Travel Ethically, Travel Well: 5 Ways To Respect Others When You Go Abroad

From a young age, I dreamed of a life of international travel. In many ways, travel was my first love. It prompted me to quickly consume as much information as I possibly could about the world around me, to constantly change for the better so I could become smarter, stronger, and more capable to do what? Travel of course. It got to a point where I had to ask myself, why do I even care, what is it that I like so much about this?  Which lead me to my next love: a love of life, of other people, and of the human experience.

But this love is much more complicated. When you feel connected to the human race, you also feel responsible for the incredible amount of pain so many individuals face at the hands of greed, ignorance, and recalcitrance. You feel aware of your own privileges to do something about this, and don’t want to squander your possession of a voice, which has power to advocate and fight for others so that they can be heard too.

People are so wonderful and amazing!!! (of course I asked these women if they would be comfortable with their photo online before taking the shot-- they were very excited about it)
People are so wonderful and amazing!!! (of course I asked these women if they would be comfortable with their photo online before taking the shot- they were very excited about it)

Then traveling can feel selfish, and even downright harmful. To be an honest ethical individual I must then ask myself hard questions about my life long passion and path: Is this worth my time, efforts, money, health, and energy? Does this genuinely help make the world a better place? Does it make me a better person?

If you are one affected by wanderlust then you have surely seen quotations which praise travel for it’s ability to expand personal horizons and squash prejudices in their tracks. But is a change of scenery enough to make us ethical people? Enough to make us forget the harmful stereotypes and one-sided perspectives that have been born and bred in us from day 1?

Travel can certainly open the door to deeper feelings of empathy and global human connectedness, but as we open this door we often hit many innocent people along the way. Travel alone does not and cannot act as an antidote to oppressive behavior. However, it can act as a powerful catalyst for diplomacy and change when paired with mindfulness, self-reflexivity, and intentions deeply based in ethics, which embrace humanism and social justice.

Below are 5 ways that all those who are interested in travel can better respect those peoples which we go to such great lengths to admire.

Bridge the Language Barrier with Patience and Respect

When traveling abroad it can be easy to become frustrated by language barriers. You’re tired, in a rush, and feel like you are going in circles so you snap at the innocent citizen who you’re asking for help. Remember that you chose to come to a country where people speak a language different from your own. Come into the experience expecting frustration and remind yourself to be present whenever you feel impatient. Laugh at yourself and the situation. Keep a language guide with you, and study some phrases before hand.  If you’re in the country for an extended period, try picking up a new language! Always remember: just because a person does not speak your native language does not mean that they are stupid.

Just because I hit travel rock bottom, does not give me an excuse to bring other people down with me.

Think Twice Before Using Your Camera

We get it. Nonwestern clothing looks really cool. But that does not mean that it’s okay to get your camera all up in the face of a random pedestrian, street hawker, or cute little kid. When in doubt ask yourself how it would make you feel and then respectfully ask permission.

Poverty is Not Your Eye-Sore or Your Fantasy

It’s difficult to not have high hopes and expectations of a place before you go. Movies and other types of media influence our perceptions of places we could only imagine before, and now will actually see. But places don’t exist for spectators and movies will almost always tell an embellished story. Many travelers, when faced with poverty that they were not expecting to see, cringe internally and come away from the experience with criticisms of a country like “the people smell” or “the city is dirty.” These criticisms play into negative stereotypes that do not take into account a history of oppression, whether it be colonial or corporate.

The inverse can also be true. We often use traveling as a way to experience something different. But when a country is not the type of different we expected it to be we feel like we’re not getting our money’s worth. This happened to me when I was traveling through Morocco. A native Moroccan that I was staying with told me he would take me to the best kebab place. Of course, I got my hopes up that I’d soon be eating kebab in some seedy back corner cafe surrounded by locals, but instead he ended taking me to a restaurant in a packed shopping mall. Internally I threw a little temper tantrum, I was in Morocco for a limited time and I wanted to go to a real Moroccan place. But I was wrong. I was in a real Moroccan place and I was surrounded by locals, even if it wasn’t the real Morocco that I expected to see.

This popular ice skating rink in a shopping mall in Rabat is a part of
This popular ice skating rink in a shopping mall in Rabat is a part of “Moroccan life,” as are old medinas.

Make Personal Efforts in the Cultural Exchange Process

While learning about new cultures is not everyone’s first priority when traveling abroad, many of us do want to leave the experience with a deepened cultural perspective. That being said, while many native citizens are excited and more than willing to educate foreigners about their customs and history, it is not their sole responsibility to do so. Reading a few pieces of literature from popular native writers as well as some books about the local religion, food, history, and so on can truly deepen a travel experience and give you a great starting point with which to engage the locals you meet along the way. Making an effort to learn on your own shows others that you desire to move beyond shallow tourism and toward an authentic cultural exchange.

On a trek through the Peruvian Andes, this guide and I really bonded over the fact that I had learned about the native Incan language Quechua through reading literature from the popular Peruvian author Jose Maria Arguedas.

Educate Yourself on the Impacts of Voluntourism

So now that you’ve read this article and are fully committed to becoming a more ethical traveler you might as well go all in and sign up for some voluntourism right? Think again. Voluntourism is often criticized for creating more problems then it solves, which makes sense considering the issues this world faces are much more complex then a two week or a summer stay can accomplish. Even though these travelers might mean well, voluntourism contributes to damaging white savior mentalities which implicitly state that poverty is a spectacle which outsiders are entitled to enter into at any time, and that the only thing stopping issues from being fixed is a lack of local leadership.

If you would like to productively make use of your time in another country, embrace your outsider status and teach English (or another language which might be in high demand). Consider this teaching a man to fish; teaching English allows others access to a useful skill (in today’s marketplace), which will help aid them in benefiting their own communities long after you’re gone.

What are some ways that you respect other cultures when you travel?

9 thoughts on “Travel Ethically, Travel Well: 5 Ways To Respect Others When You Go Abroad

  1. interesant. the part of the camera, some body told me that travelling in Colombia in some part of the Pacific coast the villagers are some kind of pissed of with this practice. youngsters thinks that the world and its habitants and every thing they see is theirs and digital cameras and comunication has empowered i dont now why this misconception of things.
    good thoughts on travelling ethics. its all about respect.

    1. I think there are real entitlement issues and Western people have cognitive dissonance when it comes to treating people from different socioeconomiccultural brackets like human beings. Thanks for reading!

  2. Totally agree with these thoughts, I constantly carry a language card around with me when travelling through a non-English speaking country, often I just tear out the language section of the lonely planet and keep it in my pocket. You make a good point with the cameras as well, it’s like everyone who owns a camera these days thinks they are a Nat Geo photographer and can take photos of anyone no matter what the situation.

    1. Tommy, first of thanks for visiting and reading, I really appreciate it! Also, thanks for being the change too and trying to be mindful of other people when you travel, it is so important!

  3. This: Poverty is Not Your Eye-Sore or Your Fantasy and
    This: Educate Yourself on the Impacts of Voluntourism

    I wholeheartedly agree! When in Ghana, this was exactly what I was trying to say to some who were with me and had the ‘oh poor them..look how poor they are mentality’ and the ‘oh poor them, it is up to us to go in and save them’. I feel that when we look at others as ‘impoverished’ it is a condescending point of view. Anyway…I really couldn’t express my feelings about it all eloquently. You, my dear, did a superb job.

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