How To Be a Better Tourist

Five Tips on How to Wander Responsibly

Tourists at the Trevi fountain in Rome, Italy

Sustainable tourism is a hot topic. Let's talk about how we as tourists can contribute to this increasingly popular concept. Spoiler: it is possible to have a great holiday, be a conscious tourist, and visit the popular destinations and cultural sites. It's all about our mindset about travelling and how this influences how we plan and spend our holiday. 

Let me break down how we can wander the world more responsibly.

1. Read up before you go.

"Let's just jump on this train and see when we get there!" — sound familiar? Popular culture promotes the wanderer. Honestly, I am guilty of it myself! Isn't this why so many people decide to take off from study or work to travel the world? Let's go, explore the world, have no set plan in place, and we'll see what to do when we get there.

Nothing wrong with it, except when you're doing it wrong. Who likes standing in long queues before getting into the castle, into the museum? If you don't but you still find yourself stuck in queues anyway, you've probably not read up on your holiday before you arrived. Here's why you should besides avoiding frustration.

  • You can help control (and even decrease) mass tourism.

No one wants to feel as a guest in their own home. People in cities like Barcelona, Rome, and Venice do, though. When tourists decide to go to the same place all at once, well, we all know what happens. Tourist destinations that experience mass tourism are not in control anymore. The good news is that we can help to relief the pressure on those places to give them time to gain back control. Therefore, it is important to read up on the place that you are visiting to know when is the best time to plan your holiday. And I am not just talking about the weather. Give those destinations a break. Don't go in the high season when you know you will almost literally be walking over people.

Practical Tip 1: It's so easy to Google something, so why not google your holiday beforehand (or check sites such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor)? Not only does Google give you suggestions on what to visit, but those suggestions, when you click on it, will also show you the busy hours. So even if you can't avoid the peak tourist season, try to schedule your day in such a way that you visit the popular landmarks at times they are projected to be the least busy. This type of planning will even give you an additional bonus of exploring other, perhaps less-known local attractions that you otherwise might have completely ignored! And isn't that being a true wanderer; exploring new places that others might miss out on?

Practical Tip 2: Tourist information centers are there for a reason! Going on a last-minute cheap or discounted holiday? Good for you! No worries if you can't read up before you go but do make sure you visit the tourist information center. Not only do you help the destination in registering how many tourists are visiting, they will also provide you with handy maps and insighter tips on where to stay, what to eat and what to do. Want more autonomy and decide for yourself? Almost all destinations have a website called "visit X." Check it out and be prepared to add an additional level of exploring to your holiday!

  • You respect the local culture (and be rewarded with a richer holiday experience yourself!).

Again, no one wants to feel like a guest in their own home and definitely no one wants to be disrespected. Remember you are a guest when you are a tourist. Read up on local culture beforehand. Why is the monument you are visiting of such cultural importance? What's it's history? What's going on in the destination that you are visiting on social-cultural, political, and economic level? And what do these current affairs mean for people visiting? For example, does it mean you should dress a certain way when you visit a landmark?

If the point of travelling is not only to relax, but also to experience a new place, then we need to make sure that we are ready for that. Meaningful conversations with locals, meaningful experiences at destinations, only happen when we are prepared for it. When we have read up on the destination, we appreciate the value of a monument, and we understand the local practices in their cultural context.

Practical Tip 1: Look up what the local norms and values are. Lonely Planet is a good reference for this type of information as are the local tourist information websites. Ask yourself questions while reading, such as what do people eat there? How do people dress? What kind of celebrations, like festivals and holidays, do they have? Who is running the country? What do the people think of that? In what way are people interacting with one another? What is their main religion? Which languages are spoken most dominantly?

Practical Tip 2: Learn some local words before you arrive. Though a lot of people speak English, this doesn't mean that they can or will in the place that you are visiting. Google translate can be your best friend, but so can locals. People appreciate it when you are trying to learn their language, even if it's just to greet someone or say thank you. By learning some basic words, you show that you respect the local culture.

2. Think about where you're staying.

In both a direct and indirect sense, we have to think about where we are staying. In a direct sense, this means where we will spend the night? Indirectly, this means how we can responsibly use the resources of the destination.

When it comes to where we spend the night, most of us have heard about the controversy surrounding AirBnB. AirBnB is very popular and known as a cheap(er) alternative than regular hotels. However, its popularity also means that more and more locals are starting to rent out their spare bedroom or couch and sometimes even don't live at home themselves anymore. This means that, especially in those very popular cities like Amsterdam, regular neighborhoods become dominated by tourists, decreasing the quality of life for regular locals due to things as noise pollution and the constant stream of new arrivals. And that's not what we want, is it?

Sustainable tourism is about contributing positively to local development; this doesn't only mean making sure the community is in control of the stream of tourists and feel respected by those visiting, but it also means they benefit economically. So let's support those working in the tourism industry by actually staying in their accommodations. Look for local hotels, hostels, guest houses and B&Bs. AirBnB does also support local economic development to some degree for those renting out their apartments, but right now it's overly consumed by us, tourists. So let's decrease the number of times we stay with AirBnB and increase the times we stay with locally run hostels and guest houses until policy is developed (and enforced!) that ensures the quality of life for locals in cities like London and Amsterdam.

Indirectly thinking about the resources you use means we should be conscious about the choices we make when we, for example, tell hotel staff to wash our towels, replace our bedsheets, but also when we buy a take-away coffee. More and more hotels promote to tourists to reuse their towels to save water and energy. And honestly, who doesn't reuse their towel when they're at home? If the place where you are staying doesn't do this yet, just tell them you don't need a new towel, you don't need new bedsheets yet. And don't forget to tell them why.

When it comes to other small things, such as buying take-away coffee or any other drink or any food for that matter, try to bring a reusable cup or container with you. Ask them to put your order in your own reusable cup or container. Actually, this is not just a tip for when you're on a holiday, but for when you're home as well. The world is dealing with incredible amounts of plastic pollution, so make sure to bring a reusable cup and container next to your reusable bag to carry your new souvenirs with as well.

3. Buy quality artisan products.

Most tourist destinations offer very standard souvenirs. Think about bracelets, caps, key chains, mugs, and bags that feature the name of the destination and/or their landmarks. But even the seemingly more creative souvenirs such as paintings are somehow everywhere to be found — be it in slightly different colors.

Tourist destinations will change based on the needs of tourists. In case of unsustainable tourism, this means the more tourists, the more commodification of culture will take place. It includes changing local practices to meet the tourists' expectations of the local culture (which is why it's important to read up on your holiday!) but it also means massively reproducing those souvenirs that are highly popular. As a result, there is no unique offer in souvenirs, souvenirs contribute to generalizing a destination to one or two landmarks, and the quality of products decreases. 

Perhaps most importantly, it leaves no room for local artisans to show their work. Work that often stems from their cultural identity, that is unique and personal, and worth seeing — if not buying. Work that incorporates local resources in a creative way. The cultural expression of a tourist destination is often downgraded to the well-known landmarks, but if tourists start looking for a different type of souvenir, we have the power to change that.

Start looking for those souvenirs made by local artisans. Handmade jewelry, pottery, or woven baskets are frequent examples of such work. Realize that handmade work is more expensive but worth its value. By supporting such artisans you are supporting the continuation of cultural expression, of cultural diversity and, in return, you receive a souvenir that is actually reflecting the place you visited.

Practical tip: You don't know where to get those type of souvenirs? I am sure the tourist information center does but you can also check a local museum shop. However, if you are visiting a developing country or destination, it might be hard to find a tourist information center. Those places, on the other hand, almost always have a local women resource center or active NGO that tries to involve local groups and teaches them the skills to revive traditional craft.

4. Demand how your travel agency is contributing to local (economic) development.

How are they including the local community in their work? Are they hiring locals as tour guides, for example? How are they giving back to the community? How is the community still in control? Do workers receive fair pay? And do they have good working conditions? Do they receive training to acquire new skills? Are those skills useful for them to be an independent worker? 

These seem simple questions but if you're travelling with a travel agency, be sure to ask them. Travel agencies not always incorporate social responsibility in their work, and are vulnerable to market demands. So when we start asking those questions to the organizations we travel with, be assured that they will listen. 

If what we want is sustainable tourism, we need to make sure that it's not just us who are having a good time, but it's also the local community that positively benefits from our stay. This means travelling with an agency that stands for sustainable tourism and is able to answer your questions.

If they can answer your questions but it is questionable whether they are actually having a positive impact on local development, make sure to tell them. Consider changing the agency you're travelling with and write them an honest, online review addressing this issue based on your experience.

5. Please don't touch.

When a sign says "please don't touch," it is there for a reason. 

Perhaps you don't realize, but not only do the natural oils on your hand leave a tiny layer of dirt on whatever you touch, your touch also contributes to the erosion of a painting or artifact. We probably can all remember the instance where we saw a sculpture on the street, and when posing for a photo with it, we realize that where we want to put our hands, the black color has faded gold. We were not the first ones to put our hands there. And we won't be the last. 

Imagine that instead of a street sculpture, the object that is being touched is an old piece of stone with ancient writing in it displayed in a museum. It is beautiful, it is interesting, it is a masterpiece of ancient human development and we want to take a photo of it. But to show that we find it interesting, and that we were there, we want to be in the photo as well. And so you put your hand on it while your friend takes the photo. NO. Don't do that. Unless the sculpture or artifact was made for it to be touched (and it will have a sign indicating this) do not touch the artwork — what's wrong with just standing next to it? Oh and by the way, that something doesn't have the sign, doesn't mean that you can't damage it by touching or climbing on it.

Whenever we have a great holiday, we want to share that with people. We encourage others to go as well. But let's make sure that others will see the same as you do by respecting that what we see and refrain from touching that what we value.

On a Final Note

I realize that following all these tips is not always possible for everyone (though most are). What we can change, however, is the way we think about our holiday. The way we value our experience as well as the value we place on those welcoming us in their homes, their cities. It's not just up to governments to design policy for sustainable tourism, it's up to us to demand it by showing them how it's done.

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