As I stood inside the rickety train, watching the countryside pass me by, my heart filled with joy, and then immediately sank. Here I was in Malaysian Borneo, riding the Sabah State Railway on my way to go white water rafting in the Padas River. My anticipation for adventure was curbed as I saw the juxtaposition of untouched, verdure forests with barren patches of bulldozers and heaping piles of logs. Garbage was scattered here and there, and plastic floated in the waters like belly-up fish.
Borneo possesses some of the world’s most distinctive geology and wildlife, and like so many other natural gems, it’s being taken over in the name of “progress.” It hit me at that point that, while I cannot change the course of globalization, industrialization, and deforestation, I can still make some sort of a difference. I can be a more cognizant world traveler, doing my best to contribute to communities and not adding to the trashing of the planet.
From that point on, I made the decision to be as responsible of a world traveler as possible. It’s a lofty goal, but the wellness of this earth and its inhabitants depend on it. Now, the word “responsible” is highly relative and embodies many different aspects. It relates to cultural awareness and sensitivity, pollution, human rights, animal welfare, conducting oneself properly, helping local economies, and not leaving behind an obnoxious footprint of waste. It’s quite overwhelming.
So, how can you become a more responsible traveler? In other words, how do you travel without being a total jerk? Here are a few simple tips that will reap manifold benefits:
1. Avoid plastic like the plague
Cheap, convenient, waterproof, and produced more rapidly than cockroaches spawn, plastic is an endemic pollutant that is slowly killing the world. Two years ago, it was estimated that the globe’s oceans contained 165 million tonsof plastic pollution. This translates into chemical imbalances in our waters, death or poisoning of marine animals, and human ingestion of toxics. And this doesn’t even touch on how many landfills are filled with the stuff.
So how can you stray from plastic when you’re told to drink bottled water, and people in regions such as Asia hand out plastic bags like campaign flyers? Easy. There are now products like the SteriPEN that uses UV to purify the murkiest of waters and allows you to evade Montezuma’s Revenge. When used in combination with a reusable water bottle, this majorly reduces the plastic waste you would produce from bottled water alone.
In terms of plastic bags, carry a reusable grocery bag around with you and politely decline the “Thank You” bags offered. You may get a few curious looks, but you will be cutting back on some serious waste and helping out the environment.
2. Familiarize yourself with a culture’s customs
Well before heading out on your trip, take some time to read up on the place you’re going to and its cultural nuances. With the amount of free information available on the internet, learning about a country couldn’t be easier. (Be aware of your sources, however, as accuracy varies from site to site. I’d recommend looking into the destination’s government tourist page or Lonely Planet.)
Language, religion, politics, and history are extremely important. Not only will this give you a basis of what to expect, it will open your eyes to more in-depth discovery when you are abroad. Plus, how embarrassing would it be to arrive in Saudi Arabia and think that they spoke, say, Hindi? Or to arrive in Indonesia gloating about how much you love Buddhism? Not only will you appear ignorant, but you will represent your country as being as such.
Take note of customs such as dress, interaction between males and females, appropriate public behavior, and hand signals. If you’re a female, for example, you don’t want to show up in a Muslim country, hair uncovered and with a bag of tank tops and shorts.
This is not only disrespectful of the culture, but you will automatically be shunned… or worse. If you respect a culture and abide by its code of ethics, you are likely to be welcomed warmly, and in return, get to know the culture on a deeper level. Hand signals are also very important, as they are an extension of language and communication. I learned the hard way that the “a-okay” hand sign in the United States means something altogether derogatory in Brazil.
3. Don’t give money to beggars
When coming face to face with extreme poverty, it may seem that you are helping the people by giving them money, but this actually drives the local population to increasingly turn toward begging as a means of income. It also allows the government to avoid facing their entrenched economic problems and creating more viable avenues of employment.
In countries like Bolivia, Latin America’s second poorest country, parents will cut off their children’s limbs in order to provoke sympathy and, in result, receive more money. This is obviously an unacceptable practice that impedes the future generation’s potential for self-sufficiency for the equivalent of a few pennies.
4. Think local, eat local, buy local
Many developing countries’ economies depend mainly on tourism. As such, when traveling to a foreign country, keep in mind the opportunities to contribute to their financial markets. The number one rule is to avoid all-inclusive packages. While it’s tempting to have everything taken care of- from accommodation to transportation to tours to food — think about who reaps the rewards. Most of the time, first-world Westerners have bought property in cheaper locations, and when they sell all-inclusive deals, the entirety of the profits return to them. Sure, these businesses may employ a handful of locals, but that is not contributing to the country’s overall economy.
While speaking to your travel agent, express your interest in supporting the local economy. Try to avoid major chains, like 7Eleven, McDonalds, TGI Fridays, and so on that only benefit big money. Patronizing these establishments only promotes the adverse effects of globalization and does nothing for the locals. Sure, it may be familiar and comfortable- but that’s not the reason you left your country. Support mom-and-pop shops, street food vendors, locally-owned restaurants, and native artisans. (When shopping for souvenirs, always look at the tags or bottoms of the product- many are made in China). It might not seem like a big deal to purchase one or two things produced or owned by another country, but to the local economy, it makes a huge difference.
5. Do your research
Many seemingly-irresistible attractions have left me oohing and awing at the exotic experiences that I have yet to experience. Why wouldn’t I want to pet a tiger? Ride an elephant? Take a photo with a monkey?
Well, for many reasons. As a responsible traveler, it is our responsibility to take all facets of a destination into consideration. And the truth is, mistreatment of animals is just as prevalent and damaging to a country’s ecological and economic health as is human exploitation. Behaviors such as prostitution, child labor, sweat shops, and so on, only reinforce a negative cycle of social and economic stratification within the country.
Likewise, using animals for financial gain is just as deplorable. It takes creatures out of the wild, disrupting the balance of the ecosystem, and causing irreparable damage to the individual being for the sake of human entertainment. It is destructive, appalling, and altogether unnecessary.
By researching the places you visit, you are able to make an educated decision as to whether a facility is educating the population about their regional fauna, or simply exploiting their animals for capital. For example, the Tiger Temple in Chiang Mai is promoted as a sanctuary for tigers.
However, their tigers are drugged with sedatives on a daily basis, allowing them to interact with guests in a calmer, camera-friendly state. For more information on responsible animal tourism, I’d suggest perusing Green Global Travel, Bemused Backpacker, or Care for the Wild International.
All in all, being a responsible traveler may seem a daunting task, especially for novice adventurers. This list is just skimming the surface, and there are many other topics I surely did not even touch upon. Nevertheless, my suggestions provide a basis from which the average traveler can reevaluate his or her own actions and behaviors while abroad.
The end goal is to strive to become a more aware, compassionate, and conscientious individual while getting to know the world. There is no perfect traveler, but we can each aim to improve ourselves in one way or another, thereby positively influencing and growing a sustainable world of exploration.
What do you think of these tips? Is there anything you would add in order to NOT be a jerk while traveling? Do you know of any quality research sources?
*Parts of this post originally appeared in TravelPulse.