As travelers, it is often hard figuring out how to be socially responsible as we wander through the world we live in. Worse yet, there are many ways we are contributing to problems that worsen conditions for those living in and around the society we are guests in.
Fortunately, it is in your power to not let this happen. It is in your power to leave the world a better place than you left it. There are a few things here and there to consider, and I can only hope that this will shed a bit of light on on the ways that we can travel in a way that helps those around us.
1) Learn some of the language.
It’s true that English is the language of the world, the “international” language. It’s also true that only a little over 16% of the world’s population speaks English. That means that if you’re depending on English to get by, you’re going to be out of luck pretty quick.
It’s a fabricated myth that you’ll get by just fine while traveling if you speak English. Sure, you might be able to point to the pastry you want and look at the screen to see your total, but you’ll never be able to connect with your fellow humans in the way that language permits.
There’s something about speaking the hosts language that shows respect. And when I say speak the language, I mean be able to at least say “please”, “thank you”, and “hello”. Learning these basic words shows that you are not above them. It shows that you’ve taken time out of your life to be able to connect with them, even if on the smallest level.
To get you started, here’s a list of 20 Words for When You Don’t Speak the Host Language.
2) Follow the rules and the laws.
As an American, I’ve always been taught that women should wear whatever makes them feel comfortable, regardless of what others think. I’ve always been told that as long as I have respect for myself, I should feel free to wear even the most revealing clothing.
While this works in American society (and many others), there are societies where it not only doesn’t work, but it’s disrespectful. There are many instances in many cultures where the covering of one’s body is essential to show honor to that culture in which you are a guest.
In some places (like churches), this is simply a rule. In some other places (like various countries around the world), this is law. It is important to respect both equally and understand that being a socially responsible traveler requires empathy and respect for the things you can’t always understand.
3) Shop and hire locally.
This is probably the most fun and the easiest to do. You can pick up those handmade crafts, those jars of freshly made jelly, or those bottles of olive oil and not feel guilty! You can employ the people that really need it, the people you know are going to use that money to put food on the table for their families.
There are two great resources for this, Traveling Spoon and Kootour. Both of these companies have the primary goal of connecting you to locals in a way that benefits both parties, and that is something worth supporting.
Traveling Spoon sets up cooking sessions between travelers ad locals. You’ll get to learn recipes that have been passed down generation after generation. It’s a way to experience the local cuisine in the most genuine way possible. You’ll get to taste the flavors of the country, form bonds with people around the world, and understand a foreign culture on a much deeper level. Plus, you can use this link to get $25 off your next booking!
Kootour is another organization that creates an outlet for travelers to ensure social responsibility. Every now and again, I’ll come across a company like Kootour, and I know I have to at least give them a shout out (even without being an affiliate!) This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m always beyond stoked to help their cause.
Kootour provides a channel for travelers to hire local tour guides; the little guys that don’t work for big companies. This in turn enables locals to provide for themselves and their families. There are so many huge companies that dominate the tour guide industry, but they often (more than often) don’t benefit the local community. This is where Kootour is different from those big companies. You’ll be able to spend your money knowing it’s going to a good place and is helping the local people.
4) Use public transportation where possible.
As we enter the modern era, pollution is becoming more and more of a problem. This is especially true in many parts of Asia. As a way to make sure you don’t contribute to that, consider taking public transportation.
In many places, even public transportation quicker and cheaper. It’s just one more little thing you can do to make sure you don’t leave negative footprint in your host country.
5) Don’t assume the tourist activities are ethical.
Oh, how I cringe when I see people posting photos of them and a “sleepy” tiger on their vacation to Thailand. I cringe for two reasons. The first is because the tourist hotspots that let you pet wild animals have a cruel way of taming them; either through drugging or through physical violence to obtain submission. The second reason I cringe is because it was only in the last few years that I learned this.
And elephant riding? Also not ethical. Their backs are not as strong as they appear, and they already have a huge amount of weight to support. These are the types of activities that people see, put on their bucket list, and then support throughout their travels, so often without knowing the implications.
If you have any doubts in any way about whether something might be unethical, do your research. Always do your research. Don’t let your money go to a bad place!
6) Treat your host country as if you’re a guest at someone’s dinner party.
When you’re a guest at someone’s house, politeness is always a priority. You offer to help with the cooking, the dishes, with anything the host could need. You offer to bring little trinkets of appreciation (like wine or a good cheese.) You always make sure you’re not making a mess. This is the same approach you should take when being a guest in a different country.
Make sure you offer to help the people that are helping you while traveling. Tip when customary, show gifts of appreciation (even if that just means giving a homemade bracelet or something of the likes), and always make sure to leave behind a good impression. Leave no trace behind unless it be a positive one.
7) Participate in acts of kindness.
Have you ever pulled up to get your food at a drive thru and been told your food has been paid for? Do this type of thing when traveling. Do this not for recognition, but for knowing you contributed to the betterment of the society you have been a guest in.
Pick up that bottle you see on the hiking path. Buy that person hanging out on the sidewalk a hot meal. Offer kindness whenever, and wherever you can. This alone will not only expand your appreciation of the world and the people in it, but you will do the same for others. They will see the difference.
Consider it your little way of saying thank you to a culture, country, and society that has hosted you.