An ethical guide to traveling

Why you may be hated as a tourist - and what you can do about it.

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My grandpa always told me to listen to life in its immediacy. To listen to the unpredictability.

“Just close your eyes. What do you hear?”

Born in a tiny, coastal village in southern India, I grew up listening to calm winds that carried the promise of afternoon rain. When I closed my eyes, I heard cicadas, peacocks, some woman yelling guarantees of fresh fish, and in the distance, I heard the crashing of waves in the ocean.

There was always one sound I tried to ignore but couldn’t –– tourists. In the summer when the sun dried our wells and the heat shredded our crops to dust, our roads would fill up with screeching tires and blaring honks. Unfamiliar faces would look at us through car windows and find us as strange and bizarre as we found them.

Some pointed. Some took pictures.

Most would roll down the windows to throw out their garbage. Our village, my village, soon became a passing landfill, somewhere they could get rid of their waste. A convenient dustbin en route to a sun-kissed beach.

That’s the thing about vacations, isn’t it? You want them to be hassle-free and worry-free. To roam around without a care in the world. You want to sunbathe and watch the light sparkle on water or cozy up in a cabin atop a snowy mountain. You want to eat, laugh, take pictures and not fret about the unopened emails in your inbox.

You want to escape life for a little bit.

But while you’re exchanging the mundaneness of your daily life with thrill and a few cocktails in a location you deem exotic, you forget that stepping out of your life means that you’re also stepping into someone else’s.

We tend to think life is all about us, forgetting that we aren’t the main characters in every world we enter.

Trust me, you were no main character.

You were the villain of my story. And the stories of countless others.

Why is it important to be an ethical traveler?

We, as travelers, have been graced with the gift of exploration. That yearning to go someplace new, that insatiable pull towards the unknown… It’s pretty hard to beat.

But we are also guests. Think about it. When you go over to someone’s house as a guest, have you ever tried to kill their pet? Or looked around their house and belongings without their permission? Hopefully, you have not. And you did so out of consideration.

Ethical travelers do the same. We don’t behave like we have the right to act as we please, without any regard for someone else’s feelings, culture or values.

Beautiful places attract people, yes. But these places, these communities, often see tourists with disdain. Notice how I said tourists and not travelers.

Why? Because many tourists:

  • Are insensitive to the history and culture of the place.
  • Take what they’re not supposed to.
  • Prefer the luxury of hotels that unfairly pay its workers, who are usually the locals who live there.
  • Act and speak as though they’re from a more advanced country and so, they end up sounding like a colonizer.
  • Are not aware of the consequences of over-tourism and their impact on the environment and biodiversity of the area.
  • Don’t stop coming even when they’re asked not to.

How to be an ethical traveler?

I know this may seem like a little more work, especially when you’re just trying to book flights and get the hell out of somewhere, but this will earn you something very few tourists have –– respect and the title of “traveler.”

  1. Before booking your flights, make sure to read up on the tourist scene of the place you’re going to. Or ask a friend who’s been there. Or a friend of a friend.
  • When places like Santorini, Machu Picchu or Hawai’i are struggling with over-tourism, refrain from going there. There are 195 countries in the world to choose from.

2. Learn about what the locals expect out of tourists.

  • When they tell you not to touch the wildlife, don’t touch them. This is more to protect the animals than to save ourselves, but these wild animals are in their natural habitats, and it’s important to be respectful of their space too.
  • When they tell you to not take anything from their land (volcanic rock from Hawai’i or coral from the Andamans), don’t take it. What you try to smuggle through airport security is of much more value in the place you found it than on a shelf in your room. Remember the British Museum has “samples” from all over the world and they were colonizers. Don’t be like them.

3. Buy from locally run businesses.

  • Don’t go to the largest, tackiest shop run by a non-local. Don’t buy souvenirs at the airport. Show your support by buying locally-made items. You get authentic items and you help someone out.

4. Be responsible for your trash.

  • It’s 2023. Do you really need me to tell you not to litter? To dispose of your waste in a trash can?

5. Don’t do stupid things to look cool.

  • Do you remember that one person who jumped a barricade to take a cool selfie and plummeted to their death? Yeah, don’t do that. Common sense is the new cool.
  • Don’t take pictures of locals or with them without permission. They’re not animals in a zoo. If you do see someone you’d like to photograph, go up to them. Say hello. Tell them you dig their look. Ask politely if you could photograph them, and always ask how you can send these pictures to them.

6. Respect the cultural values of any place you visit.

  • Dress appropriately. Yes, you may be on vacation but you gain nothing by openly flouting their cultural norms or making them all uncomfortable. This is especially important if you’re visiting religious sites.
  • If the native language isn’t English, learn a little of theirs. Hello, please, and thank you is a good place to start.

Parting words

You don’t have to do all these things. You don’t have to unlearn certain problematic behavior.

But if you choose to be a little more sensitive on your next vacation, then you’ll have a more warm and welcoming experience. Locals would love to host you again! They become not acquaintances, but friends and family.

So pack your bags, read up, and get out there in this big, beautiful world. And when you look out your car window and see someone standing in their yard, offer a smile and wave. Then you won’t be a tourist anymore. You’ll be a traveler.

(Aadya Chidanand/USC)