I saw an interesting on-line forum today about the ethics of tourism and travel.
Some argued that tourism is inherently elitist. Not only are tourists outside spectators into the lives and the lands of the places they're visiting, but travel for the sake of leisure is a privilege of the relatively wealthy - the working poor can't afford the time off, much less the airfare and lodging costs of a European holiday. A much-stamped passport is a status symbol, a sign that one can afford the time and the expense of international travel.
The rich are different: I've noticed in the tabloid press that when celebrities and the very wealthy are upset or depressed, they fly to some far-off exotic location to recover. When we working people are upset or depressed, we have to endure it in the same location as our day-to-day lives, often the very source of the anxiety and heartache in the first place, and only travel to some foreign location when we're celebrating something, not mourning something.
It's said that travel broadens one's horizons, makes one a better informed, more tolerant human being, and so on. But that's elitism again - one travels for the sake of one's own betterment, but does next to nothing the the betterment of others.
Some argued that travel and tourism is an unjustifiable source of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. It's bad enough to release hydrocarbons in the necessary commute to and from work, as well as out and about for our daily lives, but do we really need to pack an airplane full of yuppies from New York and fly them off to New Zealand, just so they can come back and tell their neighbors that they saw the very waterfall that was in their favorite scene of Lord of the Rings?
On the other hand, it can be argued that there are certain economies that rely on tourism, and many third-world occupants would face a far harder time making a living if travel to their homelands suddenly stopped. If we really care about the starving people in India, perhaps we should go there and visit and put some money into the local economy. Sure, we could just send some money and not go there and visit, but that kind of unrequited charity is rarely sustainable.
One can also face the reality that under the present system, a plane is going to be flying to New Zealand or India anyway, regardless of whether or not you decide to be on it, so it's probably better that the plane be as full as possible in order to justify its carbon footprint.
I've considered the issue of the carbon footprint when I've flown from Atlanta to Seattle just to attend a weekend music festival. I've felt somewhat guilty about it, but rationalized it by the fact that my overall carbon footprint is relatively small, so how much is a little annual splurge going to hurt? But, yes, I realize that's just a rationalization.
Overall, I think wisdom is in the middle way. Moderation. Don't jet around the country or the globe out of mere boredom or for status, but don't refrain from travel and tourism altogether. Take a few, modest trips, take lots of photographs while you're there, and be kind and generous to those you meet abroad. And don't brag about it to your neighbors later.