Have you heard about the new documentary Gringo Trails? Made by an anthropologist, Pegi Vail, it examines the impact of backpackers on local communities in Thailand, Bolivia, Bhutan and Mali. It asks the question “are tourists destroying the planet – or saving it?” I confess that I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks pretty interesting.
Immediately after this CNN interview with the director went live, a small segment of the travel blogging internet erupted in protest. Who did this lady think she was? How could traveling to other places and cultures possibly be a bad thing?
Not me though. I know that backpackers can be both great people and an insidious force that hurts local populations. This was particularly, painfully clear in places like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, where the backpacker trail is well defined and heavy with young, inexperienced and sometimes really irresponsible travelers.
There are people who head off into the world, happy and carefree, just wanting some fun in the sun, a few beers, amazing photos, with little thought to how their actions affect the world around them. When you head off on vacation you think that you are shedding responsibility, when in reality you are just exchanging the old for a set of new ones.
So what are those responsibilities? Here’s the list I’ve come up with.
You Have a Responsibility to Educate Yourself
Before you even book your ticket, it’s important to know what you are getting yourself into. What are the issues in the part of the world you are headed to? How can tourists help or hurt? In the internet age, ignorance isn’t really an excuse.
Before I ever set foot in Cambodia I was well aware of the issues surrounding child labor there. Common wisdom is that it’s not a good idea to give presents to, or purchase items from child beggars as it encourages the culture of children begging instead of being in school. As a result, I resolved before I ever entered the country not to buy items from children. Although my resolve wavered and I slipped once, many times I did not give in, although I saw others who did.
You have a Responsibility to Realize You are Not The Exception
It’s interesting to watch the mental gymnastics some travelers will do to rationalize their desire to visit a place that they know doesn’t square up with their ethical values. A unique opportunity, whether it’s a trip to Russia or a chance to pet a tiger, can be extremely tempting, despite knowing the drawbacks.
If you pay for a service or experience, you are supporting that service. If you visit Russia, or Uganda, or Dubai (EDIT: my friend Liz, who is Russian, insisted I add Arizona to this list of ethically ambiguous places), or wherever, you a contributing tourism dollars to their economy, whether you agree with their policies or not. Same thing when you support companies and practices that are problematic. It’s up to you to decide what sits well with you, but at the very least, hold yourself to the same standard you hold everybody else.
You Have a Responsibility to Act Like a Guest
The world is not a playground for travelers to run amok in. Just because you are away from home you don’t have the right to stumble around drunk at all hours of the day, attempt to fight local people or pee all over the place. Yes you are on vacation, but you don’t get to take a vacation from common sense.
I feel like this should be obvious, but when you travel you are visiting the home towns of real people. You two week vacation is their everyday reality. Which means they are probably less amused by your drunken antics, disrespect of their monuments and rude attitude. You wouldn’t go to a friends house, trash their living room and think nothing of that, so why would you do that to someone’s beach? Be a nice tourist and make everyone’s lives a little happier.
I am totally the Elephant Riding Buzzkill Girl. Every time I hear someone talking about their dreams of riding an elephant in Thailand or India, I become a total bummer, explaining how the elephants are often mis-treated and unhappy, how it’s impossible to know what kind of business you’re supporting and how most experts recommend you skip the elephant riding experience. It doesn’t win me friends but I just can’t keep quiet when I have information that other people don’t.
Most of all you need to realize that you are privilege to have the opportunity to travel. I’m not saying that all backpackers, or travelers, are inherently bad. Even the ones acting like total morons were probably displaying the worst side of reasonably good people. The more that people think about the actual implications of world travel, and their role in this giant world eco-system, the better.