When done mindfully, I believe travel can help heal the world’s wounds. When new places open our eyes to the many varied ways of being human, the seemingly arbitrary nature of culture, and the vast fragile beauty of the planet, we wake up in a new way.
Then we take this new understanding of what it means to be an individual, to be part of a society, to be alive in our own skin, and we bring it back to our daily lives in the form of perspective and wisdom. How could good things not come from that?
And yet there is a darker side, because travel can be a complex and sensitive topic.
Sometimes travel brings so many tourists to a destination that their very enthusiasm destroys the place they were so eager to see, its natural wonders and social fabric smothered by overtourism.
Travel often brings people from richer countries into into superficial contact with people in poorer countries, with all the one-sided cultural and economic power that such interactions involve, for better and worse.
Travel uses natural resources – sometimes an absurd amount of them – in the name of brief recreational experiences.
And travel puts us, almost by definition, into places and situations we don’t understand very well, making it too easy for us to unknowingly make decisions that can add up in negative ways. Even the most well-meaning traveler has undoubtedly done some harm.
So should we all just stay home? My gut says no. [Edit as of April 2020: well actually right now, probably yes! But that’s not what this post is about.]
I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit in my life, and the more I travel, the more complex many critical issues – of global culture, development, equality – seem to get. I usually come home with more questions than answers. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I hope the process will shape me into someone who, someday, can use this perspective to help solve some of the world’s complex problems.
In the past few years my travel style has evolved significantly, and I’ve come to really appreciate travel that is thoughtful, slow, and a bit unusual. I believe we should go, but we should do it mindfully and with good intentions. The rest of this post is about how to travel ethically, respectfully, and sustainably to the best of our abilities.
Calling all well-intentioned travelers: If you love to travel but hate doing harm, here are some important ways to follow your passion as mindfully and positively as possible.
Respect cultural customs and norms.
Do you know why it’s rude to eat with your left hand in Oman, or leave your shoes on when entering a home in Laos? What about the polite way to greet a stranger in Sierra Leone? Learning these details is one of the easiest ways to reassure those we meet on our travels that we respect them and their home.
As awkward foreigners, most people will cut us some slack if we make a cultural faux pas, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Etiquette is part of what keeps people feeling comfortable in each others’ presence, and part of traveling gently is not making people feel uncomfortable because of our presence.
Besides, a culture’s unwritten rules and norms are an excellent window into deeper learning about a new place, which is one of the reasons we travel to begin with, right?
Most travelers find it fun to learn a few greetings and novel table manners, but a more controversial example is clothing choice. As a woman, I often adjust my clothing to meet cultural expectations when I travel, which usually means covering up more skin than I would at home. Thoughtful male travelers do the same, though the consequences for getting it wrong are, unfairly, not usually as dire for them.
With dress as well as other local customs, the goal is simply to avoid offending, confusing, or misleading locals you meet while traveling in their home. This helps us all have positive experiences, and helps open the doors to more productive cultural exchange.
Support local businesses.
Sustainably managed tourism can be a valuable economic boost to local communities. The key is to make sure the money is going to local, responsibly run businesses.
Does this mean large and/or foreign travel companies are evil? Definitely not. But if you want to support a place, one of the best ways is to encourage the growth of its small, local, family-run businesses.
So seek out that family-run guesthouse instead of the resort chain. Take tours from a local operator instead of the foreign one with the fancy website. Buy snacks from the corner market instead of the big foreigner-friendly grocery store. In short, vote with your dollars for the economic development of the place you visit.
Slow down and don’t go crazy with lists.
I know what they’re getting at, but I still cringe every time I see a travel article with the word “list” in the title. “85 Best Can’t-Miss Instagram Spots You Must Visit Immediately For Your Perfect Travel Bucket List” just doesn’t do it for me.
I have a lot of lists in my normal life. One of the reasons I travel is to escape lists, to force a bit of mandatory spontaneity into my control-freak existence. Of course I like to know what’s around, but I don’t like to arrive with list in hand, ready to start checking boxes in a mad dash through must-see-before-I-die locations.
Of course, not everyone has the privilege of leisurely and spontaneous wanders across continents. “Slow travel” is a popular buzzword, but what if we have lives and jobs to return to?
I would propose this: take slow travel as a mindset, not a measurement. Slow travel doesn’t have to mean long travel. It just means that the intent of travel is to learn and experience, not to just check things off a list with such enthusiasm that we forget why we wanted the list to begin with. To travel mindfully we need to be in touch with the deeper sense of wonder and inspiration behind our love of travel.
If you only have one week per year to travel, of course you’ll want to pack it full. But as you’re spreadsheeting out that epic itinerary, let this little voice in the back of your head creep in: leave space.
Maybe it’s just an unscheduled afternoon to take a walk, sit in a park, accept an invitation if one comes up. Or the decision to take public transport for a day instead of hiring a car. Those amazing, spontaneous, authentic travel experiences will find you eventually, but only if you make time and space for them.
Take pictures respectfully.
The key concept here is human dignity.
We all want to come home with those prized pictures, the ones that capture just how delightfully foreign it was in the place we traveled. The photos that show our friends and family that we experienced something special in an exciting place. The shots that will get us followers or look good on our blog.
But we have to remember, the people in our pictures are, well, people. They have the same value as us. They are not exhibits, there for our viewing pleasure. Unless they agree to have their image stored on our memory cards and taken home with us long after they will ever see us again, we should not do so.
Realistically, it’s a fine line. I know it’s impossible to ask every single person for permission. But there’s a difference between snapping an overview of a crowded street, dozens of people going about their business from a reasonable distance, versus shoving a camera in the face of a single individual.
Some individuals and cultures are more sensitive to this than others, so it’s risky to make assumptions. But at a minimum, ask yourself: Would you feel awkward on the other side of the lens? If so, asking permission is mandatory, and don’t be offended if they say no.
Share pictures respectfully.
Even with permission, there is another way photos can do harm. One common form is sometimes called “poverty porn” – the result of that strange compulsion, as a relatively well-off traveler, to share pictures of ourselves in run-down-looking neighborhoods or surrounded by raggedly dressed kids. As someone who often researches and writes about travel in Africa, I see this come up a lot.
Why do we want to share these pictures? To demonstrate how far we’ve journeyed from the familiarity of our comfort zone? To prove that we’re compassionate people? To get points in the invisible online game of travel picture bingo?
Back to that important metric: dignity. Unless you’re engaged in a very specific photojournalism project and have carefully considered your motivations, don’t spread images of people that diminish their dignity and perpetuate unhelpful or oversimplified stereotypes.
This doesn’t have to just mean people in poverty. It can mean unhappy people, emotionally overwrought people, unclothed people, people engaged in private moments. Would you want the picture shared if you were in it? Cultural differences make it hard to say for sure, but we always owe our best guess at the very least.
My collection of travel pictures is full of fond memories and friendly faces. But there are many you won’t find on this website, because I don’t feel they portray the message I wish to send, and/or I can’t be sure the people in them would be happy about appearing here.
Here is an example of a picture I do feel comfortable sharing. It’s a family in Sudan that I spent a few hours with one sweltering morning while cycling through the desert. They asked to have their picture taken, and their warmth and cheerfulness come through as a central theme. While they are not a rich family, I don’t feel this picture makes them look poor either, and I think it’s a positive image of Sudan.
Don’t support exploitation of people or animals.
As visitors to an unfamiliar place, it’s easy to miss the nuanced dynamics of the local economy. Tour operators present a shiny facade that sometimes obscures gritty details. We need to do research in advance to identify the local issues and how we can avoid contributing to their negative effects. Fortunately, the internet makes finding transparency easier than ever.
For example, tens of thousands of people climb Kilimanjaro every year, making it an incredibly lucrative business for tour operators in Tanzania. In an effort to keep profit margins high, some unscrupulous operators underpay and under-equip their guides and porters for the challenging physical work. These men, desperate to feed their families in a region struggling with poverty, take the jobs anyway. To avoid contributing to this exploitation, make sure your Kilimanjaro guide company is a member of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project.
Animals are also often exploited for profit in the tourism industry. The case against unethical elephant tourism in Thailand is becoming increasingly well known, but this type of problem can pop up anywhere travelers go to view or interact with animals.
Ask yourself, before taking part in any curated tourism experience: does this seem ethical to me? Could there be forces at work which I’m not seeing? Who lacks power here, and are they being treated fairly?
Don’t give money and candy to begging kids.
If you haven’t thought about this before, you might feel like I just said “kick puppies” or something similarly mean. But hear me out.
As tourism grows in any area, new industries spring up to support it. This means hotels, tour companies, and unfortunately in areas struggling with poverty, begging. Well-meaning visitors give money to begging kids hoping to help, but they unknowingly contribute to a dangerous dynamic of dependence.
In the worst cases it actually becomes an industry. Kids are kept out of school by their families, made to look disheveled – and even, in some horrific cases, maimed – and forced to beg on the streets and bring the money home. Every tourist who gives money to these kids is perpetuating the problem.
You might think it’s ok to give them candy instead, but consider their lack of access to dental care and think again. If you absolutely MUST give something, make it a nutritious snack. But even in that case, it’s setting a dangerous precedent. I know it’s hard, but try not to let your own feelings of guilt lead you to make a bad situation worse.
Be skeptical of voluntourism.
Voluntourism – the sub-category of tourism where travelers “volunteer” their skills to local causes – is a huge trend these days. Understandably, many people are looking for ways to get involved in global efforts to help solve important global problems. That urge to Do Something, once you’ve gotten a glimpse of the impossibly heavy weight of the world’s most complex issues, can be so strong.
But if you look closely at many voluntourism opportunities, red flags reveal themselves. Why would a developing country need untrained college students to come build schools, when there are plenty of local underemployed young men with experience in construction work?
Or even more harmfully, could this “orphanage” actually be a for-profit scam separating children from their families and keeping them out of school? Even if the kids are “real” orphans, what happens when vulnerable kids become emotionally attached to volunteers who drop in for a week and then disappear completely?
In almost all cases, you need to realize that volunteering abroad is actually a business. That doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing, or that you shouldn’t do it, but recognize this first: if you’re paying to “volunteer,” you’re being sold an experience. The voluntourism industry sells structured cultural exchange, a sense of purpose, and a respite from the guilt that comes with having been born into fortunate circumstances.
If you’re set on volunteering abroad, make sure you’re choosing a position that, at very least does no harm. Cultural exchange can be valuable on its own, for both sides. But also know that as an outsider it will be very difficult for you to understand the dynamics of the situation, and whether you might be doing more harm than good.
So think carefully before deciding to volunteer abroad, and start by asking yourself these questions:
- Why would they want me to do this work? Do I have skills that are hard to find locally?
- Would I be qualified to do this work (teach, build, provide health services) in my own country?
- Am I doing work that a local could be paid to do instead?
- Am I contributing to sustainable improvement in this community? The most effective volunteer work passes skills on to the local leaders and workers, who can carry the torch from there.
- Can I commit to a longer time period? Unless you’re a highly skilled expert it’s very hard to do effective work in a new environment in a few days. The most effective volunteer positions will be weeks or months.
- Can I avoid savior complex and not let it go to my head? Why am I really doing this?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from travel, it’s that issues like hunger, poverty, education, political stability, and infrastructure are all vastly more complicated than I used to think. They will eventually be solved by smart and experienced local experts, change at a systemic level, and plenty of time and organic evolution – NOT by well-meaning visitors.
Look deeper for cultural experiences.
Authentic cultural exchange is hugely valuable in my opinion, and one of the potential pathways through which the positive benefits of travel can offset the negatives. But true cultural exchange is not what most people think it is.
We all want “authentic” travel experiences. But the more of us show up, the less authentic it gets, and the more superficial it all becomes. It’s easy to get trapped in the cycle.
Cultural exchange is NOT a dinner and dance performance at a village with a gift shop that you visit with a guide. That is performance, and while it can be fun and interesting, if not run ethically it’s basically a human zoo.
Real cultural exchange is messy. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when someone just did something weird and you don’t understand why.
It’s when your Ugandan host thinks you’re unhappy because you wanted some “alone time” in a house where the large family is always together.
It’s trying to decode an invitation to dinner from someone of the opposite gender in Sudan, when you don’t know if hospitality or romantic interest is driving his behavior.
It’s struggling to answer, in the simplest English possible as you struggle to bridge language barriers, a question like “What would happen if someone from Sierra Leone went to America? Would he be rich?”
It’s trying to wrap your head around the fact that parts of your identity you’re really proud of – perhaps you feel free because you’re single and traveling alone – are seen as cause for pity by the people you meet.
Cultural exchange, to me, is all the mysteries and unanswered questions I bring home with me. It’s the awkward encounters, the vague discomfort of differing assumptions, the unresolved emotions of trying to discuss complex topics in a non-native language.
How do you find this kind of cultural exchange? Leave space for it. Wander away from where the tourists hang out. Sit next to locals on public transport. Go somewhere without any major “sights” and see what happens.
Depending on where you are, it may not happen immediately. But make a point of traveling like this for long enough and those “authentic” cultural experiences – while not always comfortable – will become part of your definition of travel.
Be informed about challenges past and present.
When visiting a place with a recent history of conflict or other challenges, I always feel it’s polite to be informed. Depending on the place and the history, it sometimes comes up in conversation with locals, and I want to show them I care enough to learn about the issues they face.
In Rwanda and Cambodia for example, it’s important to know that most older people you meet lived through a genocide. In Sierra Leone even younger people remember brutal civil war. In Sudan people were excited about their revolution but worried about fuel shortages.
One way to learn about difficult histories is to read books and memoirs by people who lived through them. And once you have a trip booked, keep an eye on international and local news sources for your destination so you can stay aware of their current events.
Pack a water purifier.
Let’s switch gears to sustainable travel for a minute. Traveling with a water purifier – instead of always buying disposable water bottles – is a small gesture that can really add up.
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, 1.4 billion people traveled internationally in 2018. If each of them bought one water bottle per day and traveled for, say, 7 days (both conservative estimates), that adds up to almost 10 billion plastic water bottles! We know it doesn’t all get recycled. So where on earth (literally) are we going to put all that trash?
I know, responsible travel alone isn’t going to fix our massive global trash problem. But that’s no reason to not do our part. When I travel to places where I can’t drink the tap water, I try as much as possible to purify my own drinking water from the tap and fill my reusable bottle with it. If I must buy bottles, I try to refill them several times before buying another. It’s a small and easy way to remind myself and others that it’s important to respect the planet.
Is it ok to fly?
Here’s the crux of sustainable travel: what about the carbon footprint of all those international flights? Is there any possible way to travel ethically when the very act of exploring the planet contributes to its destruction?
My answer reveals my own hypocrisy: no, I don’t think there’s a way to truly undo the harm we cause by flying places for fun. We can try to choose efficient airlines, buy carbon offsets, fly less often and stay in one destination longer. But ultimately, we are motivated by other factors and we accept a tradeoff.
I would like to think that when enough people experience other parts of the world in a thoughtful way, learning as much as they can and really trying to wrap their mind around what it means to share this planet, the benefits will outweigh the harm.
Perhaps the people who really “get it” will become part of the solution to our climate problems and a whole host of other global issues. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my own actions as a traveler.
In any case, if we are going to travel anyway despite the harm it does to the planet, we should make darn sure we’re maximizing the positive benefit of our journey, to ourselves as well as the people and places we visit. Which brings me back to why traveling respectfully and ethically is so important.
Be a respectful guest.
When I boil these tips down to their essence, it really seems to come down to respect: respect for the places and the people we visit. Everywhere we visit is someone’s home. We are inviting ourselves to be a guest there; they did not necessarily choose to invite us.
Do we visit with humility, curiosity, and an open mind and heart? Or do we go to check things off a list, add to our social resume, or elevate our own status?
I’m not perfect, and I know, sometimes it’s both. But we can all try to cultivate the respectful, mindful, curious side of our travel persona a little more. Perhaps along the way we’ll find the type of learning and growth that make the world, bit by bit, a better place for everyone.
More Travel Resources
If you’re a mindful traveler dreaming about your next trip, you might want to also check out these posts:
- Essential preparation checklist for travel abroad
- Lessons learned from getting malaria in West Africa
- Osprey Porter 46: the best carry-on travel backpack?
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