One might think carving your name on the Colosseum or posting graffiti in America’s national parks might be inappropriate vacation activities, but these are real things that real tourists have done—and they’re hardly the end of the list of egregious decisions tourists have made over the years. Indeed, tourists have come a long way since the United Nations declared 1967 the International Year of the Tourist—and not always for the better.
With approximately a billion tourists traversing the globe, many natural, cultural, and historical sites have become threatened by frequent—and at times destructive—visitation. While recent trends suggest today’s tourists are more likely to prioritize environmental sustainability and social responsibility (and that’s good news), the future of tourism lies with the choices we all make as individual travelers. Here’s how to be respectful everywhere you go.
Do some research.
Before traveling anywhere, read up on local customs including expectations for dress, bargaining, tipping, public displays of affection, and offensive gestures. Also develop a sense for the area’s geography, currency, language and dialects, and major cities and towns. Not only will it be easier to navigate a new place, but it’ll demonstrate that you cared enough to invest in learning about the region.
Don’t be the person ordering room service or grabbing a Big Mac when there’s a new world of culinary adventures to be explored. Presumably, you traveled to a place for a reason—so get out there and see what it has to offer. Whether savoring Scottish cuisine or eating out in Shanghai, valuing local foods (and arts, crafts, and customs) is a great way to express appreciation for a foreign land. As an added bonus, your money will go directly toward sustaining local people and establishments.
Remember that people are people.
Sure, some people may not look, dress, talk, or act exactly the same as you—but humans are humans everywhere in the world. That means it’s inappropriate to treat anyone like a sightseeing object or fodder for Instagram. Don’t stare at locals, don’t take photos without people’s consent, and try to keep an open mind.
Take the “sustainable tourism pledge.”
Created by the World Monuments Fund, the pledge asks travelers to commit to responsible tourism through actions such as conserving natural resources, visiting lesser-known attractions, offsetting their carbon footprints, leaving things as they’re found, volunteering, and educating friends and family about responsible tourism.
Learn some of the local language.
Even knowing a few basic words or questions (“Where is the nearest bathroom?” is always handy) can signal that you care enough to make an effort to meet people where they are. When talking in any language, be sure to speak quietly, kindly, and without judgment.
Mind your surroundings.
Don’t peruse a city map in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, don’t block a street vendor loaded up with fruit, and don’t take 15 minutes to place a food order in front of a line of hungry locals on their lunch break. Be mindful of other people and try to stay out of the way of people going about their daily routines.
Keep politics at home.
While our travel habits may say something about our political affiliations, it’s best to be subtle about politics abroad. You may not agree with local customs or religious beliefs, and that’s fine. But remember these things may be very important to people, and it’s worth showing respect for that reason alone. This goes doubly at holy sites—turn cell phones off, speak quietly (or not at all), and aim to be as discreet as possible.
Own that you’re a tourist.
There’s no need to pretend to be a seasoned expat when you’re just passing through. It’s perfectly okay to be a tourist. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything about a place and seeking input from people who live there can open up opportunities for connections and give the inside scoop on what places to visit when. Humility may also save you from being pranked by locals, as in these lies Londoners tell tourists.
Don’t assume that merely possessing a modicum of common sense automatically makes for a respectful tourist (although it certainly helps). Instead, keep these strategies front of mind while planning a trip and adventuring around the world. We all have a part to play in preserving environmental, cultural, and historical heritage for generations to come. Take responsibility for yours.
- Research your destination before you go
- Support local restaurants, artists, craftspeople, and shops
- Learn some of the local language
- Keep an open mind
- Take the Sustainable Tourism Pledge (and stick to it)
- Bring politics abroad
- Treat locals like sightseeing objects
- Pretend to be an expert on a place that’s new to you
- Interfere with locals’ comings and goings
- Leave behind trash, graffiti, or other evidence of your stay
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