How not to be an asshole tourist
More people than ever are traveling now. There’s a downside to that.
This one has been a long time coming.
Yes, there have been ignorant tourists for as long as people have been roaming the damn earth. But (is it just me?) it feels like we are approaching some sort of critical mass.
Travel has never been cheaper - and more people than ever are logging thousands of transcontinental miles for under US$500, or on points.
Is this a great thing? Hell yes! It’s the entire point of this website. I love encouraging people to travel. There is nothing that will do more for your experience on this planet as a human quite like having your bubble burst by acute culture shock. In fact, I think it’s a necessary part of being able to see eye-to-eye, to view each other as humans despite our differences. Travel is kryptonite to xenophobia and whatever fearful ideas lead to terrorism and war.
Plus, I was tired of people looking at me aghast when I told them I had a demanding salaried office job, with just 2 weeks of vacation per year, yet had managed to go to 3-4 countries in that time. So I wrote a thing, and people liked it, and I kept writing, and here we are.
But there’s a downside to the democratization of travel, too.
Popular destinations are so overridden with tourists that governments are stepping in to curb the effects.
In 1,000 years when archaeologists dig through our steaming, fossilized trash piles, they will pull out hoards of broken, rusted-out selfie sticks.
If we succeed in archiving and preserving the Internet long after our own planetary self-destruction, there will be billions of perfectly, beautifully composed and aesthetically pleasing, but entirely sterile and meaningless Instagram profiles for alien life forms to comb through for clues about our values as a species.
There is no right way to travel, and there is no right way to document your travels, should you choose to.
(Though if you managed to photograph your actual destination without treating it like just an interesting backdrop for your fashion shoot, we’d all be cool with it. I’m looking at you, fellow white women.)
But there is a code of ethics that we should follow, if we want to actually get the most out of the money and time we invest in travel, while being respectable human beings.
I’ve traveled a decent amount over the years, and I’ve wandered into a variety of cultures that come with rules quite different than the ones I follow at home. I am not an anthropologist, and I do not intimately know the ins and outs of any of them. I’m just like you, a person with a very busy and full life at home, who barely manages to squeeze in a few weeks of travel per year. A person who almost doesn’t even have time to plan her trip before she boards, other than frantically booking some flights and hotels.
Yet I still manage, most of the time, to not fuck it up. (To the best of my knowledge, anyway.) How?
Empathy. Doing even just the tiniest bit of research before I arrive. Trying, even a little. Understanding that when I travel to see the world, I am a guest in it. That the world is not my playground for a vacation, unless I’m holing up poolside at an all-inclusive resort, in which case it’s still pretty easy to get away with not turning into the subject of acerbic gossip in the staff break room.
The thing is, it’s actually really easy to avoid being an ignorant dickwad when you travel. Yet, here we are. It still happens.
So let’s spell it out for the folks in the back, shall we?
1. Attempt the language.
Hello, good-bye, please, thank you, you’re welcome, where is the bathroom.
It doesn't take much! If you’re approaching someone for help it’s always better to try to speak their language than to ask (even in their language) if they speak yours. They'll figure out that you're not a native speaker from your butchered accent anyway. And if they don’t speak English, they will either answer your question to varying degrees of your ability to understand it (just follow their hand gestures), or help you find someone who does. Win-win!
But ask them right away if they can speak English, and you may be met with a brush-off or even palpable rudeness, depending on how many tourists your destination sees. Think about it. If you consistently had even 1-2 people approach you on the street in Denver every single day asking if you speak Portuguese, how would you react by day 110? 1,100? 11,000?
2. Learn about the culture.
To be clear, I am really talking about the 101 level here. Traveling to the Middle East as a woman? Figure out just how covered up you need to be in the countries you’re visiting (it differs, like, a lot!). Going to Japan? They do things a bit different there than they do in, say, Colombia.
Generally speaking, learn about the customs for greeting people, for giving and accepting gifts (did you know that if you compliment someone on something in certain cultures, they are then obligated to give you that thing? Yeah...), and other situations you might find yourself in should you be so lucky as to interact that much with locals. This is all readily available on the Internet.
3. Leave the selfie sticks at home.
Better yet, break them in half over your knee and throw them in the recycling bin.
4. Don't treat every destination like your own personal Instagram model fashion shoot.
Look, I take photos of myself on vacation too. I would never tell people not to. That’s cool!
But there is a next level to this (the portal can be found here) that's not only obnoxious to those around you in the moment, but also seeps through in the photos to those who have to look at them later. Deep down, you probably know where the having fun/being a narcissist line is. Resist the temptation to cross it. Your Instagram boyfriend could use a break, anyway.
Take pictures of the cool stuff you see, not just yourself. And on that note, make sure you are actually seeing the stuff you photograph, too.
5. Pack light.
This is mostly so you don’t feel like an ass, because there is nothing that will kill a wanderlusty, look-at-me-I’m-a-citizen-of-the-world travel vibe faster than realizing you grossly overpacked and are totally that tourist right now.
It’s also so you don’t wake me up in my Airbnb as you lug half your wardrobe incredibly loudly across ancient cobblestone streets at 5am while you dash to catch your early flight. I’ve already harped on this one, so I’ll let you catch up here:
6. Roll with the punches and don't expect everything to go smoothly.
This can be a tough one for people from countries where things generally run on time. Or, where the expected thing happens and if it doesn’t, there is hell to pay from a customer service representative. (One of the things I genuinely love about life in the US, all joking aside!)
But other countries do not always do things this way. Sometimes, things are late! Sometimes, things are always late! Sometimes, things don’t show up at all. Sometimes, the customer service person is genuinely baffled at your surprise at these developments.
These are cultural differences that can be truly frustrating to any traveler. I’ve totally, 100% been there. But the key to winning in these situations is to go into your trip expecting something to go wrong. It’s only your expectations that have caused you pain here! If you knew shit would go haywire, you'd have felt more emotionally prepared when it did.
Most of the time, things don’t go disastrously wrong. But sometimes the little stuff can snowball into real frustration, even for experienced travelers. Just keep in mind that these differences are why you're traveling. The good, and the bad. If you wanted everything to be like it is at home, you should have gone to Key West instead of Cuba.
Just savor it all for the story you’ll tell later, and you’ll be just fine.
7. Don’t be too demanding of the locals.
Not every catamaran cruise is going to be the Four Seasons. Not every experience will be totally comfortable, even if you thought you were doing something luxurious. This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Expect less, experience more.
8. Try the local food!
I asked a few friends on the internet to weigh in on the advice of this article, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and they thought of one I hadn’t.
“I can’t tell you how many people I know who are scared of local cuisine and only eat at pizza places or fast food chains when they travel abroad."
When I read this, I reflexively reached for my ears to start removing earrings to fight someone. I forgot this was a thing people did, because 98% of the reason I travel is to eat my weight in the food of the place I’m going. It’s maybe the best thing about traveling! Eat the damn food of the country you’re visiting. Jesus H. Christ.
9. Be mindful of your privilege.
Chances are, you’re lucky as hell to be able to travel to the place you’re going. To have the money, much less the time, to go abroad - even if you don’t feel all that lucky. Maybe you found a way to afford this one trip, but you’re also suffocating under mountains of student debt, and won’t be able to do it again for a long while. I get you!
But there is another layer here that you need to peel back, just to make sure you are being a truly chill human being as you go about this grand once-in-a-lifetime-trip of yours.
You don’t have to travel to a third-world country to be surrounded by people who are way, way less fortunate than you. And you don’t have to live an opulent lifestyle to unintentionally appear insensitive to a local - whether it’s your waiter, or hotel staff, or any another tourism role that helps make your trip happen.
There’s a very good chance that you enjoy a great deal more privilege than the people you will come into contact with on your trip. That’s the case even if you’re chatting freely with them, and you feel like you’re totally on the same page with them, sharing common interests and views. So even when you’re speaking to other tourists, be mindful of what you say about your experience, because you will likely be overheard.
I’m not saying to avoid interesting, honest discourse with locals or tourists. Just be careful of how you may sound to others who hear you from a completely different vantage point. If you were to go on and on, for example, about how different your destination seems from your own country, from your own life, you may only be highlighting a great class divide, and that’s awkward af.
And really, there’s nothing that will get you pegged as an asshole tourist faster than that kind of behavior. How embarrassing.
(And it should go without saying - absolutely never ridicule or insult local destinations in earshot of, well, anyone.)
Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. Be open. Be mindful.
And there you have it.
Go see the world.
And tell ‘em I sent you.
Spread the word. Pin this.