The Good Global Traveler: 17 Actions You Can Take

Learning a New Skill - Zikra Initiative, Jordan
Learning new skills from the women of the Zikra Initiative in Jordan.

Travel holds tremendous potential. For the traveler, it offers a path to experience, education and personal transformation. For local host communities, it provides a means to economic benefit and cultural exchange. It’s this magic “travel equation” that among other things first inspired us to quit our jobs for the road over five years ago, and to this day encourages us to continue traveling, exploring, learning, and sharing.

However, developments across the tourism industry are not always rosy. Over the years, we’ve seen our share of rapacious tourism development and the cumulative effects of thoughtless individual actions conspiring to harm local cultures, economies and the environment.

So what can a traveler do? The cynic says nothing, the hopeful say plenty.

First, there’s a process. We’d like to think of it as a chain beginning with one’s core values. Couple those with an evolving awareness and informed decision-making, and you have a platform to take action. Recognize your right to choose, vote with your feet, exercise the power of the purse, and appreciate that your actions — even at their smallest — have consequences. Micro changes to macro differences; over time this makes change.

But what does all this gibberish mean on a personal level?” you ask.

What does it mean in terms of some simple actions we all can take? In other words, what does it mean to be a good global traveler?

Our recent announcement about our work with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) got us thinking about the intersection of sustainable tourism and individual actions. Here are a few sustainable travel tips that we’ve picked up and applied along our travels.

Human fallibility caveat: Think of the following as suggestions — not hard and fast rules but guidelines to supplement your own better judgment.

Cultural Sustainability Reponsible Travel Tips

1. Remember first that you are a guest.

Come bearing respect for your host country and its people, and demonstrate this by your actions and engagement. In return, you’ll maximize the likelihood that you will be treated in kind.

2. Dress respectfully.

If in doubt, err on the side of more clothes, less skin. Not only does dressing appropriately help you fit in, but it also reduces the possibility of offending. Remember that this is their country and their home, not yours. Buying and wearing a local piece of clothing (e.g., a headscarf or an outfit in the local style) can help you fit in. It may even jumpstart a few conversations.

Audrey and Vendor with Colorful Scarves - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Audrey bonds while headscarf shopping in Turkmenistan.

3. Release your inner child.

Don’t be afraid to show your curiosity when you travel. Not only does asking questions satiate your curiosity and enable you to learn more about the place you are visiting, but it offers a gateway of exchange and engagement with local people. Consider starting with simple, non-threatening topics like food, markets, and children (ages, names, etc.) and you just might find a conversation that leads to family, life, politics, and more.
Read more: How to Travel Outside Your Comfort Zone

4. Use open body language.

Smile, be polite, be gracious. These simple acts and their spirit can take you a long way. On the smile front, we don’t advocate fake, goofy grins, but a genuine smile does make a positive first impression; it can help build goodwill, especially when you don’t share a spoken language. Remember that over 50% of communication is non-verbal.

Laughing Women at Market - Nukus, Uzbekistan
Uzbek smiles and laughs at the market.

5. Learn a couple words of the local language, at least.

Even if you consider yourself a foreign language lost cause, try to retain at least 4-5 key words in the local language that you can use for greeting people, niceties, and politely ordering food. The big three (hello, please and thank you) offer a good starting point. We also try to learn an oddball word that will throw people off, break a smile, and start a discussion.
Read more: 7 Tips for Learning Foreign Languages on the Road

Economic Sustainability Responsible Travel Tips

6. Eat local. Stay local.

Patronize local businesses. When you travel, maximize the likelihood that local people are benefiting economically from your visit. This isn’t to say that you should avoid businesses that are foreign-owned, but try to determine whether these establishments hire local people and are invested in the local community. It’s important to point out that some foreign-owned establishments (especially smaller ones) are there because a foreigner fell in love with the place and hoped to stay and contribute.

Indian Street Food - Varanasi, India
Sometimes eating local turns into cooking local, too!

7. Don’t spend all your money in one place.

Consider patronizing a variety of restaurants and shops in order to spread the economic benefit of your visit around the community. An added bonus of this approach is that it affords you variety, such as the opportunity to try different foods and to engage with different people.

8. When it comes to souvenirs and handicrafts, try to buy direct.

Buying souvenirs directly from the craftsperson or from a cooperative puts more money in the hands of the artisan rather than in the hands of middlemen. Seek out artisan markets where you can buy directly from the artisan. Look for cooperative shops that are transparent regarding the percentage of sales that go to the artist. Particularly when it comes to fair trade cooperatives, the quality of the artwork is often higher, as is your feel-good quotient.

Indigenous Crafts Market on Main Square - Cusco, Peru
Cusco’s main square first Sunday of the month. Buy indigenous crafts directly from the artisan.

9. Frequent social enterprises.

Social enterprises are businesses that focus on training people (e.g., hospitality training for street kids) for better futures. Sometimes they support a separate charity with the profits of the business. Our experience is that the quality of the food, crafts, and services is often above average. Provided you ask a few questions (or read the organization’s literature), you’ll know what percentage of the proceeds is going where. Next time you travel, consider doing a bit of research to see if social enterprises are at work where you are headed. (Southeast Asia destinations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are loaded with them.)
Read more: Hoa Sua School restaurants in Hanoi, Vietnam

10. Choose tour and homestay providers that are invested in the community.

Homestays, community-based tourism and community visits offer some of the best opportunities to engage with local and indigenous people and to better understand how they live. Ask questions of the agency or of your guide regarding their relationship with the community you hope to visit. Consider choosing programs where operators are transparent regarding what percentage of the fee goes directly to the family or community.

Bangladeshi Cooking at Home Stay in Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Becoming one of the family at a homestay in Bangladesh.

Read more: Zikra Initiative in Jordan, Bangladesh Village Homestay: Becoming One of the Family, Quetzal Trekkers: Climbing a Volcano in Nicaragua, G Adventures tours with visits to NGOs in Bali and Tanzania

Environmental Sustainability Responsible Travel Tips

11. Don’t deny yourself clean water, but try not to leave a trail of plastic bottles in your wake.

Bring your own water bottle with you (we currently use the Camelbak BPA Bottle) and refill it with ultraviolet (UV) purified and/or filtered water (more and more hotels offer this). Consider using something like the Steripen to kill all the bacteria yourself (note: this doesn’t get rid of bad taste, so you may need to buy some rehydration salts, Tang or lemonade powder to make it taste better).

12. Respect the boundaries of animals.

If you are asked to keep your distance from animals, or not to touch them, heed the request. Unwanted attention can cause stress and anxiety on animals, sometimes resulting in altered behavior or even worse, abandonment of their nests and young. When we were in the Galapagos Islands we saw travelers deliberately stray well off the path because of the “I can do what I want because I paid for this!” mentality. Kudos to our guide who would have none of this and continually herded them back on the trail and educated them on the potential damage caused by their actions.
Read more: Eight Days in the Galapagos Islands

Albatross Dance - Galapagos Islands
Keep your distance so you don’t disturb the waved albatross mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

13. Reward environmentally friendly hotels and establishments.

Consider giving preference to businesses that recycle, source produce locally and engage in environmentally friendly development. These days, this means more than not washing the towels and sheets every day. Mind also how the establishment treats and invests in its local employees. Do your research to be sure that the establishment is the real deal (e.g., look for reputable sustainable tourism certifications), and remember that actions speak louder than words.

14. When it comes to trash, set a good example.

Don’t just throw away your own trash, but on occasion, consider picking up errant pieces of trash in otherwise clean areas, especially if someone is around to view your good deed. You may think, “Well, this isn’t my responsibility and this isn’t my country,” but we’ve noticed that local people take note of what tourists do. Your deed may actually begin a conversation about trash and the environment.
Our experience: When we picked up plastic bottles on a beach at the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh, several Bangladeshi tourists took note and began to help us, embarrassed by what others had done.

15. Don’t take what you shouldn’t. Don’t buy from others who do.

Visit places to appreciate their natural resources and their culture, but be careful what you take home. Some governments keep strict regulations on what sorts of cultural artifacts and bits of nature visitors can collect or purchase and take out of the country. Respect these rules and don’t buy from people disobeying the law (e.g., selling protected shells, skins, antiques, etc.).

16. Use public transport.

Public transport is not just a way to get around, it’s an experience in and of itself. We understand that public transport in a new city where you don’t speak the language can seem downright scary, but we cannot recommend enough that you give it a try. Not only is public transportation an environmentally sound way to get around, but you’ll interact with and meet local people and get to observe “real life” away from tourist sites and shops.
Read more: From Bangkok to Buenos Aires, For the Love of Public Transport

Buenos Aires Colectivo (Bus) - Argentina
Embracing the bus in Buenos Aires.

17. As much as you can, walk.

Not only is walking environmentally friendly, but it also offers a closer, more engaged relationship with the people and places around you. Some of our most memorable experiences happen while walking because we are able to meet people and see things that we otherwise would have missed if we happened to be zipping by in a car or bus.

——-

And for the final twist: The above doesn’t just apply when traveling. We can all be good global travelers, even at home.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but rather the beginning of a conversation. What other tips or actions would you add to be a good global traveler?

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Comments

  1. says

    I agree with everything here and maybe one more: Ask before taking pictures of people. I quite often see people pointing their lenses in other people’s faces without having some sort of genuine contact with them or without asking. In general, people don’t mind having their picture taken, but some do, so it’s always worth the 5 seconds of simply asking.

    Kudos again!

  2. says

    This is such a good list – I want to print it out in miniature and keep it in my wallet ;) #1 is so vital, and additionally I think it’s important to remember that you’re an ambassador too – for a country, culture, race, heritage, gender, whatever – when you travel.

  3. says

    Wow, great post, guys. All these points are so important these and I try to incorporate them in my travels as much as I possibly can. Ethical and sustainable travel is the way to go. Thanks for pointing people in the right direction!!

  4. says

    Sustainable travel is so important. I haven’t yet involved myself deeply in this aspect of travel as many others have. But I am, and have been for some time now, inspired to participate. Thanks for sharing the great tips to help me get started

  5. says

    As a photographer, I would like to add an additional tip. Talk to people before you photograph them. Try to engage them in conversation or admire their child before you click the shutter. Above all, don’t treat people in colorful clothing as simply a colorful culture, treat them as individuals.

  6. says

    I think these are great tips. I would add that folks should research local customs before visiting any place, for instance in some countries it is polite to burp after a meal, in others in is NOT polite to leave a tip, visiting churches can often mean you need to ensure your shoulders are covered. I made a mistake like this once in Cuba…we headed out on a gorgeous day and I was wearing well, short shorts, only to find myself in need of a washroom and the closest place was an official government building. If I didn’t receive the stares of a lifetime as it is impolite to enter without “full clothing”. Luckily I explained and they were kind enough to allow me the use of the bathroom (which by the way for a government building was one of the worst I came across LOL) but it just taught me a lesson. And your “dress appropriately” tip hits the “nail on the head” so to speak.

  7. says

    Great list. These are also great ways to really get to know the place you’re traveling. Yes, it’s possible to make mistakes, especially with body language, gestures and dress. But most people are pretty open to travelers when it’s clear they’re trying to be respectful.

    And then there’s also the question. How does one act like a good guest? Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as we’ve been hosting more and more people.

  8. Sutapa says

    Great post! I love the one about encouraging local artists and artisans by buying direct. I know in some places, you go to ‘emporiums’, those mark up the prices – and I am not sure pass the profits to the artists.

    So many regions of the world are becoming westernized, it is a shame in a way. Go to Bangalore and you are confronted with huge malls!

  9. says

    Fantastic guidelines Dan & Audrey! These should be handed out to everyone flying outside their own countries. :)

    I also like that you added the “Human Fallibility Caveat”. Demonstrate by example.

  10. says

    We love these guidelines and are excited to share them with our followers. (Verge Magazine is all about travel with purpose.) Your partnership with GSTC looks great. (The only thing I’d add is that less skin isn’t the only key to dressing appropriately–so is looser clothing.)

  11. says

    I agree with Kyle at number one post about asking re pictures and video.

    I was in a market in Chiang Mai yesterday with my video camera, I did ask and someone did actually say no, so I am pleased to have asked first, otherwise it could have been embarrasing for all concerned.

    Usually if people are happy about what you are doing they will smile, if not, then take it as a warning they are probably less than impressed.

    Best Wishes

    Jackie in Chiang Mai

  12. ACW says

    Really interesting article and as a long term traveller I agree with all of the points made, especially carrying your own water bottle and treating your water. I have sadly seen too many cities in Africa spoiled by huge piles of plastic bottles.

    However I think one very, very important issue has been missed, and that is plane travel. Surely one of the most important ways of keeping your travel sustainable is to minimise the amounts of flights taken? Not only is taking public transport a great way to see a city, it’s also a great way to see an entire country or region, and a way to avoid taking flights. And there is something really fascinating about crossing land borders and seeing the gradual changes in landscape and culture.

  13. says

    Great article. I think alot of it can be summed up by the simple rule of respect for persons and respect for land i.e treating others as you would like to be treated…this usually works for me. Obviously that’s over simplifying it a bit…:)

  14. says

    @Kyle:  Thank you!  Respect for people while taking their photo cannot be emphasized enough.  We too have seen giant lenses poking out eyeballs.  And it’s true, all it takes is a couple of seconds to ask the question. Often a personal connection is made in the process and the photo is all the better for it.

    More thoughts on this topic here: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/05/10-tips-for-great-street-and-market-photos/

    @Naomi:  Wow, thank you!  Good enough to fit in your wallet!

    Your point about being an ambassador is terrific.  It really brings this full circle.  Love it!

    @Conni:  You are welcome!  Nice to see you here.

    @Bob R:  No matter where you are.

    @Cristina:  Glad we could help you get started.

    @Michael:  This seems to be a popular one. Kyle also mentioned it above. We couldn’t agree more.

    @Irene: Very good point to research local customs in advance of landing on the ground.  Definitely would help in terms of fitting in and the cultural faux pas.

    Glad the dress appropriately tip hit the nail on the head!

    @Leigh:  So true. It’s less what you do, than how you do it.  After all, we all make mistakes.

    Ooh, good guest.  I think #1 – respect – is the guiding principle on that one. I’ve heard we do well in that department, but maybe you’d be a better judge of that :)

    @Sutapa:  Oh, emporiums.  We know what you mean.

    @Matthew:  Good idea.  I like the “before you fly flyer” idea.

    Glad you like the caveat.  We are fallible humans, so we felt expert in writing this note!

    @Jessica:  Good point about not-so-tight clothing in the dress appropriately department.  Thanks!

    @Jackie:  So true.  Your subject’s body language will say almost everything that needs to be said.

    @Matt:  Thanks.

    @ACW: Thank you for highlighting this.   We tend to travel mainly by bus, train, shared taxi, etc. within countries and across regions as well.  The link to public transport, as we re-read, probably doesn’t make the “use public transport for all travel” as well as it could be made.

    Your point about the clicks and borders reminds me of something we wrote moons ago about border crossings.  No way that flights get you this:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/11/ecuador-to-turkmenistan-10-border-crossings-we-have-known/

    @Sasha: It’s all about respect.  No argument there!

  15. says

    Very good points! I particularly agree with “eat local, stay local”. It’s a great to not only contribute to the place you are staying at but also sample the best of local culture and cuisine.

  16. says

    Yes yes YES! Fantastic list. You touched on a lot of things I try to tell people when trying to explain sustainable tourism. Most people assume it only relates to “green” or eco-friendly practices, but of course that’s not the case. Being sure that your money is actually helping the local economy and that your actions are not adversely affecting the people and places you visit, well, THAT’s what sustainable travel is all about.

  17. says

    @Zara: Couldn’t agree more! Eating and staying local usually provides the most memorable experiences and learning opportunities from a trip.

    @Amanda: I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence describing what sustainable travel is all about. I also believe that travelers need to understand that sustainable travel is not just about the environment or “eco” items, but that local people and economy are just as important. I remember you focusing on this on the post you wrote for LandLopers a few months ago.

  18. says

    This is great! Tourism has great power, and we as tourists and global changemakers have the power to use tourism as a tool for good. We have a responsibility as we travel and being conscious of how to travel in a more ethical way will ensure that the benefits of tourism are spread equally.

    Come check out and COMMIT to a tourists code of ethics designed by a team of Canadian and Vietnamese students. We have formatted on Facebook to make super easy for people to commit to it! http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=399237150106480

  19. Thristhan says

    Seems like you’ve covered a great deal of tourist areas. That’s great and the best part is getting the chance to learn about other people’s cultures and traditions.

  20. says

    @Chris: I do agree that awareness is the first step towards traveling with responsibility and trying to use one’s actions and money towards positive benefits for the local people and environment. Thanks for sharing information about COMMIT!

    @Thristhan: People are what keep us traveling – engaging with them, learning from them, laughing from there. People and cultures are some of the greatest joys of traveling.

  21. says

    Thanks so much for all the great tips – think you might have inspired my next blog post actually. How Being a Camp Counselor is Good for the Environment. Surely being stuck out in the wilderness with no electricity helps the world a bit!

  22. says

    So many common sense ideas included in your list you wonder why everyone doesn’t adopt them. We don’t always take public transport but when we do it ends up being a story in itself and ultimately very rewarding.

  23. says

    People rarely talk about the “ethics” in traveling, mostly it’s just about pleasure for the individual – but why shouldn’t we remember this point of view too!

    I live in the capital of Finland, Helsinki, and it really lifts up my mood when there are happy and polite tourists, and not just busy commuters – people’s attitude kind of rubs on you, how they are feeling there, it makes me appreciate my home city if there is a lot of appreciating around me.

  24. says

    This is a great collection of tips. I think that a lot of people feel they should make donations to people in third world countries when they visit. What they don’t realize, though, is that by spending your money at local businesses, you are doing your part to help the locals even more than if you just gave handouts. Providing jobs for people is a great way that a traveler can give to a community.

  25. says

    The two of you are among the most ethical travelers out there, and it shows. Thank you for sharing your tips and insights with others. I had never thought of doing tip #14 before. I pick up trash in my own community, but what a great idea to do it abroad as well.

  26. says

    @Lucy: That’s a great blog post topic! Being stuck out in the wilderness without electricity not only helps the world, but I imagine is spurs a lot of creativity and fun as well. Let us know when you draft this post – would be fun to see.

    @Leigh: Over the years – on the road and at home – we’ve realized that what is common sense to some is anything but to others :) Taking public transport usually provides great interactions, stories and a lot of fun.

    @Anni: We couldn’t agree with you more about thinking about travel beyond just the consuming aspect. There are so many small decisions and actions that help leave a smaller footprint and hopefully benefits the people of the place you’re visiting.

    Often, we hear stories about rude tourists so it’s nice to hear your story about polite and happy tourists breaking the routine and making you appreciate your own home city.

    @Bryan: Some great points here! When we traveled in Burma a few years ago, a small business owner told us that “Tourism is the people’s business.” If travelers make a conscious effort to spread their money around locally, it can go such a long way in increasing the standard of living for people in a consistent way instead of relying on the whim of aid organizations or charity. Thanks for bringing this important issue into the discussion.

    @JoAnna: Thanks so much for your kind words here about our approach to travel. It really means a lot to us. We started picking up trash or showing that we would *not* throw trash out the window early in our travels when we saw fields littered with plastic bags and trash from train and bus routes. Just starting the conversation with someone about why I am looking for a trash can instead of throwing it on the ground can start an interesting discussion.

  27. says

    What a great post! I’ve started running a new responsible travel blog so this is just the sort of travel advice I’m sharing on Goodtrippers (www.goodtrippers.co.uk). You’ve got a lot covered already, but I’d also recommend thinking about you can give to the places you visit – it’s not all about taking, but sharing cultures, experiences etc. Many people in non-English speaking countries appreciate some time to practice their English with you, or learn more about where you’re from.

  28. says

    @Kerry: Thank you for your comment. I’d suggest that if you travel as we’ve suggested above, you are giving. Particularly from the cultural standpoint — curiosity, body language, local language — are all for the purpose of interacting and demonstrating our shared humanity. This is the purest and easiest thing we can all give — giving of ourselves — when we travel. Outside of that, I agree that we can give resources — time, skills, etc. if it’s appropriate, and especially if there is a relationship in it for the long-term.

  29. Leann says

    Hi, Thanks, I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m still struggling with 11 though. I’m a big water drinker who is travelling throughout SE Asia ATM, and sure there is plenty of water available but it is all the treated water that doesn’t rehydrate you. I’ve added so much Royal-D (rehydration salts) to the water I was drinking that I’m sure to turn orange; also it’s so sweet (bluck!). I’ve got to work out a better way :)

    • says

      Hi Leann,
      Staying properly hydrated in SE Asia can be challenging. Agree that the rehydration powders can be overly sweet and icky. One of the things that we would do is be sure to eat lots of curries or foods with salt in it to help our bodies absorb the water that we did drink. Too much salt is obviously unhealthy, but a little salt can be beneficial when trying to rehydrate. Good luck and let us know if you figure something out!

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