I was just about to close my computer when I came across this article listing the twelve places you shouldn’t visit in 2018. Intrigued by the headline and never one to blow past something travel-related, I clicked the link. I was expecting either a list of “overrated” tourist traps or a tongue-in-cheek article about the year’s must-sees, but what I found was an eye-opening look into the stresses currently being suffered by some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Some of these responsible tourism issues were familiar to me, such as the risks to Machu Picchu. Others, however, were new, like Venice’s population plummet and the anti-tourism sentiment in Barcelona.
I have personally visited two of the locations mentioned in the article, and it’s safe to say that each of the others is somewhere on my lengthy “Places to Travel” list. While reading, I began to reflect on the eternal question of what it means to be a respectful visitor in a land that is not your own.
What responsibilities do we have as tourists? Having sacrificed time, effort, and money in the expectation of a certain experience, what rights, if any, do we have to it? To whom do the wonders of the world truly belong, and who should be allowed to be awed by them? And finally, what is the perfect balance between infusing beneficial tourist dollars and the protection of local people and places?
These are not easy questions to answer, and I’ve been wrestling with them since I began prioritizing travel in my life. Although I work hard to be socially conscious and respectful when away from home, I don’t always get it right. I’ve made lots of mistakes due to well-intentioned ignorance or a misunderstanding of local social norms.
I will also admit that, on occasion, I have felt that twinge of selfish desire to just ignore the rules. I want to experience the vista from that forbidden viewpoint, visit the site that’s under threat, or stray from the path to find a secluded piece of paradise. Wouldn’t it just be easier and more fulfilling to pretend I didn’t know better? After all, what’s just one person? Surely I won’t cause any harm, I tell myself. I’ll be very careful. And I did come all this way…
Unfortunately, though, I’m not just one person. I may not have been the idiot who severely damaged an Icelandic hillside by carving “send nudes” into it or the selfie-seeker who destroyed up to $200,000 of art, but even a small step from the path of respect and obedience to local laws and customs has an impact. My footfall could cause irreparable harm to a fragile ecosystem. The photo I upload to Instagram could encourage later travelers to leave the path to seek the same vista. Each conscious, “just one person” choice compounds the problem.
It’s also possible to do harm without having any negative intent at all. Thousands of people visit Machu Picchu every day, and their collective weight is causing stress to the ancient structures. (Guilty there.) A driving circuit of Scotland’s Isle of Skye is unforgettable, but it also contributes to residents’ growing traffic frustrations. (Also guilty.) An overseas volunteering trip may have had an unintended negative impact on the local populations we had come to help. (I hope I am not guilty of doing any harm in my NGO work abroad, but the subject of service/mission trips and so-called “voluntourism” is a complex and delicate one which we will revisit another time.)
To be fair, it can be difficult to fully grasp a situation or your own impact on it until you’re actually there. I didn’t realize the full extent of the pressure that Iceland’s tourism boom was having on its citizens and fragile ecosystems until after we arrived and began having conversations about it with actual Icelanders.
Other times, you may have done something that was completely acceptable in that moment but has since been revealed to be ill-advised. For example, I thought I was being very socially conscious by eschewing Thailand’s Tiger Temple due to reports of abuse and drugging of the cats. Within that same week, however, I willingly and excitedly took part in an elephant ride while on an overnight trek outside Chiang Mai. Years later, as I learned more about the plight of captive elephants in Southeast Asia, I regretted our decision and resolved that that would be my last elephant ride.
So, with all that in mind, what can we do to be more conscious, respectful, and helpful travelers? In my experience, there are three major steps we can take:
1.) Understand the pressures faced by the place you want to visit and consider alternative plans.
Take the message of Minihane’s article to heart. Weigh your desire to see a particular place against the potential negative impact of you being there. Is it worth it? Major tourist hubs are often popular for a reason; there’s no denying the historical gravitas of Rome, the splendor of the Serengeti, or the magnetic draw of China’s Great Wall. But, as Minihane notes in his article, there are often alternatives that can awe and thrill you in much the same way. It may not be the exact Instagram photograph you dreamed about, but it could be much, much better: more beautiful, less crowded, and less negatively impacted by human traffic.
I am also a big fan of off-season travel, which allows you to achieve the double whammy of enjoying a place without its high season hordes and avoiding contributing to high season pressures. Traveling off-season doesn’t mean that you’re forced to slog through London in the middle of January when it’s at its coldest and wettest (although would be plenty of fun things to do if you did!). There are plenty of months when the crowds die down but it is still incredibly pleasant to be abroad. M and I went to the Czech Republic and Hungary in mid-October and loved how gorgeous and colorful the landscapes were in their autumnal glory. Consider visiting a place off-season for its own benefit… and yours.
2.) Pay attention to local attitudes, and be respectful.
One of the most difficult guests I ever had on my Alaska tours was a European woman who was so hostile and disruptive that I finally had to confront her about her treatment of hotel and service staff and the effect her actions were having on her fellow tour members. Her justification for her behavior was that she had paid a lot of money to get to Alaska, much more so (she thought) than the American and Canadian guests had. “They can come any time they’d like,” she told me. “For me, this is once in a lifetime.”
Inaccuracy of that statement aside, I share this story as an example of the entitlement that we can feel when we arrive in a place. We have made sacrifices to get there, sometimes significant ones. As a result, we feel pressure to not be disappointed. We don’t want to be told that we can’t or shouldn’t do something, especially when that something may have been the whole reason we traveled in the first place. It is incredibly important in times like these to remember that we are actually entitled to very little, and that the rights and preferences of resident populations will and should almost always supersede our own.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t respectfully speak up if you feel you’ve been cheated or treated poorly, or if you haven’t received something for which you paid. I am, however, encouraging you to be aware of the impact of your actions and behaviors. If you’re visiting a place like Barcelona that has a tenuous relationship with foreign tourists, go out of your way to be kind, gracious, and respectful, especially if confronted with antagonism.
Pay attention to how the people around you conduct themselves, particularly toward tourists and strangers, and try to match their level of extroversion. Obey posted signs. Be aware of social norms and faux pas, as actions that are a normal part of your day-to-day life may come across differently in another culture. For example, showing the bottom of your shoe is incredibly offensive in the Middle East, and I was terribly embarrassed when a Brazilian man explained to me what the “are you ok?” hand signal I’d just flashed at a friend meant in Rio.
You will undoubtedly encounter scores of warm, hospitable, generous locals on your travels. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and friendliness of strangers who have done everything from helping me get in contact with my parents after a natural disaster to inviting me into their home for a meal after ten minutes of conversation. Leaving a path of goodwill behind you will not only help to ensure that you will have as positive an experience as possible, but also that you won’t be leaving the people you’ve encountered more jaded about tourists than before you arrived.
3.) Eat, shop, and stay locally.
Many travelers, myself included, have a keen desire to get off the so-called “beaten path.” We want to be away from the crowds, to find the hidden gems, to understand a culture on a personal level, to eat in local haunts rather than restaurants manufactured for tourists, and to feel like we’ve had a unique and authentic experience.
When done well, this can be a boon for host economies. By choosing to eat, stay, and shop with small businesses, you help to ensure that your money is reaching and impacting your host community. Lodge in a family-run guesthouse rather than an international chain hotel, for example, and you invest locally rather than sending the payment overseas to a multinational brand. Focusing on small establishments can save you money, as well, as you can often avoid inflated prices aimed at catching tourists.
You’ll notice that Minihane references cruise liners as a pain point multiple times, and that some destinations such as Dubrovnik are actually cutting back on the number of ships allowed to port there. While I’m not generally opposed to cruising – M and I honeymooned with Celebrity, and I worked for another cruise line right out of college – it is the most obvious and widespread example of tourism influx that doesn’t always pay off for port communities.
There are many good reasons to take a cruise, but one of the major negatives is that so little of the money spent by cruise tourists actually reaches and stays within the economies of port cities. With so few hours in port, travelers often are unable or unwilling to make their way outside of tourist-focused areas to spend money at locally-owned restaurants, shops, or tour operators.
As a passenger, you can combat this by booking your tours and excursions separately through local outfits rather than through the cruise line. You may end up going with the same tour company that the ship uses for the same price, but you’ll ensure that the commission that would have gone to the cruise line stays with the tour purveyors. M and I also tried to move away from high-traffic areas when searching for places to eat and found some excellent hole-in-the-wall restaurants with a more laid back and authentic flavor.
None of us, and no situation, is perfect, but a little awareness and conscientiousness can go a long way toward creating a great vacation experience and fostering goodwill in the areas that you visit.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject in the comments, particularly what it means to you to be a respectful tourist. Is this something you’ve considered before? Did Minihane’s article make you see any destination or aspect of travel in a different light? Let me know what you think!
What challenges do you face when trying to be a respectful tourist?
What steps do you take to leave your destination better than when you arrived?
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This article on responsible tourism was originally posted on February 26, 2018, and last updated on March 1, 2021.
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