I try to advocate for being a responsible tourist a lot in my blog but I’ve never really came out and did a post on it. I am all for traveling and think people should get out as much as they can to try new things, see new places and gain new experiences. However, I am a firm believer in that traveling should benefit more than just you and even if it doesn’t directly benefit the places you are visiting, it should, at least, not have a negative effect on them. This is why being culturally, environmentally, economically and politically aware & sensitive is almost vital when you are traveling. I feel that a lot of travelers are pretty good at keeping these rules but there are always those groups of tourists that makes you cringe and shake your head – those that give all travelers a horrible reputation.
The term conscious traveler incorporates travelers who are not only environmentally aware but also economically, socially and politically aware when visiting new locations. It also refers to travelers who really immerse themselves into the culture and appreciate each moment
So here are a few things (rants) that people should keep in mind before and during their travels. There are definitely a few things on the list that I use to remind myself as well!
1) Learn about the country/ region’s history and current events. This, too me, is so important. You don’t have to be an expert and know all the history about the place you are visiting – but there are definitely some modern historical events and big events that have really affected the country’s culture and politics. Knowing the history will let you appreciate the country and the culture a bit more and help you understand why some things are the way they are. It will also allow you to be more aware and be safe – especially if it’s information about a conflict or a political happening you should know about. For example, if you are traveling the Thai-Khmer border, you should definitely be aware that some of the areas around the border are pretty much off limits and very dangerous. So rather than just reading about things to do or places to visit, educate yourself really quickly on the history and the current events!
2) Familiarize yourself with some of the cultural ‘don’ts.’ This is so simple. Just learn about certain customs that are just a big ‘no-no’ in the countries you are visiting. Know things like simple hand gestures that will get you in trouble or make you seem/feel stupid. Know that even though it may be rude to touch someone’s head in some cultures, it’s a sign of affection in other places. Know that PDA is not acceptable in most Asian countries and you will make people feel very uncomfortable. (e.g. Dos and Dont’s in Laos)
3) Know the basic words/ phrases such as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ It’s just a polite thing to do. Nobody expects you to speak the language. But just being able to say ‘thank you’ in the country’s language is a nice touch. It shows that you are interested in learning more about the country/ culture and that you don’t expect people in other countries to know or learn English for tourists/foreigners.
4) Dress and act appropriately. This is one of the biggest pet peeves of mine. I know that some places are hot – and since you are at the beach, or a tropical place, you think it’s appropriate for you to walk around shirtless (for guys) and in your bikini (for girls). I’ve also seen people visiting sacred places like Angkor Wat wearing nothing but a tank top and really short shorts. I know it’s hot and piling on a little more cloth can feel like torture – and since other tourists are doing it, it doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal – well it is. When we were driving to Luang Prabang in Laos, we stopped by at Vang Vieng. There, all the tourists were barely covered – the whole time our cab driver kept saying ‘no good, no good’ because, well, it isn’t any good. It’s somewhat disrespectful and not pleasing to look at (it may be pleasing to look at when you are out back home clubbing or going out with ur friends or spending your vacation at a resort). Look at how the locals are dressed and look at how you are dressed. If you are a girl, you are probably putting yourself in danger walking around showing some of your body parts off. Just cover up a little – you are going to be hot and sweaty either way – might as well do it looking somewhat classy.
Also, don’t go around flashing around how much you are better off than the locals – it’s just stupid and dangerous. It’s like waving a flag in front of you and saying ‘come get me and steal all my shit.’
5) Try, appreciate and respect local food. This is one of the main perks of traveling. You get to try different and authentic food. Thai food in Thailand doesn’t taste like Thai food in other countries. It’s your chance to really try the different types of cuisine that are out there – yet, I know so many tourists that only eat and will only try what they know or are familiar with. How else will you experience the culture if you can’t even try something as simple as a traditional dish. Also, yes, some countries eat weird things (I personally still can’t eat tarantulas but I have eaten many many things including all types of creatures from the ocean and a few fried insects). It’s not up to you to judge and cringe at the different types of food that are offered. It’s part of the culture and part of the history. Some countries had to go through a period of time in their history where they had no choice but to eat tarantulas which have eventually become a delicacy. Just because it’s not offered in your neighborhood does not mean it’s wrong or ‘disgusting.’ Of course, if you can’t eat it, you can’t. There’s no way I’m going to eat a plate of live mice (I’ve heard some countries do eat em) and snake – but that doesn’t mean you can cringe, gag, make weird noises and run away – be respectful. Just smile and say ‘no thank you’ and eat whatever else that is offered that you can actually eat. Nothing is more annoying than having someone at the table complaining about how disgusting what I’m eating is. RUDE.
6) Respect local customs and how things are done in that particular country. This kind of goes with the point about food. There are other things that may not align with what you are familiar with. Some countries will make you take off your shoes when you are entering a restaurant (like some sit-down restaurants in Korea), some will not have public transportation or cabs and you will have to take the motorbike taxi (like Cambodia – we now have cabs-yay!) and some countries you will have to tip at restaurant (like the U.S.). Well guess what, that is just how it is and complaining is not going to change the system. Like I said, it’s part of your travel experience and every country is different. Don’t expect the same things out of each and every place you are visiting.
7) Don’t do things you are told not to do. This is so simple yet so hard for some tourists to keep. If it says ‘do not go in’ or ‘do not touch,’ they clearly mean don’t do it! I see this a lot especially in museums and other amazing historical sites. Yes, it’s awesome and you probably want a great story to go back and tell your friends/family about the time you touched a sculpture you weren’t allowed to touch or you went through a trail that was blocked off. If there is a sign that says don’t or if someone had already told you not to, there probably is a good reason behind it. It’s not only rude, it’s probably not the smartest thing to do. If there are signs that say ‘no trespassing,’ especially in isolated areas, I’m sure that more often than not, it is because it’s dangerous. There are definitely some off road tracks in Cambodia that you would like to avoid – you may step on a landmine – who knows. So, as much as it is tempting, when someone tells you not to do something, just don’t. Also, just because you are traveling doesn’t mean that you are exempt from all laws – doesn’t matter where you are from or what the law is back home, local laws still apply.
8) Purchase locally but don’t encourage illegal and unethical things/behavior. Purchasing locally allows you to support the locals and their economy. However, there are so many cases where this has gone wrong. A classic example is locals selling illegal products or products made from killing endangered animals. Things like animal skin, ivory from elephant tusks and corals should not be purchased – EVER. The reason these are being sold is because people are buying them. So to end this, it’s simple. Don’t buy em! Also, you will notice that there are many many kids as young as 4 year olds going around selling things on the street at 2 in the morning while you get drunk and party. Kids are out there selling things and witnessing things at a young age – and learning from it. (Like the time when my friends and I were walking back home and saw two people going about their business in the sea – ehem! and kids came running next to us saying ‘they boom-boom’ – it was horrifying). Don’t buy things from or give money to the children. Parents and other adults send these kids out because they know that kids bring in the doe. Some of these kids then have to wake up early to go to school and repeat the cycle again or some are even forced to skip school so that they can go make some money. I’ve witnessed so many times where the parents send their kids to go beg while they sit in the shade and play poker with the money those tiny hands deliver to them. It’s disgusting.
9) Always, always, think if and how your actions can be detrimental to the community and whether gaining the experience is really worth it. This is a more complex point than the other ones I’ve mentioned and I know people may disagree with me in some of the things I say here. There are so many examples of this but one of the main examples I have is voluntourism. I’ve mentioned this many times before but I still stand strong on this issue. Traveling should enhance and help you grow as a person – it should give you the experience that you can’t have back home – but not when it is detrimental to the local community or the environment in any way. What I’m trying to say is, not all good deeds are actually good and what you may think is beneficial, it actually may not be. A classic example of this is teaching abroad. I am all for those people that are putting in the time and effort into teaching abroad for a year or two or more. I think it’s amazing. However, the time when it goes wrong is when you are only there for a few days to a couple of months to when you have NO training whatsoever. Those things are just purely beneficial to you and that is it. I’ve talked about more of this on my posts “Thinking about doing a voluntourism? Let’s give it more thought!” and “Children are Not Tourist Attractions.” Good intentions are not enough. And always think whether your actions are actually benefiting anyone else but you. If you really want to help and have an impact, remember that it is NOT about you and your fulfillment. For more thoughts on this, visit goodintents.org.
Another example I like to use is things like riding the elephant in Chiang Mai. It’s awesome and amazing but so bad for the elephants and the environment. There are plenty of articles you can read and after getting through them, you will definitely think twice before you go on an elephant to take pictures for your album. Doesn’t mean you can’t ride the elephants – just research and see how the elephants are treated. For example, places like Mondulkiri makes sure that elephants are working only a certain amount at a time, are kept in their natural habitat and are not trained to do crazy things like standing on one leg (that ain’t normal – people).
10) Do not treat the country like it’s your own. Or in another words, don’t act like how you would back home. This basically summarizes all that I have said. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
I always say that there are few places or countries I don’t really like to visit because those are places I call: ‘tourism gone wrong.’ It’s so sad to see some places that are made and are kept purely just for tourism and don’t think about the local culture and the people at all. I’m not going to name countries but some places are so artificially created that it meets tourists ‘expectations.’ You should not have expectations – at all. You never know what a country or a travel experience is going to throw at you – and you just take it the way it is. That’s what traveling is and should be about.
Some posts you may be interested in:
- Thinking about doing a voluntourism? Let’s give it more thought!
- Cambodia Travels: Elephant Trekking in Mondulkiri
- Luang Prabang: Places to go and things to see!
- Cambodia: This summer, Killing Fields is a no-go for me
- Cambodia: Still more to learn
- Cambodia Travels: Buddha, Apsara & Hanuman Pt.1
- Children Are Not Tourist Attractions
It’s all common sense y’all!
Anything I’ve missed? Any of these you’ve witnessed yourself? Discuss!