Ignorant tourists: we’ve all seen them in one form or another. They eat at McDonald’s, they talk loudly while on safari, and might even damage buildings of cultural heritage.
I am sure none of you readers actually belong to this category. But there are many habits we develop (often unconsciously) that could harm the environment we find ourselves in and the people of the country we’re visiting.
Here are seven easy things you can do to engage in more responsible travel…
1. Mind your manners
Your adventure begins before you even get on the plane. Try to inform yourself about your destination as much as you can ahead of time. This includes learning about possible dos and don’ts and important gestures or hand signs you need to look out for.
Knowing some basic rules can avoid really awkward situations! That way you’ll know if you don’t tip enough in the US, you’re basically telling your waiter he did a terrible job, but when you tip somebody in Japan you’re being rude.
No one expects you to know everything about their home country’s culture and you will probably be forgiven a lot… But you wouldn’t want to host inconsiderate and ignorant guests either, right?
2. Remember that you’re a guest
Some countries might make you feel right at home – and that is great! Just keep in mind that you cannot always behave as you would at home.
Be as respectful as you can be and try to not judge things unfamiliar to you too quickly. Of course there’s a thin line between what’s morally wrong and right, and in some situations that makes it difficult not to step in and say something.
When I did an internship in the mountains of Ecuador with indigenous communities, my friend and I witnessed a teacher hitting a child with his belt pretty roughly. Just when we were about to say something, our boss told us not to because it was part of their culture and way of living.
Later on a job in Guatemala working with schools, I was explicitly told by my boss to immediately report any violence or mistreatment against children.
Clothing is another issue. As women, we often struggle with misogyny in many different forms. We know that no woman should ever be blamed for being sexually harassed because of something they did or how they dressed.
Still, if you find yourself in a country where women usually wear skirts or pants that cover their knees, or do not walk around in bikinis even in a beach town, you shouldn’t do so either.
In most situations, the best way to go is probably to go with your gut feeling, not forgetting that you are in a country and culture different to yours.
3. Ask questions
If you don’t ask questions, you’ll never learn. If you are uncertain about how to behave in a certain situation or what you’re about to eat, just ask! Most people will be more than happy to explain their way of life to you. You might even make some new friends on the way!
I’ve found this especially useful when I get lost in a city (which I love to do) or a market. This way, a taxi driver once took me to the oldest pub in London, and I learned to cook a whole new range of meals in Zambia.
One more thing: if you take pictures of people you don’t know, ask them beforehand! Many will be happy to be part of your memories, but certainly not everyone. Especially with kids this is very important to remember.
4. Try speaking their language
No, you don’t need to be fluent in Mandarin if you want to travel to China for three weeks. But getting a few basics down can work wonders.
In many countries, not everyone speaks or understands English, not even the staff working in or at tourist attractions. Knowing how to get directions back to your Airbnb or how to buy a bus ticket could save your day.
People will appreciate you trying to speak their language, even if you have to switch to English or sign language after the first sentence or two. It shows that at least you made an effort!
A great way to get started is downloading the Duolingo app to your phone and doing a chapter every day – it only takes about 10 minutes.
5. Support local businesses
In many countries, especially the bigger cities, you can now find big international franchises. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway – you name it.
There’s nothing wrong with reaching for that one burger or drink you have been missing for so long, but try to mostly visit smaller local shops.
Like at home, they often depend on every single customer and this way, you get to know the country you’re in in a whole different way.
6. Get the inside scoop on tourist attractions
By now, most of us know not to buy into elephant riding in Thailand and not to go to SeaWorld to watch whales and dolphins make their rounds in tiny pools. In some places, the variety of things to do and tours to book is simply overwhelming!
It’s worth making the effort to inform yourself as well as you can about them. In Belize, I was dying to do a snorkel tour to see manatees up close and almost booked a tour. After talking to a few locals and fellow travelers, I decided differently: I was told that manatees are very shy animals and most snorkel guides let their groups get too close, cornering and thus scaring them.
Ally from Psychotraveller just explained in her video why she chose not to dive with whalesharks in the Phillipines.
7. Be green
All humans, but especially us travelers, have a big responsibility to protect our planet. So let’s try to be as environmentally responsible as possible. Reuse plastic bottles, or, even better, bring your own.
In most countries you will easily find bigger canisters of water that you can store at the place you’re staying. This will most likely save you money, too!
Not all countries and cities have a recycling system, but you can always try to separate your trash as much as possible. If you have some extra time with your friends at the beach, you could even do an impromptu one hour clean-up, or participate in a clean-up diving tour!
Of course, these seven simple steps to responsible travel are merely suggestions. I am not trying to tell you what to do on your travels, or tell you that you are a bad person if you don’t follow all of them.
What do you do to embrace responsible travel? Tell us in the comments – we’d love to hear your tips and opinions!