As travelers, we declare ourselves lovers of the world. We love to see it, we love to admire it, we love to explore it. By default, this makes us global citizens. And, as such, we have to strive to be conscious of and respectful to the world we're lucky enough to call our playground. We have to ensure that fulfilling our dreams of wandering the world doesn't in turn negatively impact or harm it, or others who we share it with. Here are five easy ways to be a more conscious traveler:
1. PAY ATTENTION TO RULES & LOCAL CUSTOMS
On a recent visit through the Duomo in Florence, I was shocked by how much tagging and graffiti there was on the walls along the interior of the building -- even despite the dozens of signs asking people not to write on the walls. Everyone wants to leave their mark on the world, but this is not the place to do it.
When visiting sights, monuments or special spaces, pay attention to the rules and abide them. They are there for a reason. This goes for everything - from marked barriers (which are there to protect both you, fellow travelers and the sites themselves) to important requests for appropriate dress (for example, when visiting places of worship). Even when signs aren't posted, use your best judgement. Remember that you're lucky to be a visitor in this place. Show your gratitude by being respectful.
2. THINK TWICE ABOUT ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS
You know those pictures you see on Facebook of your roommate from college cuddling that majestic tiger in Thailand? Amazing, right?! ... or is it? The unfortunate truth is that because of their popularity, exotic animal encounters can have crippling repercussions on the animals themselves. Over the last few years, there have been several stories exposing the real conditions behind animal parks that thrive on tourism. Most recently, attention has been focused on elephant riding and tiger temples in southeast Asia. While most attractions market themselves as "sanctuaries" or "rehabilitation centers," claiming that they treat and care for the animals in the utmost humane manner, this is often a ruse to reassure and drive in visitors. This can also include zoos and other wildlife parks.
While animal encounters can be a great way to further your appreciation for these amazing creatures, do your research and take the time to really think about your potential impact. PETA and other animal rights organizations provide helpful resources on these issues. There are often more ethical alternatives that still bring you in close contact with the animals, but in a way that ensures their safety and well-being as well as yours. For example, elephant rescues that allow you to help bathe and feed them instead of riding them. Still, in some cases, the best thing you can do is simply admire them from afar.
3. BE MINDFUL OF HOW YOU "GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY"
A common trend among travelers (especially those from US and Europe) is participating in tours or educational visits that support the local community, the most popular of which is visiting local villages or orphanages. These are particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. While on the surface it seems like a wonderful thing, they may actually do little to support the community or children directly - and in fact, can have unintended negative consequences.
In places where tourists can pay to visit a local orphanage, issues of corruption can arise. The orphanage may be a risk of becoming run as a money making scheme, taking away from the real needs of the children and community they serve.
That's not to say that all orphanage visits are a scam. But, again, its important to do your research and be mindful of ethical practices. Remember that children are not a commodity and orphanages or hospitals are not tourist attractions. Consider whether or not your visit actually gives back to the community and whether you could support the community in other, more productive ways. Do your research and see what might work best for the particular city or country you're visiting.
4. BE RESPECTFUL WITH YOUR CAMERA
As travelers, most of us come armed and ready with our cameras. We love to capture everything we see - it helps us keep the memories alive and share them with others. There's no shame in that, and most people you come across in the world will understand it. Nevertheless, it's important to be mindful of who and what you take pictures of. People may not want to have their photo taken, so always ask permission if you would like to take a picture of someone in particular. This is especially true in sacred places or remote areas where people may have sensitivities around modern technology. And to the point made above, be especially sensitive when taking pictures of children and be conscious of their comfort and safety. In museums or places of worship, take note of signs that prohibit or limit photography -- in some cases, flash photography isn't allowed in order to help preserve artwork or avoid disrupting those inside.
5. CONSIDER YOUR GLOBAL FOOTPRINT
To this point we've talked specifically about being more socially-conscious of the places you visit and those who live there. But what's equally important is being aware of the global footprint your travels have on the worlds' resources. When you fly to your destination, when you toss that water bottle in the trash, and when you take advantage of the hotel laundry, you're leaving a mark on the world - just as you do when you're home. Luckily there are small, easy ways that you can recognize and compensate for your impact:
- Consider participating in your airline's carbon offset programs, where you can pay for your portion of the aircraft's carbon emissions. This is usually $5-10 added to the price of your plane ticket that goes towards investing in carbon reduction projects.
- Make an effort to recycle - particularly paper and plastic containers. Even better, travel with a water bottle to cut down on the use of plastic bottles entirely (this is also a great way to save money - because constantly buying bottled water adds up!). The tap water in most countries is safe to drink and taste great; double check the status of potable water in your destination before you leave.
- Hand wash your clothes and line dry them (instead of using the washing machine and dryer in your hotel or vacation rental), helping to save water and electricity!
- Walk from place to place (instead of taking a taxi or driving), which cuts down on car emissions, keeps you active, and is usually the best way to explore a city.
- Turn off the lights and air conditioning when you leave your hotel room. Even though you don't foot the bill, you'll help save electricity.