Being a responsible traveler comes down to making conscious decisions. Here are ten choices you can make to improve the quality of your next trip and the quality of life for people in the places you visit.
Choose to educate yourself on your destination. And I’m not just talking about reading the history section in the Lonely Planet. What kind of government runs the country? What are the current environmental challenges for the region? While you’re there, read newspapers and engage locals in conversations. Sometimes you have to ask whether you should visit a place at all—Burma, for example, is a controversial destination since it can be difficult for travelers to avoid inadvertently supporting the oppressive military junta. You have to weigh that against the importance of spreading truthful accounts of traveling within the country’s borders and promoting the cause of the Burmese people.
Choose conscientious travel mates. If your travel buddies go heavy on the party and light on the political awareness, you’ll probably be boasting a beer gut instead of curiosity about local culture. But if you hitch your wagon to a crew that cares about the environment and sustainable living, you’ll be making conscious choices almost by default.
Choose to learn the local language. No one’s asking for fluency—especially when you’re in your seventh country on a round-the-world ticket—but mastering a few basics goes a long way in smoothing interpersonal relations. At the bare minimum, I always learn greetings, the terms for “please” and “thank you,” and numbers one through ten (plus variations for “hundred,” “thousand,” or whatever’s most useful for the local currency). Personal info vocab is also helpful (names, ages, interests), as is knowing how to pronounce the names of local dishes (and brews).
Choose alternative forms of transportation. Most trips revolve around planes, trains, and buses—choices that certainly produce less carbon emmissions than private jets and single passenger SUVs. But why not take it further? Hitchhiking, for example, produces zero additional pollution since your ride was already headed that way. Bicycling gets you closer to nature and sculpts killer calf muscles. And boats—of the sail and oar variety—carry you places no bus ever could.
Choose a new food every week. Ever tried crunchy cricket? How about stir-fried tarantula? Not only will you expand your palate with exotic munchies, you’ll also be supporting energy-efficient meals that cause less stress to the local environment than Western imports or recreations. You might even surprise yourself with the snacks you’ll want to take back home.
Choose locally owned businesses. This includes hotels, bars, tour operators, craft markets, and restaurants—and no, employing Chinese baristas at the Forbidden City Starbucks doesn’t count. It can be tough to avoid foreign-owned companies altogether, especially when some of the sweetest hostels and watering holes are run by ex-pats. But try we must if we want to inject the greatest percentage of our travel dollars directly into the local economy rather than the coffers of international interests.
Choose eco-conscious businesses. These days, when even Chevron claims to be going green, it takes extra effort to ferret out truly ethical organizations. This consideration has to go in tandem with the previous choice, since you can’t be sure that all locally owned practices take moral stances. For example, many elephant camps in Thailand use abusive training methods to break in their animals so they can be used on tourist treks and to perform tricks. Take the time to know before you go—which companies have proven track records of community spirit and progressive programs?
Choose appropriate clothing. I know Egypt’s climate has all the temperance of a sauna, but stripping down to crop tops and mini-shorts will only heat things up more. In many places, foreigners are given leeway to dress how they like. Still, it’s important to demonstrate respect for local culture—and you don’t have to don a hijab to do that. You’ll find people in nearly every country much more receptive when you’re relatively clean and moderately dressed. Buying regional clothing helps you blend in and might even give you new insight into a people’s lifestyle.
Choose to give back. Travel is a give-and-take experience, and it’s important that we as travelers don’t just lounge around on the taking end of things. Monetary donations are often welcomed by local NGOs, but there are plenty of opportunities for the fiscally lacking. Some people carve out a few months during their travels to volunteer; short-timers can spend a day with kids at an orphanage or pick up litter on the beach. Writing articles or blog posts about the places you’re visiting will help disseminate accurate information to people back home who would otherwise get their “facts” from Fox.
Choose kindness first and skepticism later. It’s easy to dismiss touts and beggars with a curt word and a view of the back of your head; much harder to recognize that they’re also fathers and husbands and daughters and wives, trying to support their families in a harsh economy. This doesn’t mean you have to fall for their wily ways or buy their crappy fake jewelry—only that compassion doesn’t cost a thing, and it will come back to you tenfold. Remember, karma doesn’t just count with the people you like. We’re all in this together.
A regular contributor to Matador, Jenny Williams, a former national soccer player, quit a job in book publishing to travel in the Middle East, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.