How to Avoid Being Another Annoying Tourist

tourist taking a photo

Ethical, sustainable travel requires some serious consideration. Ask yourself some tough questions.

The United Nations has declared 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Its goal: “To build a more responsible and committed tourism sector that can capitalize its immense potential in terms of economic prosperity, social inclusion, peace and understanding, cultural and environmental preservation.”

That’s a tall order to fill because the tourism industry can hardly be called responsible or committed to any of the lovely descriptors mentioned above. When you delve deeper, start researching, and realize what’s really going on in the most conventionally popular ‘tourist destinations,’ you quickly realize that tourism in much of the world is a very ugly business that exploits local workers, industries, resources, and the environment.

In order for the UN to make any real progress toward sustainable tourism, a tremendous shift in mindset is required on the part of tourists. People need to start asking themselves some tough questions, and nobody outlines these questions better than travel writer Bani Amor in an article called “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Someplace Else.”

Amor, a writer who lives between the U.S. and Ecuador, writes with humor and attitude, intelligently addressing the question that many of us, myself included, have thought before: “How do I travel without being another fu#^ed-up tourist?” Well, you can start here, with these favorites of mine from Amor’s original list:

#1: Why am I going to this place?

Ask yourself why you’re going to visit the place you’ve chosen. Is it just because you have an all-powerful passport that allows you to enter nearly any country on Earth without trouble and are on a quest to “escape first-world problems”? Or perhaps you have the most legitimate means of entry – an invitation from someone who wants you to come. Connection, however, is not mandatory, but worth considering. Is there someone you can connect with before going, simply to gain some perspective? Amor advises:

“Avoid an Eat, Pray, Love 2.0 travel narrative and think of the three Cs before you book: connection, communication, and consultation. In terms of traveling abroad, many people tend to travel in groups, through companies or packages or with organizations. If you’re leaving your trip in someone else's hands, dig a little deeper into their practices to make sure their approach involves consensus with local communities.”

#2: Listen to the locals.

Do your research ahead of time, but be sure you’re reading the right sources. Many popular travel blogs and websites are written and curated by white Westerners or travel bloggers who “come and conquer... they fancy themselves experts on places, and they’re backed by an industry that lifts up their versions of narratives while silencing homegrown perspectives.”

Seek out the local voices, voices of color and marginalized groups, through alternative media outlets. This is pretty easy to do now, thanks to the Internet. Learn some history, too, while you’re at it.

#3: Avoid the ‘Heart of Darkness.’

Some tourist experiences are far worse than others. Keep away from those at all costs. Think cruise ships (not just the “white-savior” kind, but all of them), slum tours, all-inclusive resorts, and places that are suffering social unrest under oppressive regimes. Have some cultural sensitivity.

“Don't be that girl who took a smiling selfie at Auschwitz or those tourists who complained that the influx of migrants arriving in Greece last year made their vacations ‘awkward’.”

#4: Give your money to women.

Most of the time, tourism does little to help tourism economies. Shocking, isn’t it? In fact, it’s estimated that in the poverty-stricken Caribbean, where so many Canadians and Americans go in winter, 80 percent of tourism dollars leave the country.

“A UNEP study concluded that out of every $100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, about $5 stays in the developing country’s economy, or, rather, that country’s tourism board or its politicians’ pockets.” - from A Vacation is Not Activism

So, no, your money isn’t actually helping anyone, which means that the more you direct to small, local industries, the better off the locals will actually be. Keep haggling to a minimum; remember that things are “cheap” only because you’re rich on a global scale.

I’ll add a fifth point of my own here:

#5: Leave your trash at home.

The most disrespectful thing you can do to a host country is to leave loads of your trash behind. Many countries have undeveloped recycling and waste facilities (assume they’re non-existent, in fact), so realize that what waste you generate is there to stay.

Cruise ships are particularly notorious for the volumes of trash they create. Tourism Concern reports:

“On average it is estimated that every [cruise ship] passenger produces 3.5 kilograms (close to 8 pounds) of rubbish daily as opposed to 0.8 kilograms (close to 1.8 pounds) generated by people on shore.”

Figure out how to travel as zero-waste as possible, carrying reusables like a water bottle and filter, menstrual cup, cutlery, and napkin, and refusing freebies.