A Travel Guide to Globe Trotting With a Conscience

Chances are you, or someone you know, loves to travel. Maybe you have a profile picture in front of a national monument or a gleaming waterfall with the description “Take me back, [insert place name here].” Your Instagram captions are flag emojis, or your Tinder bio is “NY > Paris > Delhi > Nairobi > LA.”

What’s not to love? You always have the coolest stories at any party — about accidentally bribing a train conductor in Jaipur or getting out of Bali via a 36-hour journey on trucks, boats and planes after volcanic ash clouded the sky.

There’s only one problem: you’d like to be socially conscious, and you studied enough history in school to feel bad about colonialism.

And travel is fraught with opportunities to replicate colonial relationships — for example, taking advantage of economic inequalities, behaving badly because you think Westerners can get away with it or portraying the places you visit in ways that feed into stereotypes.

We’ve got history

As Americans, we have to think especially carefully about our relationships to the places we visit. The United States is the richest country in the world, and the accumulation of wealth is never innocent of history.

Illustration of a passport, airplane tickets and the world. Globe Trotting pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
An American passport means being able to travel to 177 different countries and territories without a visa. That is an immense privilege.

Peter Gowan, a professor of international studies at London Metropolitan University, wrote about the centrality of the U.S. dollar in the international economic system.

He argued that American financial institutions benefitted from crises in the developing world: as situations turned dicey, elites in unstable states sent their wealth from their home countries to Wall Street.

“During the debt crises of the early 1980s in Latin America, the following very large outflows of funds occurred: from Argentina, $15.3bn; from Mexico $32.7bn, from Venezuela, $10.8bn,” he wrote.

So you might be gleeful about how much bang for your buck you can get in a developing country you’re visiting, but that is a direct reflection of our nation’s place in a global economic hierarchy that we gained through settler colonialism, armed conflict and instability abroad.

Your vacation abroad didn’t cause decades of American policy decisions, but it is worth asking: how can you be a tourist without taking advantage of unequal relations of power and entrenching inequalities? Here’s some stuff to keep in mind before your next trip.

1. Use your purchasing power wisely

When you can, support local economies and entrepreneurs. Consider staying at a locally run guesthouse instead of a major American hotel chain.

When you’re purchasing goods and services, look to native artists, farmers, worker cooperatives and mom ‘n’ pop shops instead of large companies whose profits may end up in the hands of American shareholders.

And don’t buy products that endanger wildlife, like anything made from ivory, or traditional medicines that incorporate ingredients like tiger bones or rhino horns.

 

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2. Respect rules and norms

Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte made headlines when he and several teammates vandalized a Rio gas station bathroom and urinated around the premises, then fabricated a story about being robbed at gunpoint. The story attracted international attention and criticism of entitled and destructive behavior by tourists.

Outside the pool, don’t be like Lochte. Other countries are not your playgrounds, and following local laws — no matter how drunk you are — is key. Don’t litter or vandalize.

Do take cues from how locals dress and behave. Don’t steal artifacts from archaeological sites as keepsakes to take to your home country — they’re not yours to take.

3. Read up on history and theory

Before your visit, research your destination online and in books, looking for multiple perspectives on historical events. What are the major industries? How big is the population? Are there any hot-button political controversies?

If you have the time during your trip, try going to museums and historical sites (for example, you could take a day off from chilling on Waikiki Beach to visit Iolani Palace and learn about the Hawaiian royal family and the U.S.’s annexation of Hawaii).

If you are visiting a country with a historically contentious relationship to the United States, seek out their perspectives on past conflicts, like the museum about the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City, where the civilian cost of war is documented in graphic and poignant detail.

If you can, also take the time to go meta and read about how tourism impacts your destination: a great example is Jamaica Kincaid’s book “A Small Place,” about the questionable morality of being a tourist on the island of Antigua.

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4. Be image-conscious

Are you about to whip out your phone to take a selfie with an adorable child you saw on the street? Think twice. Imagine how off-putting it would be if you were walking down the street with a toddler in New York or Seattle and a foreigner bounded up to you, pointed at the kid and eagerly whipped out their camera.

Respect people’s privacy and ask for consent for photographs where possible, especially if kids are involved. Further, think about how the images you produce may send a message.

Is there a dominant story about the place you’re visiting — that it’s spiritual, dangerous, poor? Do the pictures you’re taking add nuance or just reinforce a stereotype? Avoid emphasizing poverty or sexualizing the “exotic,” as artists visiting distant lands have done from time immemorial (just run a Google image search for “harem”).

The people you see during your travels are out and about trying to live their lives. You’ll be able to see more nuance if you don’t reduce them to spectacles.

5. Support international mobility for everyone

The ability to travel around the world is an immense privilege. Your American passport means being able to travel to 177 different countries and territories without a visa.

But that’s not true for many of the locals you’ll meet in the course of your travels: in Thailand it’s just 75 countries, India 58, and Peru 35. Support your newfound friends’ aspirations to be “citizens of the world.” Advocate for tourism and immigration policies that make it easier for them to come visit you, too — by expanding the Visa Waiver Program, for example.

We travel for a lot of reasons — to gain new experiences, take in the beauty of natural and historical sites, and even to learn about ourselves. It’s on all of us to understand the continued impacts of colonialism and America’s place in the global hierarchy as we reap the benefits of travel.

As much as exploration holds up a mirror to the soul, the destinations we visit show us the material consequences of history and our country’s decisions. Some might say that that’s depressing or unsexy. But you learn more when you start asking questions about how people really live and our collective history.

Adora Svitak

Adora Svitak is a Bay Area-based writer with a long-standing passion for education, feminism and youth empowerment. She has presented to audiences at the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Youth Forum, TED and numerous education conferences around the world. Adora studied international development, South Asia and creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She blogs at adorasv.blogspot.com and tweets @adorasv.