Responsible Travel

There are all sorts of definitions describing responsible travel. Usually this term describes a type of travel that is conscientious of the environment, the local culture and people, and so on. However, I think there’s a level of traveling that should be standard across the board.

Responsive travel

Responsible travel = respect

`When we travel, it’s up to us to be aware of the local culture, the mores, expectations, and some of the basic laws of our host country. We need to remember that when we are in a foreign country we’re guests, and we really should act like good ones.

For starters, know the visa laws before you go. A case in the USA this week highlighted the importance of this. A backpacker from Uruguay left the US the day his visa expired and tried to enter Canada. The problem is people from his country are required to have a visa before they can enter Canada. Since he didn’t have this, he was sent back to the US. As his reentry attempt was after midnight, he was now beyond the expiration for his US visa, and he was arrested and detained.

He feels wronged and that he did nothing wrong, but the fact of the matter is he wasn’t a responsible traveler. Because of it, he’s now sitting in detention.

When you overstay a visa for nonurgent reasons, it can be interpreted by the immigration officials as a lack of respect for their laws. Some people are lucky and walk away with only a fine while others will endure detention, fines, and/or receiving a stamp in their passport indicating they were deported or overstayed their visa. This can result in more travel headaches than one can imagine.

Sometimes overstays are innocent, such as the person who had read that a certain country provides up to 90 days for visitors and didn’t realize they were only given 60 days. The key wording is “up to.” Just because officers typically stamp people in with 90 days doesn’t mean they always do. Make sure to check the stamp or visa to confirm how much time you were given. Assuming you were given X number of days can end up causing you heaps of problems.

Basically, though, just follow the rules.

And if you do get caught having overstayed, even if it was accidental, don’t play the victim. Be respectful, acknowledge the mistake, apologize profusely, and beg forgiveness. Being willing to eat a generous helping of humble pie could save your hiney.

I always plan on exiting a country at least 2-3 days before the expiration of a visa. This helps prevent problems caused by airline or train delays, bad weather, illness, and so on. Better to leave a little early than end up with an overstay. Some countries are extremely strict about those dates.

If I’m planning on renewing a visa from within the country, I usually do that at least a week ahead of time just in case there are hiccups (although some countries require you begin the process 30 days or more in advance).

Responsible travel

Respect the culture

You’re in Bangkok and it’s blazing hot. Your sweat even has sweat. You plan on visiting one of many temples. Don’t be a touron and walk in shirtless or wearing your bikini. These are important places of worship for these people. You don’t have to agree with their beliefs or how they practice their religion, but as a guest we need to respect their rules.

Yes, it’s demeaning as a woman to be forced to cover your head when in public, but if you’ve chosen to travel to a place that requires this suck it up and cover your head.  If you find the prospect too abhorrent, it’s a good idea to travel elsewhere instead.

Some people are lucky enough to have food much less be worried if the produce is organic and was sang to when it was ripening on a tree whose leaves were gently stroked once a week. Don’t act all disgusted because they don’t have something you wanted or that it doesn’t meet arbitrary personal requirements.

Spend some time acquainting yourself with the culture of the country you’re going to be visiting. Learn about its peculiarities such as not touching someone on the top of their head, not pointing the soles of one’s feet toward another person or a statue of Buddha, not eating with your left hand, and so on.

Obviously you can’t learn every unique thing about the local culture in advance, but if you’re at least trying to respect some of the bigger pieces, the occasional faux pas is overlooked.

Responsible travel

No, you’re not at home

That’s kind of the point, no? I mean most people travel to experience new things, places, and foods. So don’t expect that every place will try to make you comfortable. For me, part of the fun of travel is being forced out of my comfort zone. For example, I get a big kick out of ordering food when I have absolutely no idea what it is.

I understand not everyone is that adventurous, but I often hear travelers speak with a tone of disgust when they talk about the foods they can’t find, among other things, which I find ridiculous. I’ll also confess a desire to slap people who complain that they can’t find a Starbucks somewhere.

Getting to know a place better

There are different kinds of trips. Some have a goal of sitting by the pool or on the beach with a cocktail in one hand and a book or e-reader in the other. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

However, if your goal is to experience a place, then I’d like to encourage people to not only visit the big tourist attractions but to also get out and see more of the neighborhoods, hunt down where the locals eat and play, and so on.

Try to make your time in a location as multidimensional as possible.

What does responsible travel mean to you?

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  1. Along the lines of what Sean and IoanaIS said, being a responsible traveler involves remembering that (outside of Disneyland) the places we visit – cities, villages, churches – are not there for us. The people do not exist to cater to our whims and desires. The world, quite amazingly, developed independently of us and our backpacks, and the onus of accommodation is on the visitor, not the accidental host. That said, I really wish the Europeans would keep their bike shop open on Sundays!

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  2. So much truth in what you say. Some tourist travel with the impression that because they are paying their vacation or fee to enter churches or old buildings they are allowed to behave how they please. Luckily they are not so many:) I never had a problem with my visa but I am extra-careful about this kind of things. I think the whole purpose of travelling is to get to know as well as possible the people an the places where you are going. And this implies attention, interest, communication and respect. And less to none prejudice. Because you can not fill a cup that is already full. Great post!

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  3. Great post!

    One thing I find disrespectful are travelers who are “takers” or a drain on the local community.

    I recognize that experiencing hospitality in a place with different cultures and customs is one of the main reasons that people travel. So there is definitely a fine line between experiencing and taking advantage of people who are gracious hosts. And there is a fine line between a genuine sharing of meals and conversation and being a ‘tourist’ of the home life/social structure of people who are different from you.

    I get frustrated when I see people who are overly reliant on the generosity of others as part of their travel experience – either by design or poor planning. This is particularly offensive to me when the traveler has resources (or opportunities if they weren’t choosing a life of travel) and the hosts don’t. It also chafes when the reason the traveler needs to be more of a taker is that they are making a choice to travel in a way that makes them more “needy,” such as due to mode of transportation (e.g., motorbike or bicycle touring).

    I would hope that anyone traveling asks themselves whether they are a net giver or taker in how they interact with other people and other environments across the world.

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  4. I agree with all the points you made. Another important one is to at least bother to learn how to say “Please” and “thank you” in the language of the place you’re visitng—and hello/good day is also good. In many places (especially in the hospitality industry), it’s a good bet that the person you’re speaking to speaks better English than you do their language, but the respect you show by at least making some effort to learn the “magic words” in the language of the country you’re visiting, goes a long way.

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    • Very much agree! We always try to learn at least a few of the basics for any place we’re going. It makes a huge difference.

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  5. You make some very good points…especially when it comes to respecting other peoples beliefs. . I think it’s also important to respect local people and not take their photo without permission or in churches unless permitted. But I do confess to breaking a few rules along the way – I recall a beer run in a part of Malaysia where alcohol was prohibited. I ended up in a back alley in Chinatown with an elderly woman who had a whole warehouse of stockpiled contraband beer. She looked pretty disgusted when she found out I only want to buy 2 beer not a whole skid. 🙂

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    • Ah, that poor beer lady. LOL I also drank while in Morocco, but they had a store that was visited by mostly local so I didn’t feel bad about it.

      Photography is a tough one. Sometimes you don’t want to ruin the casualness of an unposed moment.

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  6. Good points. It is important to be respectful wherever one goes. If you want everything to be like home, it may be better to stay home.

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    • Amen to that! When I’m around people who are complaining about all the things they don’t like in an area, I want to ask why they’re there. Especially true with expats. Don’t like it, leave for goodness sake!

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  7. I love this post. I used to complain and struggle while I was a newbie traveler but as time goes by, I have accepted and appreciated that culture is different in each country..

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    • The more I travel, the easier it is to just shrug my shoulders and accept some of the idiosyncrasies of an area or culture. It really isn’t hard to just be respectful.

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  8. Great points all around. I’m a huge believer and subscriber to responsible travel and especially in the simple thing of learning more about the place. The interesting thing in the term “responsible travel” that this post really made clear to me is the first word: responsible. I was a travel agent for years and saw many real-life examples of people doing the things you wrote about. In all of these cases – the people make it all about them. They’re the victim because they didn’t know the laws, so it’s not their fault. They don’t like the weather, religious practices, and food – so they’re going to do what they need to do to be comfortable regardless – or complain. The biggest part of travel is being responsible. Own the fact that you’re going somewhere and take the time to learn the basics. It will not only make the trip more enjoyable, but also because it will help you avoid going to a place that isn’t a good fit for your personality, or being jailed because you thought you didn’t need proper documentation.

    Really great post that gave me an interesting way to look at something i already believe in.

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    • I’m so glad you had such a great response to what I wrote, and I completely agree with your points. It really isn’t hard to simply be respectful, and most of us want visitors to our home to do the very same thing.

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  9. I think another part of responsible travel is trying to partake in activities and tours that don’t harm or exploit the resources and people of the country. Sometimes it tough to know whether or not you’re doing business with a reputable company but a little research on the internet beforehand can tell you a lot!

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  10. I couldn’t agree more Talon! There is nothing worst and more irritating than seeing people not being respectful in a foreign country. The more I travel the more I realize how important is to travel responsibly and it’s the only way everybody should travel really!

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    • Really sets my teeth on edge when I observe that behavior. It really isn’t difficult to be respectful!

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