How To Be A More Ethical Traveler—Because It Matters
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How To Be A More Ethical Traveler—Because It Matters

Of all the obstacles that might stand in the prospective traveler’s way, cost is usually the most prohibitive. The internet is saturated with articles and (ironically, pricey) webinars where travel influencers divulge their affordable travel “secrets.” But they really aren’t so hush-hush when they all say the same thing: traveling to poorer countries will get you more bang for your buck.

Few travelers are actually prepared to confront the glaring class inequalities that exist between themselves and locals in these regions, where the majority of the population are people of color. Accordingly, they often navigate this dynamic awkwardly or, worse, avoid acknowledging it at all.

These tensions were exemplified in a video that went viral last year depicting a Nepali woman yelling at and chasing a white British woman down a mountain in the Himalayas. The headlines were scandalous, with most viewers casting the Nepali woman as hysterical and violent and the white woman as the victim. What really went down is much more disturbing.

Let’s unpack this story to understand how exploitative tourist behavior can be—and how we as travelers can avoid being messy with our wealth. Generally speaking, the typical tourist is a rich white Westerner, and I mean “rich” on a global scale, so if you’ve chosen a destination specifically because it would be cheaper for you, ethical practices should be a priority.

Here are some tips:

Do your research

In a nutshell, the British tourist, Gemma Wilson, became irate because she felt she was being overcharged for tea at Nepali local Pasang Gurung’s cafe. She then threw the requested 150 rupees ($1.35) on the ground and began filming Gurung while yelling at her in English. It escalated from there, as we can see in the strategically-trimmed portion of the video that Wilson released.

It feels exploitative that a woman like Wilson would pick such a big fight over something she could easily afford, but she likely became accustomed to paying less in a big city like Kathmandu, neglecting to understand that remote areas like where she was trekking require goods to be transported in and that costs money. Gurung even says, “This [is a] mountain area! Why bargain?” in the video. If you plan on taking a special excursion in an area that doesn’t have easy access to goods, be prepared to pay a little extra for them—and always ask for the price first.

For that matter, preparation is crucial if you’re worried about your travel budget and don’t want to screw people over. Guidebooks and Google can easily give you estimates of everyday needs like food, lodging, and transportation in your destination.

Make an effort to speak the language

Your handle on the language of the destination in question will shape where your dollars end up, so if you’re only prepared to speak English, you’re likely to end up patronizing businesses owned by other English-speaking foreigners. Can’t learn the language or just feeling lazy? There’s an app for that. There are actually like a million apps that can translate sentences in seconds, so pick one and do your best.

The same applies to tour guides—try finding a local, multilingual guide through your tour company, hotel, or social network, and tip them well. Giving your money to less-qualified foreign guides could be a wasteful misuse of funds.

Make a plan before you haggle (or skip it altogether)

If you plan on having exchanges where haggling is customary, like buying souvenirs, and want something specific, ask a knowledgeable and neutral party like a taxi driver what the going rate for it is. And keep a currency exchange app at hand so you don’t have to translate and do math all at once. You can also avoid haggling altogether and just pay what women in markets charge you, taking the time they spent creating and the quality of the products into account.

Step away from the snakeskin and forget the slum tours

Definitely stay away from products sourced by exploiting endangered wildlife or coral reefs, like turtle shells, fur, ivory, or reptilian skin (I don’t even want to know). Yes, even if they’re being sold at your resort. Consult the CITES agreement, a document on best wildlife souvenir practices to check where your destination country stands. Other exploitative businesses to steer clear of include orphan tourism and slum tourism. Just no.

Research how local your lodging really is

After flights, lodging will most likely be your biggest expense, and the hotel industry is really where colonialism rears its ugly head. It’s near-impossible to engage in all-inclusive resort or cruise tourism ethically because of the massive amounts of waste they create and resources they usurp at the expense of the surrounding environment and communities. There’s also very little transparency around how much workers get paid. The best rule of thumb in ethical travel is to have your dollars pass through as few hands as possible so that you know exactly what you’re paying for and whom you’re paying for it.

All-inclusive tourism is the opposite of this by design. If you’re going to stay at a regular hotel owned by white foreigners or local elites in places where most people are Black and brown, at least follow this responsible travel guide that prompts you to “ask the owner how many local people they employ, what percentage this is of the total [rate], and whether any are in management positions.”

Keep in mind that women of color are screwed over the most by the mass tourism industry, so funnel your money to them as much as possible. Consider making a donation to a women’s collective or co-op, school, shelter, etc. a line item in your budget.

Eat local

It’s the same with food—try not to buy from international, corporate chains when local (and most likely healthier, tastier) options are widely available. If you’re going to drink Starbucks, eat McDonald’s, and only speak to other tourists, do everyone a favor and stay home. And I can’t believe I have to tell people to avoid haggling over food and drink. You can’t do that at any restaurant in the UK, so why would Wilson think it’s OK to do it in Nepal?

Ignore these tips at your own risk

While the dispute between Wilson and Gurung is uncomfortable, I’ve watched it many times with a mix of thrill and fervor because I’m rooting for Gurung. She represents so many women of color in tourism and in the world at large who just want equal—or, better yet, commensurate—pay for their labor. She finally got fed up after being denied that for the umpteenth time.

And in doing so, Gurung teaches us the ultimate travel tip: If you have the audacity to pull up in someone else’s land and demand special treatment, be prepared to catch these hands.