Are Vegans Rude to Grandma?
2017 was a year of many new transitions for Brianne and me. We got married, put most of our belongings in storage, and began our journey across Canada and the U.S. That year also marked another transition for us: it would be the first long-distance trip that either of us had ever taken since having adopted the vegan lifestyle. Vegan travel is the practice of abstaining from products and activities that exploit animals, people, and the environment while away from one’s home for more than a day (Fusté-Forné, 2021, p. 370). We were excited by the prospect of trying unfamiliar vegan meals, products, and experiences, and over time we observed how the philosophy was practiced in different regions across North America.
It was not long into our trip when I found myself explaining the act and mindset of traveling vegan to others. Among the most significant in my memory was in Vancouver – our first Canadian destination along our journey. A new friend had invited Bree and me to a local, independently-owned neighbourhood café in East Vancouver, or East Van. We happily accepted and I became enchanted with the establishment the instant I walked through the door as the warm, nutty, and bitter notes of every variety of coffee imaginable graced my nose. Colloquially speaking, I had found my ‘vibe’.
After ordering our drinks and pastries we sat down at a table that had been spared the intensity of the morning sun and happily settled into the calm from both our drinks and the cozy Bohemian ambiance around us. I remarked how glad I was to see that the establishment was offering plant-based milks – and, much to my delight, at no additional cost! This intrigued our new friend as they genuinely wanted to learn more about how that was significant. We explained how we’d been vegan for two years and stated how we were going to keep practicing it along our journey. Our friend’s interest was clearly peaked as they followed up with additional questions about the logistics and practicalities of traveling while vegan. Before long, they made a comment to the effect of how impressive it was to eat like that while traveling and that perhaps we could prove Anthony Bourdain wrong. Our conversation proceeded closely to this:
Me: “What do you mean? Bourdain? The guy who travels everywhere and eats everything and got famous for it?”
Friend: “Yeah, but he’s also a chef…man, he’s said a lot about vegans that you’d hate. Maybe you can show everyone how it’s not that hard or disrespectful.”
Disrespectful? Eating plant-based while on the road was disrespectful? Perplexed, I excused myself to take a moment to search online for “Anthony Bourdain vegans” on my mobile phone. The top result was a link to an interview that Playboy Magazine had conducted with Bourdain in 2011, in which he was quoted as saying:
“(Vegans and vegetarians) make for bad travelers and bad guests. The notion that before you even set out to go to Thailand, you say, ‘I’m not interested,’ or you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you.” (Anthony Bourdain Thinks Vegans Are Self-Indulgent, 2011).
I grew more befuddled. I was already well aware that vegetarians and vegans could be regarded as extremely uptight, humourless, feminist killjoys in pop culture (Grant & MacKenzie-Dale, 2016; Martinelli & Berkmanienė, 2018; McArthur, 2014, p. 5), and yet Bourdain’s opinion just felt unfounded. Did Bourdain mean that any of the one billion vegetarians in the world were rude whenever and wherever they traveled (Jacimovic, 2022)? Did this mean that many people believed that veganism just yet another form of imperialism? Bourdain was still alive then and was still producing popular content, which made it likely that they would sympathize with his belief. As harsh as his comment may have felt in that moment, it did reveal a question that I have been asking ever since: is the act of traveling while observing a vegan lifestyle sustainable and ethical?
To explore this notion, I will first define the concepts of ethics and sustainability within the context of travel. I will then move on to discuss how veganism may serve as a philosophical framework for choosing destinations, products, and activities.
Sustainable and Ethical Tourism
Pezzulo and Cox (2017) provide a simple and clear definition of sustainability that fits well within the literature of travel. In their 2017 textbook, they describe sustainability as the act of negotiating the environmental, social, and economic needs – otherwise known as the three E’s – and desires of the current and future generations (Pezzullo & Cox, 2017, p. 65). From a philosophical perspective, sustainability can be Utilitarian in nature (García-Rosell & Mäkinen, 2013, pp. 411–412), where the motivation for one’s behaviour is to generate the most good for the most human and non-human lives that are affected by any economic decision or act (Pezzullo & Cox, 2017, p. 58). Sustainable tourism, therefore, can be interpreted as a practice that involves different actions depending on the role of the actors involved (Dimanche & Payne, 1996, pp. 997–1002). This is seen when operators and visitors create plans and act to support the welfare of a site’s natural environment, local economy, and employ local human inhabitants to high-skilled and managerial roles (i.e., equity). If tourism companies and planners commit to this approach, which is one where economic leakage is avoided as much as possible while social-cultural equity, respect, and well-being are prioritized over company profit, then these conditions may create what is known as a Just Destination (Jamal & Camargo, 2014, p. 27).
Sustainable tourism is even codified by the United Nations World Tourism Organization when tour operators, products, and services do the following:
- Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
- Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
- Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.
(United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2005)
The Significance of Ethical Travel in the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene is the current geologic age that began when human civilization developed the ability to influence the natural processes related to the climate and other forms of life on Earth (Lewis & Maslin, 2015, pp. 171–172). This age has seen many severe and harmful impacts to civilization and the environment, and travel and tourism are among the forces contributing to such harm (Holden et al., 2022). Climate change is permanently altering the landscapes of many areas, thereby prompting many to visit these destinations in droves. This demand can strain local infrastructure and has the potential to cause more, or even accelerated, degradation as part of a phenomenon known as last-chance tourism (Groulx et al., 2019, pp. 202–204).
Some destinations, like Venice and Florence, have reported that the overwhelming rates of tourism have made it too expensive and difficult for locals to live there while the economies become too dependent – or even solely dependent on tourists. This has prompted some destinations to limit and even ban short-term rentals and cruises (Business Insights, 2021). In short, the negative impacts of tourism from well before the Covid-19 pandemic are still ever present, which makes sustainable tourism and traveling important. Fortunately, there is growing literature calling for an exploration of new frameworks, or redux, of how tourism is planned and conducted (Brouder, 2020). Considering that the principles of veganism are rooted in the Utilitarian maxim that any behaviour and decision ought to be motivated by the intent of doing the least amount of harm (Singer, 1980, pp. 325–327), it may plausibly serve as a framework for ethical tourism.
How Vegan Philosophy Informs the Framework of Ethical Travel
The official definition of veganism states that its primary concern is with animal rights, (Cole & Morgan, 2011; The Vegan Society, 2021) and because of that many assume that its scope is limited to only that. In principle, it is a Utilitarian philosophy (Singer, 1980) that is intersectional in scope (J. B. Greenebaum, 2017). Idealistically speaking, this would mean that vegans may seek to do the least amount of harm in all of their decisions – including those that don’t directly have to do with animals. Vegan companies like The Junkyard Vegan and Kristi’s Heavenly Cobblers in Atlanta inadvertently defend animal rights, but their goal is to promote and exercise the cultural value of soul food in the African American community there (Starostinetskaya, 2019). Some many interpret the framework as promotion of food sovereignty and a challenge to the imperialistic influence that industrialized farming has over local food sources (Polish, 2016, p. 274). Therefore, the philosophy of veganism may be used as a philosophical framework that informs behaviours in a myriad of matters aside from diet.
Among those matters is ethical travel. The literature about vegan tourism is nascent at the time of this writing, yet what there is has indicated that ethically-minded travelers and operators seek low-impact trips (Li et al., 2020, p. 244; Ramkissoon et al., 2012, pp. 261–262) in order to pursue sustainability. Ethical travel, in principle, is meant to be sustainable, and veganism’s intersectional scope can guide the behaviours that lead to sustainability.
Simple steps to be an ethical traveler
Pro-environmental and sustainable behaviours most often stem from curiosity and simple gestures of courteousness, which may include:
- Taking the time to do preliminary research on the destination’s customs and codes of conduct and etiquette.
- Respecting the fact that the destination is a home to locals, which means that not every establishment or service is made for one’s amusement.
- Leaving wildlife alone. They are not props for your social media content or curios for your cabinets.
For a list of more, read about the 7 Types of Unethical Instagram Photos, the 6 Ways Budget Travel Harms Communities, and more ethical travel tips.
Reconciling with Grandma
In 2011, an episode of Anthony Bordian’s travel show, “No Reservations”, aired in which he and his film crew traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to document his culinary tour of the city (Yoshimura, 2018). His visit occurred less than a year after an earthquake devastated the country by killing at least 220,000 people, displacing more than 1.5 million others, and leveling 290,000 residential and commercial buildings (Disasters Emergency Committee, 2012). In a typical episode in other destinations around the world, Bourdain would visit local eateries to savour their cuisine and narrate what he tasted and learned during those experiences. This visit, however, was different as he was very much aware of the uninviting stares of the locals, who were wary of international journalists and tourists who had been visiting to witness the aftermath of the earthquake while aid and recovery were delayed and lacking (Yoshimura, 2018).
In a 2016 interview with the Archive of American Television, Bourdain reflected on the detrimental impacts that his visit may have had on the delicate social situation. He acknowledged that his cameras represented more than a year’s worth of income of a typical Haitian civilian and how his remuneration to the eateries could have very well incited rioting behaviours amongst their neighbours. Inadvertently, his visits and features of any farm or bar for his show could alter their meaning to locals, perhaps even to the point of putting them out of business (FoundationINTERVIEWS, 2016). Among other ugly, unintended consequences, he explained that he and his crew did their best to do the least amount of harm in various ways, like paying for the meals of all the diners in an eatery (FoundationINTERVIEWS, 2016). Bourdain clearly cared about locals’ welfare and livelihoods and how his presence affected them. He wanted to do the least amount of harm to both. Coincidentally, that is the same principle that guides the behaviour ethical and vegan travel. What is disappointing – and even tragic – about Bourdain’s opinion about vegans and veganism is that while Bourdain had no reservations about insulting either, he never realized the truth that the vegan philosophy complimented his own.