According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a record-breaking 1.2 billion tourists traveled abroad in 2015, 50 million more than in 2014, marking the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth.
There’s no doubt about it… everyone’s a tourist these days. But not all tourists are created equally.
On one end of the spectrum are those for whom being mistaken as a local is the single greatest accomplishment they could ever hope to achieve. On the other are stereotypically loud and inappropriate boors whose misplaced sense of entitlement is equal only to their cultural insensitivity.
As a traveler in a foreign land, it’s not just your reputation on the line. Like it or not, you’re a stand-in for your country, your gender, your race, your heritage, your religion — if it’s tracked by the Census Bureau, you’re representing it. But being a good tourist is not just the right thing to do, it’s the safest way to travel, since even the seemingly most trivial infractions can land you in a heap of trouble depending on where you are.
When it comes to being a guest in someone else’s home(land), follow these simple rules to ensure you’re remembered for the right reasons:
Exercise Cultural Sensitivity
First and foremost, and perhaps most obviously, be aware of the social customs and mores of your destination, then follow them. It does not matter if it’s really, really hot, and really, really humid outside and you really, really want to wear your shorts… if you’re visiting a religious site or someplace where people dress modestly, you dress modestly. What about public displays of affection? Will kissing your partner in public draw “aahs” or an arrest? Is bargaining for that must-have souvenir expected or insulting? Know before you go, and/or ask when you arrive, what is and isn’t acceptable, what to and what not to wear, what you should and should not expect from your interactions with people, and so forth. If it’s not okay for women to sit alone with men in public, then it’s not cool for a single woman to saunter into a coffee bar filled with them, even if you really want coffee. Such cultural customs may not make sense to me, but while I’m wherever I am, I respect the rules.
This may sound rich coming from me, since I can’t find half the places I’m going on the map, but nevertheless I am generally very well prepared for whatever comes up once I’m there. The time to find out your head and shoulders must be covered in order to enter a famous mosque or temple is not when you’ve reached the entrance gate with nothing to cover your head and shoulders. Nor is the time to discover you can only pay with small currency because no one in town has change or takes credit cards, when all you have are large bills and the nearest bank or ATM is hundreds of miles away. Now your uninformed self’s problem becomes the problem of whoever has to help solve your problem too — and everyone has enough of their own problems.
Let it Be
Your attitude is all that separates adversity from adventure. Don’t let petty annoyances ruin your trip, and remain positive and patient in the face of obstacles and hurdles large and small. Remember no matter what it is, it’s temporary. Whining, complaining, speaking loudly, repeating the same thing, being belligerent or insulting, or in any way being a jerk when things don’t go your way makes you a jerk and the people who have to deal with you miserable. It’s quite likely the very person you’re not being particularly nice to is trying their best to help you, so knock it off. And by the way, please try to remember you’re on vacation, which is fun! So focus on enjoying yourself and laugh off the snafus. Trust me, you will survive if the car rental agency has a different car for you than promised. Your vacation will not be ruined if your hotel room has a tub with one of those dumb handheld shower things instead of a real shower. Life will go on if all there is to eat for vegetarians is bread.
Ask Before You Shoot
As an inveterate traveler and photographer, foreign places (near and far) and my camera are like peanut butter and jelly — one is ridiculous without the other. When I’m traveling, I want to photograph everything and everyone, but just because I want to doesn’t mean I can or should. In Chad, some people believe taking photos of camels will make the camels sick, so I always asked before clicking. In some countries, photographing the police will, ironically, get you arrested. Some cultures think photographs are bad luck, or steal a piece of your soul. Sometimes it’s just not very polite to take someone’s photo without asking. I love candid photos as much as the next person, and I’m known to sneak more than a few, but I take care to research or ask about a country’s “photo culture” before I hit the streets, and I do my best to act accordingly (though I’m not a saint…). However, I do find that when I ask permission first and engage in conversation with whomever I’m photographing, my photos convey so much more about the person and where they live. It’s like a reward for doing the right thing.
Imagine you are somewhere near Koricho in the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia, and a Karo woman invites you into her hut to share a meal with her family that turns out to be a questionably cooked whole fish served directly off the dirt floor, which eight other people are already eating using their unwashed hands. Even though you’re convinced that eating the fish will lead to some very unpleasant stomach issues, and you are a vegetarian (like me), you still eat the fish. You at least take a bite. And for the record, I did not get sick. What I did get was a truly amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that was so much fun, I still smile when I think about it, years later. The point is, when you’ve spent a lot of time, effort, and money to travel someplace outside your cultural comfort zone, don’t then reject the unfamiliar because it’s different than what you’re used to. You dig? If you wanted to do the same things you do at home, eat the same things you eat at home, live the same way you live at home, then you should have just stayed home.
Speaka da Language
Sometimes when I’m watching TV at night, I’ll switch to another channel, but then after a minute or two go back to the first show, only I can’t remember what I was just watching, even though I was literally just watching it… like 60 seconds ago. So the chances of me learning a new language are about nil. But everywhere I go, I make a point of learning (by “learning” l mean, I write down key words/phrases on a tiny piece of paper that I carry around we me) how to at least say yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, bathroom, and please bring me a large glass of white wine in the native tongue. It’s fun speaking in another language (by “speaking” I mean, stringing random words together, then mispronouncing them...but with a smile), and besides, it’s the least I can do while I’m in their house.