Early in January 2023, German travel vlogger Christian Betzmann was embroiled in controversy as his latest trip to India garnered some serious criticism. Betzmann, who has over 448,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok, posted a now-disappeared video Instagram story of street hawkers, people who commonly sell goods and food on carts in the street in South Asia, outside his Airbnb, cursing at them for making noise. The video sparked debate around whether travel bloggers can create ethical content—and if so, how?
After his video was posted, Betzmann was met with social media users criticizing his approach to local culture and his insensitivity to those who came from far less privileged lives than he did.
“I am aware the hawkers can be annoying but let’s not forget they also make it convenient for people who cannot go all the way to markets for reasons best known to them,” one Reddit user debated. “Some things are best left off social media. Especially with that language. Let’s go to India for billion views and curse at the same time.”
Betzmann, however, continued to defend his stance.
“What they don’t know is the context. I paid extra from my Airbnb to be in a gated community, and the rules of gated community is that hawkers aren’t allowed, but there was lax security, and I complained,” Betzmann told Passionfruit. “I know Indian friends who would also complain. If you break the rules, I will abuse you. I’m a huge fan of sticking to rules and not breaking them.”
Still, many criticized the vlogger for not understanding his privilege and the impact his portrayal has on the people he’s featured. While Betzmann focuses on his comfort and opinion, the very fact that his video went viral is a testament to just how many people are impacted by his views.
With 57% of Gen Z travelers turning to social media to plan future travels, travel content creators are one of the fastest-growing groups online. Creators like Betzmann often pride themselves on visiting locations that are not as popular with tourists or may seem unique compared to their way of life, but the conversation around how they impact those destinations is a subject of heavy debate within travel content.
Chef and historian Chloe-Rose Crabtree (@honeypiebaking), who is also the co-founder of food-focused media platform Sourced Journeys, is skeptical of travel content, pointing out that she left her work in travel journalism because of the difficulties she faced in wanting to talk about the impact of colonialism on the travel industry.
“You can’t go for a few months and really know the place. Ethical travel blogs look like people living in that space or from that space,” Crabtree told Passionfruit. “But it’s a lifestyle, it’s very aspirational, so it’s hard to tell someone what you’re doing is wrong.”
For many traveler bloggers, ethical travel can be a bit of a challenge—especially for those who realize their responsibility in influencing the perception their followers have of destinations they otherwise have little access to.
Alex Reynolds (@lostwithpurpose), a travel creator with over 64,000 followers on Instagram, started her blog Lost with Purpose in 2016. She told Passionfruit she sometimes questions if travel itself can ever be “entirely ethical” but strives to depict places and people in content they would find accurate and be proud of.
“Travel bloggers should share content that encourages people to see places for what they are, rather than as backdrops for their next Instagram photo or TikTok reel,” Reynolds said. “Treat the people they meet as actual humans to be celebrated, not just props for their content or servants to help them execute ideas.”
For travel blogger and journalist Lola Méndez (@lolaannamendez), who has over 19,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, a 2015 trip to Thailand opened her eyes to how tourist activities that position themselves as “ethical” are often quite damaging to local cultures.
Now, Méndez has a blog called Miss Filatelista that focuses on sustainable, eco-friendly, ethical tourism. Méndez focuses her research on local groups and communities directly involved in activities she might like to partake in when traveling somewhere new.
In Mexico, she’s been renting an Airbnb from a local couple to support community-led ventures. In Thailand, she found a cooking class through a company that collaborated with local nonprofit organizations to create tourist-focused activities where profits feed into local nonprofit initiatives.
Méndez is also very particular about not simply jumping onto volunteering opportunities, and even more staunchly against posting locals’ pictures or using them in content in any way.
In India, Méndez worked with the same company she found in Thailand to create an activity where tourists could take part in making traditional marigold garlands used at festivals. While the profits went to a children’s hospital, the children didn’t interact with the tourists in any way. Mendez said this is because she is cautious of the impact of voluntourism on young children, who are often traumatized by the constant cycle of visitors coming and going.
Perhaps the most important thing for travel bloggers to learn, creators told Passionfruit, is getting rid of the sense of entitlement that comes with paying to be somewhere.
“Bloggers exist in a space that’s been there since the 19th century, where you go to a place, you want to consume it as a commodity—and that’s problematic,” Crabtree said.
Reynolds, who’s gotten famous for her travels in countries like Pakistan and Iran, says she’s mindful of the way she presents in certain spaces where it’s not common for women to be seen publicly.
Previously, white women travelers have been criticized for traveling to Pakistan and misrepresenting how Pakistanis treat women. The country has often made headlines for its recent rise in femicide cases, gender-based violence, and lack of public spaces for women.
“It’s a balancing act. I know that my presence in male-dominated spaces is already challenging to many cultures, so I try to balance it out by being more conservative in other ways: adjusting my clothing, being more cautious about my interactions with men, and seeking out women’s spaces where possible. It’s not always easy, but this is the reality of traveling in places where women typically do not go,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds encouraged creators to ask locals if there is anything tourists do that offends them. If you’re afraid of culturally appropriating local customs, you can also ask what activities are appropriate for you to participate in.
“Seek out opportunities to talk to local people. Both inside tourism and out. Listen to their stories, learn some of their perspectives, see how they view themselves and want others to view them,” Reynolds advised.
Méndez provided similar tips for travelers and creators, saying, “If there’s something you’re not sure about, ask.”
“Facebook groups like groups for women travelers are a good way to ask, and there’s a high chance you’ll find a local who can tell you what you can do,” she said.
Crabtree, although more hesitant to term her advice as something that can lead to ethical travel, shared that she always tries to learn the basics of the local languages before traveling.
While travel content isn’t going anywhere soon, and an industry overhaul can’t come about overnight, even having one ethical content creator means that a consumer is now capable of making better choices when they travel. Given the skewed power dynamics tourists often have over locals, travel itself, much less influencing other travelers, can be a huge responsibility.