Travel is a beautiful thing that we all seem to love to do. It enables us to see the world in all of its complexity. Travel helps people become more open-minded and forge global connections. I fundamentally believe that travel has made me a better person.
Travel is also a global industry, dominated by white, western, upper-middle class individuals. And due to globalization and the ease of world-wide transportation, the tourism industry is booming. However, tourism has the potential to be incredibly destructive to the environment and to local communities. While I will not discourage travel, I will discourage traveling while ignorant about the impacts that we can potentially have on outside communities. If you are able to travel, you are incredibly privileged; the least we can do as privileged people is educate ourselves and try to make conscientious choices while traveling, to avoid exploiting locals and causing environmental harm.
Below is a list of nine simple things that you can do right now to be a more conscientious, less exploitative traveler.
1. Learn your history
You’ve booked your plane tickets and are super excited to jet-set across the world. However, a big part of being a conscientious traveler in another country is having a basic understanding of the political, cultural, and global context of that country in the world. Do your homework. Pick up the books and research the history of the place that you’re visiting. We have the internet – use it! Read material written by a wide variety of people, especially local perspectives on historical and current events. Having some background gives you more context for why things are the way they are. Be a critical reader and learner.
Also, remember that a great deal of nations around the world have been colonized. Familiar with the phrase, “History is written by the victors”? This is an important concept to keep in mind when learning about a nation’s complex history, especially in the case of colonized nations and people. Colonization is defined as the domination of one region by an outside region. It is characterized by violence, seizure of resources, and erasure of indigenous rights, culture, and autonomy. Understand that traveling in colonized or formerly colonized nations affects the narratives that we are told in history books and in modern media sources.
Additionally, keep in mind that the United States (and other imperialist nations) has played a crucial role in shaping the politics of many nations. The United States has overthrown foreign governments and backed military dictators. Its political and economic interests in the resources of other countries have had drastic impacts on the development of certain nations. As someone from the United States, and recognizing that many of my readers are from the United States, I believe that it is important to have an understanding of the impacts of the United States’ foreign policy on the nations in which I travel, to have a better understanding of the current political and economic situations in these nations.
2. Learn some of the local language
I know that not everyone is bilingual (or trilingual, or quadrilingual, etc.) and that sometimes our international travels lead us to places where we don’t speak the local language. This is okay. However, it is unfair and entitled to assume that the people around you speak English. Just as you wouldn’t expect a foreigner to come to your country and start yammering to you in a language that you don’t understand, we shouldn’t do the same to locals during our travels abroad. Fortunately, learning a few key words and phrases can go a really long way towards more respectful communication.
Key words and phrases that I always try to learn in any language are: yes, no, My name is [name], What is your name?, How are you?, I don’t speak [French, Arabic, Xhosa, etc.], Do you speak English?, I don’t understand, How do you say [word] in [language]?, and so on. Everyone is capable of learning the bare minimum of another language. There is no excuse not to try, especially not with so many resources available, such as audiobooks at the local library or the free university that is Youtube. Most of the time we don’t attempt to speak other languages because we are afraid of embarrassing ourselves, mispronouncing words, and inadvertently insulting people. However, I believe that people are appreciative of you trying to learn anything about their language, and that language opens doors to understanding people more fully.
One of my favorite questions to learn in a new language is, “Can you teach me a new word in [language]?” This was very helpful for me while trying to learn Arabic in Jordan. And it’s fun. It gets people talking about their language and allows you to learn some interesting vocabulary and/or grammar. In Spanish, I can ask more nuanced questions, such as, “Can you teach me a word that is used here in [Spanish-speaking country]?” or “Is [word] appropriate to use in this country or should I say something different?” Languages are not homogeneous; they differ from country to country and region to region.
Write down the words and phrases that you learn, carry your notes with you, and refer to your cheat sheet when you’re out in the world. When I approach a local in a foreign country, I always try to begin the conversation in the local language, even if I have to ask if switching over to English is a possibility. Don’t assume that everyone can speak your language. Don’t assume that everyone wants to speak your language. Be humble, respectful, and ask questions.
3. Always ask before taking photos of people
Speaking of language, how about learning how to ask to take someone’s picture in their native language? (As a freebie, I’ll give it to you in Spanish: ¿Puedo sacar su foto, por favor?) Human beings are not props, nor are they animals in a zoo. Always ask for permission to take someone’s photo. Respect their wishes if they say no.
Also, understand that in certain other cultures, photography may have other connotations. In some cultures, having one’s picture taken is a serious offense. When in doubt, ask. Really want to take a picture of that beautiful Mayan church? I get it, but ask. If you are told no, put the damn camera away.
Additionally, I believe that it’s important to ask yourself why you need to take photographs of the people who you bump into around the world. And this is not the same as traveling somewhere, forging a friendship, and taking a picture of your friend. But when we are wandering around the streets of a foreign city and see a stranger and feel compelled to take their picture, we should ask ourselves why. Is it because they look strange or “exotic“? How are we planning on describing this person to our friends and family back home? It is so easy for our photography and language to tokenize and objectify people from other cultures. Being mindful of the power of photography and language can help avoid “othering” people from foreign cultures, i.e. deeming the photographer’s culture as the norm, and the foreign culture as strange, different, and less legitimate.
4. Be cognizant of who benefits from your dollar
I.e., support local. Support local in your home community, and support local abroad. This may mean giving up some familiar comforts. This may mean staying in a family-owned inn or hostel as opposed to a luxury hotel. Eating at a local restaurant as opposed to supporting a chain. Participating in events and tours that actively work towards bettering the local communities… operated and/or owned by people from the community, not by outsiders.
And this is especially true for my readers from the United States, or for anyone traveling outside of the United States… don’t go abroad and support corporations from the United States. Starbucks will be there when you get home; go find a local coffee shop. Travel is not necessarily about being comfortable. It’s about learning, growing, and challenging preconceived notions. We don’t accomplish this by staying inside of our comfort zones. Take advantage of your time abroad to give back to the local economy, and maybe you’ll learn something new along the way.
5. Be sensitive when haggling… or just don’t haggle
We’re going to make something very clear: even the most “budget” traveler is enormously privileged. If you can afford to travel abroad, you can afford to pay fair prices for the goods and services that you consume while abroad.
I recognize that haggling in many places is a part of the culture. I also recognize that in certain places, “looking foreign” is enough to be charged more for that pretty shawl that you see in the local market. However, that’s okay. It’s okay to pay a little more, because at the end of the day it’s not going to hurt you to pay a little bit more money for something beautiful that you are going to cherish. We tend to take for granted the fact that, by traveling in the first place, we probably earn or have earned a living wage that enables us to move through the world as travelers and tourists. This is not the case for everyone, and may not be the case for the person selling you whatever it is they are selling you. And if you honestly can’t afford the higher price, then how much do you really need the object in the first place?
6. Get to know the locals
Should be obvious, right? Talk to locals. And I don’t just mean ordering in a restaurant before you return to your conversation with another tourist. I mean actually going out of your way to engage in meaningful ways with locals. Make friends, learn about their culture, and provide insights on your own culture to the people you meet abroad. One of the most important things about travel is that it breaks down stereotypes that we get from the media and popular culture, because we are out there experiencing things firsthand and can formulate our own opinions. This doesn’t work if you don’t actually engage with and befriend locals while traveling.
I have always found it to be incredibly easy to make friends with people in hostels. Unfortunately, people in hostels tend to be other foreign tourists. This is comfortable but not particularly helpful. While I do see the value in talking to other tourists and comparing experiences in the country that you’re visiting, sometimes I chose not to interact with other tourists in lieu of exploring on my own. It gives me more initiative to start up conversations with locals who I meet around town. I encourage travelers not to fall into the trap of recreating their home country, abroad. If I were to go out with a bunch of other people from the United States while traveling abroad, I would be doing just that.
7. Use moments of discomfort as opportunities to ask questions, not to judge
Travel is going to be rife with moments in which we face culture shock. Because, go figure, human beings are really different. Some places in the world we eat with a knife and fork, some places we eat with our hands, and some places we use chopsticks. In some parts of the world, the animals that we keep as pets are eaten for dinner in other parts of the world. In some parts of the world, in order to purchase property we bring a case of beer and some cash to a local chief; in other parts of the world we sign these crazy things called mortgages…
The point is, no matter where you are in the world, when you are no longer in your native culture there are going to be things that shock you. This is okay, normal, and kind of awesome. What’s not okay is a reaction like, “They eat guinea pigs here? That’s disgusting.” And moreover, it’s a dangerous reaction that creates division. Just because you don’t understand another culture’s history and traditions doesn’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with that culture. Additionally, it imposes a standard centered around the culture of the “that’s disgusting” accuser. It makes this person’s culture “the norm”, and the observed culture inferior and even deviant in comparison.
8. Don’t be a white savior
I’m going to say it again, just to be perfectly clear: don’t be a white savior. Don’t go into another nation expecting to solve its problems. Understand that every country has unique and complex problems that will not just go away with a little bit of hard work and grassroots effort. Understand that ideologies form over centuries, during which time we’ve experienced world-wide colonization and globalization. Think to your own country and its slew of issues. If we had the answer to our own nation’s problems, we would have solved them. We generally understand less about foreign countries than we do our own. So let’s stop trying to “save” the Third World, etc. when we don’t even know how to “save” ourselves.
I have met many people who want to work or volunteer abroad, and I get it. It sounds awesome. I don’t think that working or volunteering abroad is inherently bad, but I do believe that it should be done with an incredible amount of caution. If you are planning to work or volunteer abroad, I advise you to do a lot of research. Who is running the program? Is it a member of the local community or an outsider? What is the role of a volunteer or employee? What makes you qualified for this position? Is this a position that would be better filled by someone from the community itself? Where do the funds raised by this organization actually go? And so on, and so forth. Do your homework, so your work is not doing more harm than good. Good intentions and personal growth are not enough.
9. Check your privilege
It is an enormous privilege to be able to travel. Not everyone can travel, but some people can. As travelers, we are ambassadors for our countries and cultures. We are also guests in someone else’s home. Always be respectful.
In this post I have talked a lot about class and race privilege, but remember that there are many forms of privilege that we all experience or do not experience differently. Your socioeconomic status is a huge factor in determining your ability to travel. As is able-bodiedness. Having a disability can determine whether or not you are able to move about the world, or can seriously dictate how you move about the world. And don’t forget your passport – depending on your country of birth, travel from country to country could be very easy or nearly impossible.
Your race will change how people receive you in certain parts of the world. Your gender expression will change how people receive you in certain parts of the world. Your sexuality will change how people receive you in certain parts of the world. Human beings are complex and flawed, but having an understanding of how you benefit from certain privileges can aid you in being a more open-minded traveler. It can help you better understand what you are seeing, and how you are affected by the nuances of your own culture and of other cultures.
We should always be learning. We should always be questioning the things that we have been taught. We should always be respectful, compassionate, and active listeners. That will make us better travelers and better humans in a complex world. I am a culprit of committing pretty much every point on this list. Now I am more aware, and constantly unlearning and working towards bettering myself. I am not exempt from anything, neither is anyone else.
There is so much more to say on the topic of more respectful, less exploitative travel. If you have any recommendations for me to discuss in future posts, contact me or write your thoughts in the comments below. For more information on these topics and many more, check out my Unlearning page.