By Rachael Funk
Tourists: you know ‘em when you see ‘em. The bad ones can be obnoxious, ignorant, and really good at making everyone else feel super weird. While it’s hard to avoid second hand embarrassment from ill-behaved tourists (especially if they’re from the same place as you!), here are some great ways to be mindful of where you are and pave the way for future travelers to be welcomed back.
“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton
Familiarize yourself with the cultural norms of your destination. Sure, at home you can wear pretty much whatever you want and never get a second glance, but while you’re traveling, you’ll want to be observant of the status quo. In the same way you remove your shoes before entering your friend’s home, it is important to be aware (and respectful) of appropriate dress in another country. In some places, you won’t have to make many wardrobe updates, but in others you may need to cover up a little more than usual. One thing’s for sure, you don’t want to stand out for being inappropriately dressed.
Keep an open mind while you travel. Be aware that the society you grew up in can be vastly different from the one you are visiting. You are here to learn and experience new things, so be alert and do more listening than talking. Even if you are an expert on the country you are visiting, there are endless opportunities to appreciate the culture you are surrounded by and plenty of new information to uncover, which is hard to do if you’re busy criticizing, making rude jokes, or (heaven forbid) lecturing your fellow travelers. Instead of imposing your own experiences and opinions on others while you explore, allow yourself to observe and absorb.
Being a humble traveler doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself! Make friends with the locals. Join in on festivals and events. Immerse yourself with wild abandon and soak in the splendor of the culture around you! Joyfully engage with the life happening around you and seize whatever opportunity you can to appreciate life the way the locals do.
Be judicious about photography
An important issue many tourists miss is camera etiquette. If there are signs requesting that you refrain from photography, don’t take it as a challenge to snap a sneaky shot from your phone. Before you take pictures of locals, art, grave sites, etc., make sure it’s okay. In many places, taking an unsanctioned photo is more than disrespectful, it could violate the superstitions or beliefs of the culture. On the topic of photography, be aware of your surroundings. Take a glance around to make sure you’re not in anyone’s path before you stop short and juggle your technology. Step out of the way and wait for the area to be clear before you set up your tripod or reach your arms out for a great angle.
Brush up on the local language
Do you get annoyed at home if someone approaches you and spouts off a language you don’t know? When you travel, you become that annoying person. Instead of expecting everyone else to magically know how to speak your language, make an effort to know theirs! The use of Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and even Google Translate are excellent ways to nail key phrases like, “hello,” “thanks,” “excuse me,” “yes,” “no,” “how much,” and “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Know when bargaining is appropriate
True, there are places in “tourist trap” areas where markups are ridiculous in anticipation of outsiders bargaining them down. BUT, not everywhere. There is a fine line between being a good bargainer and taking advantage of a vendor who needs a sale. Don’t forget to be polite, even if you are negotiating a price. You are not single-handedly financing a life of luxury for vendors; they’re trying to make a living just like everyone else. There’s no need to be rude or overly aggressive, not everyone is trying to swindle you out of a few extra dollars.
Be an active listener. Have a dialogue with your tour guide/museum docent/local escort to get to the good stuff. If you only give half your attention and let your mind wander, you will only get the most basic of basic information and then wonder why you didn’t enjoy yourself more. If you want to find the fun facts and insider information, you have to pay attention and ask the right questions. You can open worlds of unexpected surprises just by following the right thread. After all, some of the most memorable experiences are the ones that are completely unplanned.
Check your volume
One of the most consistent pieces of feedback from other countries about American tourists is that they are often heard before they are seen. Make an effort to be unobtrusive to those around you and not to spoil a serene environment by yelling across a courtyard to your friends. Take in the noise level around you and calibrate.
This is an obvious one for most people, but it bears repeating. If there is no receptacle for your refuse, pack it up and wait until you can find a trash can. You are not the first to visit your destination and you will not be the last, so be a pal and leave each location at least as clean as it was when you arrived. We all share one world, so whether you’re dropping a fast food cup out the car window at home or ditching a granola wrapper on Mt. Everest, it’s still so obnoxious. Just don’t.
Err on the side of respect
Whatever you do, whether it’s a place you’ve visited a hundred times or somewhere brand new, just be cool, man. Cultures, customs, languages, and values may vary, but no matter where you are, all people deserve to be treated with respect. When you travel, you are a guest. Wherever you go, you are a representative of your own country. Practice courtesy, mindfulness, and care as you explore, and the people you encounter will remember that. Leaving a positive impression not only supports a welcoming environment for those who come after you, but it makes your own travel experience so much more enjoyable. And for heaven's sake, leave your vape at home.