Being the “best” type of tourist really boils down to one major theme:
The three main components of responsible tourism are respecting the environment, respecting the people, and respecting the culture. In Cape Town in 2002, it was officially defined by the International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations in the Cape Town Declaration.
Why is Responsible Tourism So Important?
Responsible tourism is like when you live in an apartment with roommates, you’re allowed to do whatever you want in your own space as long as the common area is looked after, and you respect the spaces of your roommate with the rules of their space. We wouldn’t barge in unannounced, flop onto the bed with muddy shoes on the duvet, telling them that cool poster would look better in our room. When we explore this planet (and someday others!), we need to take it upon ourselves to remember how to be respectful of our surroundings, our fellow people, and their unique cultures.
The Tourist’s Environment
By respecting the environment, I mean a few different things. First of all, and most importantly, is the literal environment! It feels almost redundant to remind people to dispose of waste properly and to enjoy wildlife from a distance, but it isn’t as silly to remind ourselves to turn off the tap while we brush our teeth in an area that has problems with water accessibility. Remembering to turn off the lights when we leave a room or choosing to reuse materials (effectively and safely) are things we can easily practice at home, and bring with us to places where this is the expectation.
Respecting the environment (in the realm of responsible tourism) also means respecting landmarks. It can be tempting to want to take a selfie for Instagram in every single place you go, but is it appropriate at a Holocaust memorial? Definitely not. Are we finding ourselves carving our initials into a picnic table? There are better ways to memorialize a trip. In the world of outdoor recreation, we use the term “Leave No Trace” to remind ourselves how to respect the environment, and you can read all about it here. (Another interesting article about the origin of the phrase and of the non-profit can be found here.) When touring a city, I find that it’s similar, but there are more exceptions. If there is a guest book to sign, or another cool way of leaving your “mark,” given that it is acceptable or permission is explicitly given, like the Lennon Wall in Prague, go for it!
The People We Meet
To respect others, we can recognize two primary groups of people we meet in our adventures. One group is our fellow tourists, and the other consists of people that live in the area. Tourists come from all corners of the world: some with languages and mannerisms that we are familiar with, and some that we are not. Some are here for just the day, and some are here for a while. Some have been researching this place for years, while some happened upon it by accident. Some people love making new friends, and others are here to be free of social interaction obligations. Wherever in life (and in the world) they come from, let’s give them the respect they deserve.
When in another place, it’s important to be mindful; we are visiting their home. This includes the workers, the people running errands, the kids at the playground, the people grabbing lunch during their break; it includes everyone living in that place. It also includes the people that you don’t see in the more popular areas, those who are specifically avoiding “the tourists.” Sadly, I don’t blame them. Hell, I am them! It’s incredibly frustrating to be trying to get a coffee at my usual spot, only to be interrupted by tourists being rude to anyone who doesn’t speak their language. This disrupts not only the people who are working there (imagine being yelled at for not speaking a foreign language…in that language), but also the people who are local customers, people just enjoying their daily routine. Being mindful that we are visitors is the first (and biggest!) step to respecting those around us while we travel. Let’s work together to change that particular status quo, shall we? I believe in us.
So how do we respect the culture of a place we are visiting? Start by doing a little research. Go online, read a book, or head over to a museum and check out the resources they offer. Learn about the culture and some of the history to get an idea of what has happened in this place. Take that information, and go ask someone about it. Really listen to what they tell you about indigenous struggles, about inter-generational friendships, about traditional music, about the details of the place that they call home. As visitors, the most respectful thing we can do is to listen to what local people are saying, to try to understand what they feel is important to them, and how to adapt centuries-old traditions to modern-day life. We may see a piece of calligraphy as a beautiful work of art, but in a particular culture it is a marriage contract. Or we might think a cute headband would go perfectly with our favorite dress, but in reality, it is only worn ceremoniously by people of great power and wisdom within a small community. It can be fun to try to sing along to a song in a language we don’t understand, but it’s important to stay mindful of the difference between that and singing along with entirely made-up words based on how a language or particular accent sounds. (On that note, quick reminder to everyone: if someone speaks with an accent in your language, it means that a person has put in the effort to learn it.)
It Goes Both Ways
Responsible tourism allows us to travel with our best foot forward. Creating a global culture of respect for each other is about how we interact with each other and with our surroundings. Learning about other cultures gives us the chance to understand each other just a little better. We take this knowledge with us when we travel to provide a more fulfilling and smoother experience. For instance, while many countries would agree that nodding means “yes” and shaking of the head means “no,” in Bulgaria and Albania it is exactly the opposite! But, with a little research, we can be prepared for potential miscommunications and better enjoy the trip altogether. When I travel, I try to think of myself as the first person from my country that the people around me have met. It reminds me to be extra aware of how I interact with the people and our surroundings. I want show respect to every place I go and its respective peoples. Mutual respect is our way of simultaneously welcoming people to a place, thanking them for their hospitality, and inviting them to come and enjoy our culture as well. David Anthony Durham was correct when he wrote, “Respect flows two ways and can mean as much to the giver as to the one receiving.”