Respectful traveler talking with locals

How to Travel With Respect and Honor the Local Culture

Conscious travel is a bit of an art form. While no one expects you to do it perfectly, a few gestures can show locals you care about their home.

When done well, travel is a true symbiosis. Communities snag tourism dollars and travelers sample life in a faraway locale. A little give, a little take. Everyone goes home happy.

At least, that’s the idea. Yet all too often, locals get the short end of the stick. After the vacation is over, communities have to contend with trashed sites, inflation, construction, and depleted natural resources. It’s no wonder the travel season often leaves a bitter aftertaste.

While you may feel powerless to change the collective problems of overtourism, there’s plenty you can do on an individual level. Respectful travel comes down to three core tenets: mindful awareness, a respectful demeanor, and an open attitude.

Engage with the residents

It’s normal to want to stay inside your comfort zone, especially when you feel intimidated by a culture or you don’t speak the language very well. 

These days, it’s all too easy to stay within the confines of your resort, traveling group, or the traveler community. But keeping too tight a circle prevents cultural exchange. And that’s one of the reasons you’re traveling in the first place, right?

Locals are the gateway to a deeper understanding of the culture, customs, and history of a place. Meaningful interactions can broaden your horizons, shift your perspective, and dissolve any lingering stereotypes on both sides. 

It’s also a great way to forge new friendships and get off the beaten path. You may end up on a beach you’ve never heard of, or find yourself digging into a pastry better than any you could have found on the main street.

Open your mind to other views

A traveler and a local sitting and talking

Whether you agree with how a place operates or not, try not to judge and change things. Take time to listen to other points of view and ask questions. You might learn something new.

When I first moved to Dublin, for example, it drove me nuts that people arrived 45 minutes late, or more, to social events. This led to some tense interactions, as I come from a family that prefers to be on time, preferably 20 minutes early.

Over the course of a year, though, I came to appreciate this more relaxed attitude around time. Ever so gradually, I became less uptight.

It was me who needed to change—not the locals.

Learn some of the language

As a thought experiment, how would you feel if someone knocked on your door, asked you a question in another language, then got visibly upset when you didn’t understand them?

Though it may sound unreasonable, this exact scenario happens way more than you think. Europeans often cite Americans for assuming others speak English when they don’t.

At the very least, locals appreciate it when you learn some basic phrases in their mother tongue. Apps like Duolingo are an excellent place to start. Some governments offer free language classes. You can also find in-person classes or one-on-one tutors to help you.

Worth noting

As a beginner, you’re going to screw up the language. It’s a guaranteed part of the learning process. Keep practicing, errors and all. It’s the only way to get over your fear! Laugh at your mistakes together.

Respect sacred sites

The “tourist fail” headlines keep getting wilder. 

Like that guest dancing on a protected Mayan ruin in Mexico. Or that visitor taking a topless photo on a war memorial in Italy. Or that traveler smiling in a posed photo on the train tracks at Auschwitz, the concentration camp where millions suffered horrific deaths.

Before you leave home, take time to learn about the local customs and rules of sacred sites. You don’t want to be the person who didn’t get the memo.

Don’t assume locals need money

Many travelers carry around a sense of entitlement. They justify disrespectful behavior by telling themselves that a community depends on their tourism dollars. While that is true in some cases, it’s not a hard and fast rule.

Hawaii, for example, was a self-sustaining kingdom before the influx of tourists and developers. And with the many woes of overtourism, some popular destinations, like Hong Kong, wish that snobby tourists would just pack up and leave altogether.

Instead of going into a new place with the mindset of living like a king, view it as an opportunity for reciprocity. Ask yourself, “How can I give back to this community to show my gratitude?”

Avoid geotagging hidden gems

Traveler taking a photo of a waterfall

Social media and influencer culture bring many challenges to the travel industry. One of these is geotagging–i.e., letting people know exactly where you are. 

While it does help to raise awareness and inspire others, it also brings the crowds. When people start showing up en masse, locals watch in horror as their favorite beaches and trails suddenly transform from a dreamy refuge into a noisy, packed, trashed nightmare.

If you happen upon a spot that seems quiet and undisturbed, try to keep the news to yourself.  Ask a local what place you should tag instead. You can also cite a nearby national park, the state, or the country in general.

Respect nature

Travelers have a bad reputation for trashing beautiful places. Earlier this year, for example, visitors left 8,000 pounds of trash on Lake Tahoe’s shores during the Fourth of July weekend.

Messes like that can burden the locals, contaminate local resources, and attract wild animals, who then get sick from ingesting ingredients they’re not meant to eat.

How you can help

  • bag up dog waste
  • pick up cigarette butts
  • put out campfires properly
  • pick up trash, even if it isn’t yours
  • dispose of leftovers in secure trash bins
  • conserve resources, like fresh water
  • leave natural souvenirs behind (like shells with live critters)

Give wildlife space

There’s nothing like seeing a wild animal in their native habitat, but do be respectful.

A visitor in Yellowstone National Park recently made the news for getting dangerously close to a bison—an enormous 1,000-pound mammal—to take a selfie. If it would’ve stood up and attacked her, there’s no question she would’ve been toast. She got unbelievably lucky.

If an animal feels threatened, it may defend itself, even for actions that seem innocent, like the man who was trampled by an elephant in Uganda for simply leaving a vehicle.

Giving animals space is not just for our safety—it’s for theirs, too. Human interactions can be stressful, like the baby dolphin that was killed in Argentina when tourists used it for a photo.

As a good rule of thumb, offer 75 feet of space for prey and 300 feet for predators, says the National Park Service. For marine wildlife, aim for 300-600 feet, or the length of a football field, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Wear reef-friendly sunscreen

Many sunscreens contain chemicals that wash off in the ocean and damage the reefs and wildlife, according to the US government.

Look for sunscreens that are labeled “Reef Safe.” The ingredients list should be free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals that are well-known to damage marine environments. 

Reef-safe sunscreen brands

  • Mad Hippie
  • Raw Elements
  • Badger
  • CocoKind
  • Native

Drive respectfully

Travelers driving a motorcycle on the road

In places like Los Angeles and Miami, you’ll find tourists speeding, swerving, cutting people off, and blasting music in the middle of the night in a residential neighborhood. In destinations known for their nightlife, some frivolity is to be expected.

But when tourists take this need for speed to smaller locales, locals aren’t thrilled. Bali, for example, is considering a ban on tourists renting motorbikes to help curb some of the chaos.

To be clear, there’s no shame in having a bit of fun. But remember that while you’re on a joy ride, the locals are commuting to and from work, picking up their kids, and running errands. 

Even if you drive like a NASCAR racer at home, do try to keep the locals safe, like learning the local traffic laws and driving at a reasonable speed.

Be selective about accommodation

In many areas, residents are getting priced out of paradise. When foreign investors lap up two, three, four, or five houses to use as rentals, it displaces local families and drives up the cost of housing for all.

If you don’t want to support this practice, check the host’s profile to see how many other listings they have. You can message them and ask “Is this an investment property?” You can also rent a room in a local’s house, instead of the whole place.

Support local shops and hotels

The paradox of travel is this: people love the comforts of home… away from home.

When I was in San Jose, Costa Rica—a city flanked on either side by gorgeous, untamed jungle—I was surprised by the number of American chains I came across. The same can be said for any capital city.

While it’s comforting to stick with the brands you know, consider the local options for hotels, restaurants, and shops. That way, your dollar will have a direct impact on a local family. Even better, you can leave small businesses great reviews, so other travelers follow suit.

Find ways to give back

Volunteering can add a whole new dimension to your trip, while mitigating some of the challenges of overtourism. Every little bit helps.

How you can help

  • participate in a beach clean-up
  • volunteer at an animal shelter
  • tutor students who want English lessons
  • offer your skills for community projects
  • do a work trade on a local farm

Pay locals fairly

Travelers in an outdoor market

Expats, particularly Americans, have a poor reputation for being exploitative. If you haggle or do business abroad, avoid the temptation to short-change locals.

There’s a balance between what’s appropriate for the local cost of living and what you know someone would charge back home. Ask around and find the middle ground.

Rather than focusing on cheap goods and labor, focus on relationships.

Fall back on the Golden Rule

In general, if it’s not something you’d want visitors to do to you, or your land, then don’t do it abroad. Travel is better for everyone if you treat others how you want to be treated.

Locals always appreciate it, for example, when you honor modesty customs at religious sites, ask for permission before taking photos, and observe quiet hours in residential areas.

Accept that you’re an outsider

Even in the most welcoming of places, you may still be regarded as a foreigner—and that’s okay. This could mean that you have to pay “gringo tax” in the shops or that your taxi rides cost a little more. 

To that, I say: pick your battles. Is it really worth causing a stir? I usually opt for gratitude and remind myself that I’m fortunate enough to even travel freely in the first place.

Ask how you can help

Governments welcome travelers. Locals often hate them.

With ramped-up construction, increased cost of living, traffic, pollution, busier lines at the store, and big companies that drive out mom-and-pop shops, it’s no wonder there’s tension.

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to one region, either. Places like Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Portugal know all too well what happens when too many visitors flood the gates all at once.

Left unchecked, outside influence can erode the cornerstones of culture that make a destination so appealing to visit in the first place. Over time, locals may not even recognize their own home, the land they once loved.

While you’re visiting, ask locals what you can do to help. The solution, whatever it is, will arise from ongoing dialogues about how to improve the travel season for everyone.

Quick summary

As communities deal with an unprecedented numbers of tourists in a post-pandemic world, you can help dismantle negative stereotypes by traveling with respect.

  • Understand the tension. Tourists, expats, and digital nomads can boost the local economy, but they can also introduce many problems for existing residents.
  • Do the research. Before you travel, educate yourself about a destination’s history, culture, and current events.
  • Take cues from others. Abide by local customs, manner of dress, and social behaviors. Be respectful towards the people, wildlife, nature, and sites.
  • Find ways to give back. Pick up trash in public areas, volunteer your time and skills, and leave positive reviews for small businesses.
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