Ethical travel is about more than buying local, it’s also about our beliefs. So when you travel, make sure you think about the things you say.
When we travel, we often put a lot of consideration into what to pack, what we’ll do, and what we’ll eat once when we arrive at our destination. As ethical travel enters the vocabulary of many travelers, more and more people are thinking about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of their choices. Sustainable and responsible travel requires us to make critical shifts in the way we think about ourselves and the local communities we visit that extend beyond just buying locally or volunteering. Part of that shift is deconstructing the complaints we have as travelers and the beliefs they convey. To that end, here are seven things, in my experience, travelers should reconsider saying.
‘Local People Should Learn English; It’s the Universal Language’
As a local guide in the Dominican Republic, I’m keenly aware of the importance of being an ethical tourist. So when I travel, I think of myself as an uninvited (but mostly welcome) guest and act accordingly. I’d never dream of imposing my norms on my hosts regardless of what I brought to the table but I sometimes see other travelers who do, especially when it comes to language. Travel for leisure often has the unintended consequence of raising the cost of living for local people. When we force them to engage with us in a language we deem universal, it adds an extra expense to the cost of doing business: learning English. Though we might spend money during our travels, it doesn’t always translate into higher wages for local workers, so adding this expense forces our hosts to adjust to us, rather than the other way around and that isn’t right—we’re the visitors after all.
‘Local People Consider Tourists to Be Walking ATMs and Don’t See How Hard We Work to Be Able to Vacation Here’
For many, vacations are long-awaited breaks that are strategically planned out. At times, it can feel as if all the work we put in to save and cut back for the trip isn’t appreciated when we travel, and instead feel as though locals see us as walking money bags. However, this common complaint is based on the erroneous notion that tourists and locals share equal circumstances when we really don’t. It’s easy to forget that having the financial means to buy a plane ticket or cover potential visa costs is a privilege not granted to everyone. Though many of us may receive mandated paid vacation time off from our employers, locals living in the Global South aren’t granted that luxury. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the average monthly wage is around $200 a month. After basic cost of living expenses, there isn’t really any money left for travel. So, if this thought crosses your mind while you’re on your travels, just remember that you’re privileged to be there.
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‘If You Want an Authentic Experience, Stay Away From…’
Earlier this year, I decided to celebrate my 30th birthday in Italy. When I asked my close network for input on where to go, almost unanimously the responses were, “If you want an authentic Italian experience, stay away from Florence.” Authenticity during travel sounds like a simple request, but it relegates the people we visit into nothing more than extras in our very own vacation movie. With more travelers comes more development geared toward tourism, and in order to accommodate the influx of visitors, hotels and restaurants are built that move away from serving local communities. This can lead to pricing locals out of their own neighborhoods. Griping about authenticity removes agency from the people we visit—whose very real lives authentically belong to them. This also fails to acknowledge the role we have as tourists in the changes we see in the places we travel to.
‘Why Should I Pay More Just Because I’m a Tourist? It’s Not Fair!’
One surefire way to sour a shopping experience is getting charged the dreaded tourist tax. In a perfect world, everyone would pay the same amount for any given thing, but because the travel industry is far from perfect, the reality is a lot more complicated. The fact is, as travelers, we’re already paying more, especially in the Global South. We pay more for accommodations and flights than many locals earn in a month—or even an entire year. When we factor in the economic impact of our very presence in these spaces, paying a few extra dollars for goods as visitors helps to balance the scales towards equity by putting money directly into the hands of local artisans and vendors. Travelers get to bring something unique to cherish home to friends or family, and locals get to reap some of the often hard-to-reach benefits of tourism.
‘I’ve Lived Here for So Long/Visited so Frequently, I’m Basically a Local’
Some places capture our wandering hearts so much, we go back again and again or even decide to put down roots. We gather insider knowledge on the best places to eat, go shopping, or see sights without ridiculous crowds. Maybe we assimilate to the culture and learn to order food in the language, but as “at home” as we may feel calling ourselves “locals,” here’s the simple truth: should disaster strike or the going gets tough, we can leave. We can always go back to our respective countries of origin, but for the locals, the place remains their home. In today’s political climate, lots of Western folk talk of leaving increasingly intolerant countries to settle somewhere new, but for immigrants, no amount of learning the language or attempting to assimilate will ease the discomfort of knowing that they wouldn’t truly belong.
‘The Locals Are so Happy Despite Having so Little.’
Months ago, a young woman fresh out of a relationship decided to come down to Cabarete, Dominican Republic for a month-long yoga retreat. By the end of her vacation, she raved about how happy all the locals were despite having so little in the way of material comforts. This sounds fine and maybe true enough, except it perpetuates the myth of the noble savage. Local people walk a very thin line in the presence of tourists. We must be grateful and humble without speaking to our circumstances in case we’re accused of trying to get money from foreigners, and so we smile. After we’re done working, many of us return home to deal with the aftermath of electrical outages and water shortages. Just as waitstaff at a restaurant are expected to leave their bad mood at the door and greet their customers amicably, when you live in a tourist destination, it’s almost like you’re constantly serving tourists.
‘Local People Should Really Respect Us as Tourists Because, Without Our Money, Their Economy Would Collapse’
It’s easy to get frustrated as travelers—harsh weather changes, language barriers, and different customs can leave us feeling drained and irritable. Once we arrive at a destination to break away from routine and treat ourselves, we would feel miffed if we weren’t treated with respect. But this sentiment signals a belief that money somehow buys us respect. On the flip side, it means those without it aren’t deserving of the same basic treatment. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry and all over the world, countries open their doors to travelers every year. However, many of the world’s most popular visitor hubs are still dealing with crushing poverty, and there seems to be a disconnect that keeps money from getting into local hands. We respect one another because it’s the correct thing to do; demanding it because of how much money we spent (that isn’t necessarily going to the people we’re demanding respect from) is definitely not something any traveler should ever say.