What is Your Responsibility as a Traveler?

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

Trash fed monkeys, Ko Phi Phi

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

Cleaning the beach, post-full moon party, Ko Phangan

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.

You Have A Responsibility to Share What You Know

Phnom Penh

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.

What do you think are traveler’s responsibilities?

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38 thoughts on “What is Your Responsibility as a Traveler?”

  1. Ok , I am glad that at last someone decided to bring these issues forward. I have not seen the doc. yet .
    However , I read the articles written because of this doc. I think still very light , easy going on the backpackers and some really not nice behaviors and the reality of these people ( not all of course because some of them just believed the rosy side of hanging out in hostels and backpackers because they though they would see and experience so much interesting things and every backpacker were there for similar reasons as they are .Which I made this mistake first time I went to latin america .forget about talking what you observed to these people or eve unfortunalty to locals who loves the blond girls and enjoy partying with them so on….Then you are the biggest enemy .And the attacks starts .Especially you are not coming from their culture ,who one is to have opinions if one is not Eurepean or american right?.

  2. Great thoughts on a delicate topic Steph. I was lucky enough to watch a screening of Gringo Trails myself and found it pretty impressive and extremely insightful! I think every single traveller out there and everyone even remotely involved in tourism should watch this documentary…
    To me the crucial point is “awareness”. Being aware of the place, being aware of a culture but also being aware of yourself and your own actions. People can make or break a place and I really like how the documentary outlines this notion. Maybe people should consider a “strange place” not a wild house party they even haven’t been invited to but rather the first time meeting at home of the in-laws. 🙂 Or as I put in in the review of the film: “embracing a foreign culture in a deliberate and sensible way”…

  3. I think it is mandatory for us to be careful and respect the culture and society of a place we travel to. It’s only an extension of our gratitude to them for their hospitality. That is how I see it anyway.

  4. It’s not asking for it, but it’s not curbing the negative impact of the full moon party type culture as much as it could do either, most certainly– as you say –because they have become reliant on the economic value of it, so to take it away or get stricter on tourists would be senseless. It’s a sad truth that won’t change. That said, if everyone played nice then there wouldn’t be a problem, but that, unfortunately, doesn’t look likely either.

  5. You are, of course, completely right. We are all responsible for looking after our planet and as you say, just ‘cos we’re on our holidays’ doesn’t change that. I hate that attitude as much as you do.


    I think it’s very easy to look at places like Thailand as a glowing example of how travellers can be utter morons, yet at the same time I do feel there is an element of encouragement for it. The full moon party in Koh Pha Ngan and tiger temple in Kanchanaburi, for instance, hardly send out the right message. Not saying that tourists are justified in behaving like idiots, but I do think there is an element of provocation in some cases. A lot of irresponsibility whilst travelling boils down to sheer naivety and ignorance too. I backpacked Thailand when I was 19 and had a great time riding elephants and petting tigers, but without really considering the reality of how those animals were probably treated. Now I’m 26 I know better!

    1. Encouragement by whom? There is a subset of locals that cater to these travelers, but that is more out of economic necessity than anything else. It’s true that these things aren’t illegal, and that they are popular, but I’m not sure if that means that Thailand is “asking for it.”

  6. I live in Thailand and see this behaviour all the time from (mainly) western tourists.

    Taking photos of themselves leaning against statues of Buddha (highly disrespectful to a Thai). Throwing garbage and beer bottles on the beach. Sunbathing topless (against the law in Thailand and, again, highly disrespectful to every Thai). Western girls walking down the street in Bangkok wearing a bikini top. Would you DO THAT in NEW YORK??? 🙂

    I’ve lived in Bangkok for so long, I see more westerners here that are absolutely clueless and completely disrespectful to Thais and the Thai culture than not, and in that number I include the huge number of western men who live here who, much of the time, behave appallingly to the Thais.

    I’ve said for years I’m amazed the Thais are as welcoming to tourists as they are, as so many westerners who come here should really stay at home if they can’t behave any better.

  7. This is an excellent post, something all traveller should consider. I thought a lot about this topic while travelling the outback in australia- whether or not we really belonged in some of these places, if we were doing more harm than good. I am with koalas the way you are with elephants. They should not be held!

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