School trips and ethical tourism

  • School trips and ethical tourism

Be honest now: when planning a school trip, do you consider whether the trip is ethical or sustainable? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

During 15 years of arranging overseas school trips and expeditions, I have had a fair few conversations with teachers about travel and adventure, but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about whether a trip is ethical. With your help, I’m hoping we can change that.

According to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, in 2016 there were 561 million international tourists, 21 million more than the previous year. Tourism is one of the world’s biggest industries – and it’s growing fast.

With international tourism on the rise, and climate change an urgent matter of worldwide importance, the need for sustainability is being recognised more and more by the international community. Indeed, 2017 was declared the UN year for Sustainable Tourism. World Tourism Day, in the same year, was dedicated to ‘advocating the potential of sustainable tourism’. With tourist numbers increasing, exponentially in some popular school trip destinations like Iceland, and anti-tourist demonstrations in cities like Barcelona and Venice, is it any wonder governments and NGOs are placing such high importance on the issue?

Sharing the responsibility

Yet is it solely the responsibility of governments and NGOs? I believe schools need to play their part too. We not only have a duty, but also a wonderful opportunity, to educate the next generation on how to be the responsible travellers of the future. After all, students on that school trip this year will have a lifetime of travel ahead of them.

Responsible tourism (RT) can be defined as ‘tourism which minimises negative social, economic and environmental impacts, generates greater economic benefits for local people, as well as enhancing the well-being of host communities’.

When put like this, surely it’s a no brainer that school trips should operate under a model of RT? Yet when it comes to choosing a travel company or expedition provider, are schools asking the right questions? Teachers, head teachers, EVCs and local authority advisors have plenty of boxes to tick – price and safety management to name just two – but not one for sustainability. Is anyone checking whether a trip is ethical to run in the first place? Does the host community even want your group to turn up? That volunteer project you’re planning, is it actually going to help the locals or is it just a token gesture to make your students feel good? What is the wider and long-term impact of your visit? Will running your trip as you plan to contribute to that destination’s downfall in years to come?

Tough questions, indeed, but schools need to be asking them. After all, tourism is not a right, it’s a privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If the answers to questions such as these worry us, then maybe we need to reconsider our plans.

The right choice

Anecdotal evidence collected over the years suggests to me that teachers perceive RT as a costly luxury; the same way that organic vegetables are more expensive than their mainstream counterparts. In fact, RT is not necessarily more expensive at all. Indeed, a lot of the time, the prices for operators providing such an option beat those of competitors that don’t have a sustainability policy. Besides, more importantly, can we all afford to ignore the issues?

When it comes to the decision-making process as to whether a trip should run (or not), responsible tourism should be right up there alongside safety management, cost and educational outcomes. School trips need to be a shining example of how travel can be sustainable and ethical. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because if they’re not, we’re missing a huge educational opportunity. If you don’t believe me, then consider this: RT encourages a greater variety of learning experiences, a more authentic insight into your destination, and greater interaction with local people which, perhaps most importantly, results in a greater degree of cross cultural awareness. And let’s face it, that’s more important now than ever. Travelling more responsibly is something we can all do, but it’s a conscious decision we have to make. The potential rewards are huge, for everyone, so let’s educate the next generation of travellers to be more responsible, and ensure their adventures don’t cost the earth.

7 ways to plan a more sustainable trip

Choose local

Find a tour operator which uses local guides or expedition leaders. Using locals provides a far richer educational experience. They often have decades of knowledge of your destination, can speak the local language, know the culture, the best restaurants, the less frequented trails and the quickest evacuation routes. But the biggest reason you should go local is for the economics; you are injecting money directly into the local economy.

Be different

The world’s tourism hotspots are well trodden and ‘over-tourism’ is a real problem. Dare to be different with a destination that isn’t already saturated with tourists. Iceland is a prime example; a great destination for geography trips, yet a sad victim of its own success. The country is currently suffering from massive over-tourism. Visitor numbers have risen from just 488,600 in 2010, to 1,792,200 in 2016 and Iceland’s infrastructure and environment is suffering as a result. For this reason, at the end of 2017, we took the decision to stop operating in Iceland.

Save water

According to a report by The Guardian, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. Annual consumption is set to exceed half a trillion by 2021. Encourage your students to take reuseable water bottles to fill up from the tap (remember to pack purification tablets, filters or UV treatment if needed). Be conservative in your water usage. In many destinations tourists use massively more than their fair share of water, which creates problems for the locals.

Stay respectful

Learn what is and isn’t accepted behaviour in your destination, along with a few words of the local language. Support locally owned businesses and cooperatives. Buy souvenirs from local crafts shops or markets, not the airport! And if staying in hotels, avoid corporate chains and refrain from using the complimentary bottles of shampoo and shower gel; take your own instead.

For more information visit Tourism Concern (; Travelife ( – a certification system for tour operators and a subsidiary of ABTA); or

About the author

Adrian Ferraro is founder and director of STC Expeditions