I was reminded recently about the board game ‘Risk’, which I used to play with friends and on the computer. If you’ve never played it, the basic premise is for each player to try to conquer the world, one continent at a time. As Westerners I feel like we often travel in this same spirit of trying to conquer the world. Without worrying about the fact that many of our ancestors or countries of origin already decimated peoples, languages, cultures, cuisine, environments and more, we take on some kind of ‘divine right of travel’ and tramp everywhere and anywhere it takes our fancy. Now I have to admit to being someone with wanderlust who likes to visit other lands, but I ask myself as well as our western travel culture, do we go as conqueror or guest to a foreign land?
To me a traveling conqueror wants to go anywhere, regardless of local advice, sensibilities or beliefs. This traveler has expectations that language, food, customer service and other aspects of life will be tailored to suit them, rather than them fitting in with the local way of life. The conqueror believes that their money should buy their way anywhere they want to go.
A guest on the other hand is respectful, unsure of their place and dependant on the welcome of those they visit. Hopefully a guest will be treated well, but this cannot be guaranteed. A guest hopes to fit in with their hosts, to learn their way of life, try out their language. A guest wants to discover local practices and sensibilities and pay regard to them.
A conqueror is like a Zoo visitor – peering at a foreign country through the windows of a tour bus of their own compatriots, always guided by someone who provides a shield between them and the locals, who interprets for you. Looking in on, but never part of, the people and place they visit.
I was in a city recently where there was graffiti that read (in English) ‘Tourists go home’. I can’t say I’m surprised. When I see tour buses pull up filled with identically dressed people with cameras at the ready I shudder too. No wonder people dream up businesses to fleece tourists and pickpockets gather with itching fingers at the ready. If I felt like my way of life was being disrupted and my country’s most treasured or sacred places were being overrun by insensitive dolts and if I had people trying to take a photo of me, my family, my house, my washing on the line all the time, I too would be very resentful. Even outraged. Wouldn’t you?
As with everything in life, the issue of ethical travel is a complex one. In one of his chapters in The Wonder box, Roman Krznaric reflects on the different ways to travel, including as a pilgrim, and raises questions about the ethics of travel.We know that in some places locals have stopped traditional ways of earning a living in favour of running businesses that depend on tourists, which often brings them more money for less physical effort. The way we travel has changed these places and their economies probably permanently and now we all have to live with the results.
True Risk taking is to risk becoming immersed in another culture, to risk getting to know local people and practices and to venture out of your western protective bubble to get into a culture, rather than wandering past it and gawking as if at animals in a zoo.
How can we travel as guests rather than conquerors? Here are ten ideas. Feel free to comment with your own:
- Learn at least some basic language before you travel to a country and try to use it, even if you stumble and sound stupid, even if they laugh at you.
- Read up on the culture, customs, language, religion/s etc before you visit and go in the spirit of being a fortunate guest in someone else’s house.
- Wander around on your own or in small groups to increase your chances of interacting with locals.
- Eat at small local restaurants and shop at small local businesses rather than big chain stores or shops you are familiar with from your own country. If you come from a country where tipping is optional, make sure you know what the expectations are in the country you’re visiting.
- Stay with locals or in accommodation frequented by locals rather than big tourist hotels or hostels
- Observe how locals dress and sometimes go out without your hiking jacket, wide-brimmed hat, bum bag, camera and other obviously touristy attire and try to blend in a bit more. Decide not to take photos of people or places where it seems inappropriate or insensitive or make sure you ask permission.
- Visit less-popular attractions rather than just the standard tourist hit list. This will lessen environmental and other impacts on over-touristed sites.
- Travel as part of a cultural exchange or hobby program that partners with local groups that you can meet and exchange knowledge or practices with, rather than on a standard tour.
- Donate to the up-keep of local national parks, historic attractions and other sites that suffer from tourist impact.
- Ask locals what they would like tourists to do and not do in their country and take this on board.