How we treat our world, the environment, other people’s countries and cultures, as well as the people we meet along the way, are all very important.
We need to be responsible and ethical. Kind and respectful. We need to be mindful as we travel.
Have I always got it right? No. But I try. And when I fail, I’m sometimes able to correct my error as was the case when I felt it important that I pay a bicycle rickshaw driver three times the negotiated fare. There are ways, small and large, to be a good traveler.
Choosing to be a Good Traveler at the Planning Stage
It seems that tourism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can bring much-needed cash into a destination. This is why the United Nations World Tourism Organization declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. On the other it can bring in too many people. The latter is a problem that has been gaining recognition over the last twenty years or so. In the last couple of years, it gained a name, overtourism.
At the Social Travel Summit last September I learned about overtourism and how tourism boards are trying to manage the challenge. It caused me to wonder what we, as travelers, can do to help meet that challenge. Here are a few thoughts.
- Question your reasons for travel. Is the Eiffel Tower more important than experiencing French culture? Is San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge more important than a California getaway off the beaten path? Do you really need the crowds of those destinations experiencing overtourism or will you get more of what you want out of travel by going elsewhere? Research your options. Read: When Travel Is the Goal, Not Destination.
- Enjoy the surprises of less popular cities in popular country. It's not difficult to identify the destinations that experience overtourism. They are, essentially, the most popular destinations in the world. But there are so many more places to travel. Want to go to Italy? Think Bologna rather than Venice or Florence. Going to the UK? Think Liverpool rather than London. Check out our Destinations section where we, with the help of readers, have covered 101 countries. For each country there are a variety of specific destinations, many of which you may not have heard of before.
- Stay outside the centre of the most popular cities. If you are determined to go to Paris, London, New York, Hong Kong… consider staying outside the city center. You'll help spread the tourism dollar around, you'll likely save money, and you'll be able to get into the city center easily as most major cities have great public transit.
- Be especially respectful in cities experiencing overtourism. As more people travel, the really popular cities experience more damage to public spaces, struggle with more demand for electricity and water and endure more stress on the infrastructure than was planned for. Be careful as you travel. Follow the rules. Stay off the grass. Don't leave lights on or leave the tap running. Think about what you do and your impact.
How to Be a Good Traveler as You Go
Travel is very much a two-way street. As you go and explore a new culture, those you meet are also exploring yours. Being a “good” traveler will help you get the most out of this reciprocal relationship and your travels. You'll be better received by locals, have more authentic experiences and you'll return home having left a better impression of your own country on them.
- Think local. Where was that souvenir made? Who are the guides used by your tour company? Is your hotel owned locally or will the profits exit the country? Try to support the local economy in everything you do. Whether it's a vendor at a European Christmas market or a tour through Morocco, try to find ways to support the thousands of small companies you'll meet along the way.
- Consider the environment. When choosing a tour company, resort or hotel, check for their policies regarding environmental issues and supporting the local culture. Choose travel companies that act responsibly.
- Learn before you go. Before you travel, learn about the local issues. Are there specific needs you can help with? Could you take along school or medical supplies that would be of value?
- Be respectful. Don't judge. There isn't a country on earth that has it all figured, not your own or any other, so leave judgmental attitudes at home. Be respectful and look for the good in the culture then bring some of it home with you.
- Be mindful as you take photographs. There are ethical issues around taking photos as you travel. This is especially true when it comes to children and for any photos taken in developing countries. Generally, it's not wise to take pictures of children unless permission is specifically give (or requested as is sometimes the case) by parents or teachers. Regarding developing countries, a post in Matador said it very well: “As a visitor to a country with less economic power, it’s crucial that our photos do not negatively contribute to already existing power dynamics. We want our photos to empower these countries, not degrade or disrespect them.” Read their post for the specifics: Dear Travelers: Please Don't Take Photos in Developing Countries until You've Asked Yourself these 6 Things.
- Be curious. To really understand a culture you'll need to ask questions. Be careful and respectful if you're venturing into political or religious territory but still, ask. People usually love to talk about their country. But rarely is one question and one answer enough. Ask “why” and “how” questions that are open-ended so that people feel free to talk.
- Smile, laugh and share your energy. You are in holiday mode. The locals you meet may be in work mode. Bring a little light into their day by being joyful.
- Tap the knowledge of your taxi driver. Some of your best experiences could come from a recommendation from your taxi driver or barista… just about anyone you meet along the way. Be friendly and they'll share their local knowledge with you.
- Show your appreciation. If you're in a hotel, don't forget to tip the housekeeping people. They are so often forgotten. For all those many people who make your trip wonderful but for whom tipping would be awkward, offer a spontaneous coffee or surprise flowers. At minimum, take the time to learn something about them, smile and thank them.
- Keep an open mind. You will be surprised every once in a while – possibly even shocked – by cultural differences. “Really, you do it that way?” Yes, people all over the world do things differently. Keep an open mind and try to figure out why it's so different and why you're having such a response to the difference. Be tolerant of how other cultures do things.
- Be patient. You are the guest. You are the one who does not know the system. If you're trying to get a visa or train ticket and you can't believe how hard it is, be calm and patient. You'll be happier and leave a better impression behind you.
- Try new things – From strange food to adventurous day trips, try new things – at least once. You may never have the opportunity again so go for it.
- Act appropriately. How you dress and act affects how you are seen. If women cover up in public, so should you. If drinking alcohol is generally frowned upon, you should avoid it.
- Be flexible. Things will go wrong. It's inevitable, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Things going wrong can present new opportunities. Treat the unexpected that way by being flexible.
- Don't be discouraged by a scam – I've been scammed many times. In fact, I almost consider it the price of admission for travelers. Hopefully, you don’t lose too much money in the transaction. Take such humbling experiences and put them where they belong, on your list of humorous anecdotes.
As always, your travel choices are your most powerful tool when it comes to being a good traveler.