Traveling ethically is something I’m passionate about. I aspire to travel in a way that makes me proud in every single place I visit.
That said, I am far from perfect. I’ve revealed travel’s dirty secret before, and have acknowledged that it can do more harm than good. I have found that traveling ethically is not always easy. It can be confusing. There are fuzzy lines, and I have screwed up. A lot. But it’s a learning process, and little by little I’m getting better.
I am more conscious about the decisions I make on the road (as well as at home), and want to share what traveling responsibly looks like to me. I truly think that most people have good intentions when they travel, but often don’t know where to start. These tips will help you make a positive impact wherever your #wanderingsoles take you.
Support The Local Community
1. It’s fun to try the famous restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet or ranked highly on TripAdvisor, but try some small, Mom-and-Pop shops too. This way, you’re contributing to small businesses where your money is needed more than the eateries that are always bustling with visitors. Bonus: Often times this is where you’ll find the tastiest and most authentic local fare!
2. Shop at local food markets whenever possible. Buy souvenirs from artisan as opposed to big shops. Spread your money around, and support the “little guy.”
3. Research non-profits in the area you are visiting and support in any way you’re able. For example, along our travels we’ve found many places there are restaurants that hire staff of all abilities, serve only locally-produced food or give a portion of proceeds to charity. Support this type of place.
4. Share your experience. Pay it forward and shout out great companies. When a restaurant, hotel or tour organization is doing good things (paying staff fairly, protecting the environment, giving back to their community), tell the world! Write them a glowing review on TripAdvisor, and if you’re active on social media share your experience there too. If something just doesn’t feel right about a company, share that as well.
The only way we as travelers can make informed decisions is by hearing from others’ experience. Help others choose good companies. With our support, those companies doing the right thing will grow while those following unsavory practices will realize they need to change.
Think About Wildlife
5. Don’t feed wild animals. No explanation needed.
6. Do thorough research on any attraction that involves animals. More often than not, they are destructive to the creatures involved. When you partake in these activities your money supports the harm of animals and tells the people running them that it’s okay. Do your own research about animal attractions that interest you and make a well-informed decision. Some popular animal tourism attractions that I have chosen NOT to support are:
- Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines
- Riding on the back of elephants anywhere in the world
- Visiting Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai
7. Think about the impact of your pictures. Each image snapped has consequences – be it good or bad, and it’s easy to get so caught up in the click of a shutter that we forget who or what it will affect. Tourists lining up in the hundreds to snap a picture in the water with a whale shark is what has kept them in relative captivity, unable to feed themselves.
It has also polluted the surrounding ocean in the Philippines. Taking a nude picture on a sacred mountaintop may seem like an act of spontaneity, but is deemed as blatant disrespect of local culture. Let’s all try to think before we snap.
Interact With Locals
8. Try to learn a few phrases in the language of your host country. Some words I always try to learn are “hello” and “thank you”. You’d be surprised just how far those words will get you. Go an extra step and learn at least one other fun phrase like, “How are you?” “Beautiful,” “Delicious,” or “See you later” to show the locals you’re trying. You’ll get some pretty great reactions!
9. Smile and treat everyone you meet with respect. If you are frustrated, take a deep breath and think before speaking. Kindness can go a long way.
10. If you want to take a photograph of someone, ask first. If they don’t speak the same language as you, make eye contact, show them your camera, and wait for their response. If they nod their head, “yes” take a photo or two. If you think it’s appropriate, you can show them the picture too.
Many people, especially in impoverished parts of the world, don’t have many pictures of themselves, so it’s a cool experience for them to see it. If someone shakes their head “no,” respect their privacy and move on. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind being photographed.
Be Kind To The Environment
11. Bring reusable bags (or an old plastic bag) to convenience stores or markets to prevent waste.
12. Don’t litter. Ever. Even if the locals do. For every local who litters, there are many who don’t. Seeing a foreigner throw trash on the ground in their home can be seen as very disrespectful.
13. Use a water purifying system to cut down on plastic bottle waste. (I love my SteriPen!)
14. Recycle when possible. For some reason, it’s easy to forget about recycling when you’re not at home.
15. Save electricity by turning off the lights and air-conditioning when you leave your room.
16. Only order as much food as you can eat and try not to waste.
17. After using a map or brochure of a city, leave it at your hotel desk for future guests to use instead of throwing it in the trash.
18. Try to conserve water by taking short showers. In many parts of the world, clean water is scarce. This is a luxury many of us take for granted. Limit your usage accordingly.
19. Use public transportation or bicycles when possible to minimize your impact on the environment.
Respect The Culture
20. Remember that you are a visitor in someone else’s home. Act as such.
21. Respect the dress code of the country you’re visiting, especially at holy sites. Pay attention to how locals are dressed, or ask someone at your hotel what’s typical if you’re unsure. Tip: When entering many temples, mosques or churches around the world, it’s recommended that you cover your shoulders and knees, and sometimes your head as well.
22. Pay attention to and respect signs at tourist attractions. When it says, “Don’t climb” – DON’T CLIMB. When it says, “Don’t take photos” – DON’T TAKE PHOTOS. It’s simple, but many people overlook this.
23. Research the local customs and manners of the country you are visiting. In certain areas of the world, gestures that you may frequently use at home are considered extremely rude. Speaking critically about politics or religion in some countries may not be as freely accepted in your home country. And table manners vary greatly around the world. Tip: I have found these “Travel Cheat Sheets” to be pretty helpful!
24. Seek out cultural experiences. While lying on the beach with a cocktail in hand is why many people vacation (and that’s totally fine!), but it will not help you understand the place you’re visiting. Try to have at least one meaningful encounter like taking a cooking class, visiting an important museum or participating in a homestay.
It could even be as simple as starting up a conversation with a local. These experiences are what you’ll remember, and they are the best way for us to learn about and understand people who may be from different backgrounds than ourselves. In our world today, we can use all the understanding and compassion we can get.
25. Be sure to find out if tips are expected in the place you are visiting. And if so, what percentage is typical to tip?
26. Think about how you are representing the culture you see. Your pictures may be the only exposure some people have to what you are experiencing, and including demeaning descriptions or hashtags can spread negativity and misunderstanding. I appreciate sarcasm just as much as the next person, but be careful how you use it.
Don’t Contribute To The Cycle Of Poverty
27. Refrain from giving money or candy to children on the street. Doing so often encourages them to skip school in order to beg. If you would like to help financially, research organizations in the area that support those in need with food, shelter and education.
28. Bargain respectfully. Remember that the person who you are buying from needs to make a living. In many countries it’s okay to barter – and is even expected. But don’t take advantage of this. Be prepared to pay fairly.
29. Research the tour companies you choose. Try to support local companies as opposed to global ones, and be sure they pay their employees fair wages. You’d be surprised how much information is out there on company websites and review sites like TripAdvisor. Bonus points if you find a company that gives back to the local community, supports education or is benefitting the environment.
30. Research what’s going on in the country you’re visiting. What are the current issues? Slave labor? Human trafficking? Pay attention to where your money is going so you aren’t unknowingly supporting these practices. For example, while in Thailand I learned that eating seafood from this country is contributing to modern day slavery and trafficking. I ate a few too many green curries with shrimp before figuring this out. Looking into current issues ahead of your visit will help you from making mistakes like I did.
31. If you want to volunteer while abroad, research organizations thoroughly. Many programs are unsustainable and cycle through volunteers quickly, while these jobs could be given to locals. Many times these programs are created with the foreigners’ experience in mind rather than considering what is best for the community involved. And positive change can be slow because some organizations capitalize on showing volunteers “poverty.”
Advancing a village wouldn’t provide new volunteers with the photo opportunities they seek, so communities stay in a state of perpetuated poverty for longer than necessary. Corruption in the “Voluntourism” industry is not uncommon. Yes, there are some great organizations around the world, but they require a bit of digging to find. Do some research on “Voluntourism” to understand this complex issue better.