we do take a stand on the knockoff vs. designer label debate. We even provide maps to the place of sale.
It is an ethical conflict that we get caught up in despite our best efforts. In a tough economy, clients seem far more willing to forget about issues like intellectual property rights. And we help them find the loot.
It is always best, the handbook suggests, to dine on locally produced foods. But this is rather radical, as that means dining from time to time on street food instead of at the places Zagat or, heaven forbid, the taste mavens on TripAdvisor might recommend.
The only thing I can tell you about this particular strategy is that you might get violently ill, but after your first bout, you are normally fine for the rest of your trip.
I will continue to discuss these topics with my clients. But I cannot advise them with any degree of certainty as to just how responsible they really ought to be. That is a decision left to a higher source: the primary shopper in the family.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].