How can I be a good traveler?

So obviously the blog is called “Don’t Be a Dick” so it is going to have an avoidance or prevention focus as compared with an approach or promotion focus, but reading about all the things not to do can be overwhelming. Can you write a post focusing on concrete actions we can take to be a good citizen traveler, not just how to avoid being a shitty one?

Sincerely,
More than “Not A Dick”

That’s fair, MoNAD. This blog is going to, generally speaking, focus on the “don’t’s” of travel over the “do’s.” This may sound like I’m laying down a lot of prohibitions, but the real reason for it is that there’s actually a pretty low bar to being a good traveler. As long as you’re thoughtful and respectful, you’re basically good to go.

I currently live in a town on the Jersey Shore. Our economy is primarily driven by tourism. Residents of the Shore have a few negative words for our tourist visitors: “Benny’s,” meaning someone from Bayonne Elizabeth, Newark or New York, and “Shoobies,” meaning people who wear their shoes on the beach (don't wear shoes on the beach) Bennies and Shoobies are the type of people you see on the show Jersey Shore, and they are terrible. They come into town, they get hammered, they get into fights, they puke on people’s lawns, they leave their garbage everywhere, and they make our favorite bars insufferable for the entire summer. This is a common bumper sticker/piece of graffiti:

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That said, tourism is the primary driver of our local economy, so it’s a love-hate relationship. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who everyone in town is. There’s no clear-cut way of identifying a local vs. a Benny, as long as you’re not wearing shoes on the beach, and as long as you’re not shouting “GYM TAN LAUNDRY!” before projectile vomiting onto a child on the boardwalk.

The truth is, plenty of tourists are delightful. They’re excited to be here, they’re curious about life here, and they don’t leave their cigarette butts on the beach. The overarching rule is really very simple: just don’t be a dick. 

That said, I will try and provide more concrete suggestions. I have one really effective metaphor that I try (and sometimes fail) to apply when I visit places.

Tip 1: Behave like a guest, not like a customer.

My biggest recommendation is to treat your visit like a visit to a friends house, not like a stay at a hotel. At a friends house, you would clean up after yourself, you would try to be quiet at normal sleeping hours, and if you went out partying, you would try your best not to vomit on their belongings. You would also engage with your host. You would talk to her, you’d ask her about herself, and you’d share about yourself. You wouldn’t criticize her way of doing things, you’d only ask about it to try and understand her way better.

Thinking of yourself as a customer when you visit a town, city, or country, creates a whole new dynamic. It creates a mindset where you think of the people living there as your employees, as people whose services you have purchased. You have not. They have their own lives, and those lives don’t revolve around you.

This metaphor goes surprisingly far, and it allows for faux pas and occasional misunderstandings without you having to be too hard on yourself. As long as your interactions are based in mutual respect, you can be forgiven for any mistakes.

Tip 2: Support the local businesses.

This is one of the easiest ways to do more good than harm: skip chain stores and restaurants in favor of local joints; go to B&B’s/AirBnB’s/local hotels instead of Hilton’s or Ramada’s; and stop at local bodegas and shops if you’re looking for a souvenir. Not only will this help the local economy, but it will also add a more distinct personality to your experience.

This is especially important when you go to a resort in a developing nation — resorts are typically owned internationally, and a lot of the money you spend at them doesn’t stay in the country. Even if you dodecide to go to an all-inclusive resort owned by an international chain, try and pop out occasionally to spend some time and money in smaller local places.

Tip 3: Do some advance research before going outdoors.

The place you can do the most unintentional harm is in your interactions with the local ecosystem. So if you’re planning a trek, a hike, a swim, or anything of the outdoor variety, just do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure nothing you are doing is bad for the local environment (You should research all of the excursions you plan on doing ahead of time anyway. I mention environmental excursions here specifically because they’re the place where it’s easiest to do unintended harm.).

Some other solid outdoor-travel tips:

  • If you’re planning on swimming in the ocean, buy the right sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can disrupt the growth of coral and do serious harm to the local coastal ecosystems. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to safer sunscreens, as well as a list of approved sunscreens.
  • Choose an “ecolodge” that prioritizes sustainability instead of a regular hotel.
  • Follow the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule while trekking.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle.
  • Don’t leave the trail.

The main takeaway here is that being a good traveler is actually pretty intuitive. Just be cool. Don’t be a dick.

Featured photo Cinty Ionescu