After a prolonged period of forced lockdowns the world is once again starting to open up to travel, but are backpackers themselves ready to return to travel? Will we go back to a world of overtourism, disrespecting local cultures and monuments and using the world as a drunken playground? Or will travellers take the time to reflect, leave a positive impact and practice respectful travel?
Backpackers often have a bad reputation, with hoards of budget travellers seemingly causing overtourism, partying, drinking and being generally problematic. This isn’t true obviously, at least not fully, but stories in the mainstream media of backpackers stripping naked on sacred sites or begpacking as a way to fund their travels don’t really help all that much.
Many destinations, including the backpacker mecca of Thailand and more recently Bali have even resorted to denouncing backpackers as dirty, freeloading wasters who aren’t worthy of their aspirations of luxury tourist resorts and a ‘better’ (read wealthy) class of people.
The absolute majority of travellers are not like this of course, and these destinations always renounce their statements when they remember just how much of their economies rely on independent travel. The truth is however that whilst there will always be a minority who spoil it for the majority, especially now that the backpacking world and mass tourism industry is more intertwined than ever before, most backpackers are respectful and do want to leave a positive impact on the destinations they visit. The vast majority do achieve this do to a greater or lesser degree, and most have the all important intention to do so even if the odd faux pas slips through, but there is always room for improvement and there are plenty of ways that we can all ensure that we are respectful travellers.
Managing Intentions And Forgiving Mistakes.
You are the type of traveller who wants to be respectful right? You do your homework, you want to be respectful of the local customs, you definitely don’t want to have an orgy on top of a sacred mountain or strip off for a nude selfie in a completely inappropriate site, right? Awesome! You are half way there! Intent really is the key to everything here and as long as you want to be respectful and are mindful of your actions, in very general terms you will be just that. Respectful. It is important to remember though that a huge part of travel is the learning process and growing as a person, and you will almost certainly make a lot of mistakes along the way. You’ll misunderstand local customs, touch something you shouldn’t or walk somewhere out of bounds, or even inadvertently insult someones mother when trying out that new language, we all do it, without fail. In my experience though locals can genuinely see when you are trying and have simply made a mistake, and are very forgiving when misunderstandings come from a place of trying to understand. The more humble you are and the harder you try, the more your intent will make up for any mistakes.
Don’t Recline Your Seat.
Respect starts as soon as you get on the plane and other travellers are as worthy of respect as locals are so just be kind and don’t recline. If you are going to be the type of person to recline your seat fully the whole flight then the chances of you being considerate to others as you travel aren’t exactly high. It’s one flight, suck it up. Reclining is rude, obnoxious and inconsiderate, so just don’t do it.
Don’t Be A Hostel Dick.
Travelling around the world – especially on a budget – will almost invariably involve spending at least some of that time in a hostel, and that means invariably sharing that space with other people. That means – unless of course you want to be labelled the hostel dick that no one wants to hang out with or share a room with – you will have to learn how to share that space with others and essentially be respectful to others. These important life lessons are just a normal part of growing up for many and for the most part they are just common sense. All of those little rules like not hogging all the plug sockets for your dozens of chargers, keeping the noise down when others are trying to sleep, are generally just common courtesy and respect. But there is one rule you must never break. Never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be that wanker with a guitar.
Be Mindful Of Where You Visit.
The pent up demand for travel after most of the world being locked up for the better part of two years means that it is inevitable that some destinations are going to get a huge surge of travellers all at once. Whilst many places will welcome the return of travellers and their lost income from them, it is important to be mindful of the impact overtourism was having before the pandemic lockdowns began and ask yourself if that is the norm you want to return to. Instead of heading straight back to the tourist hotspots, why not think about visiting some of the lesser known options instead?
Be Mindful Of Other Individual’s Medical Status. (Or Mind Your Own Business).
It is no secret that the last year and a half has been trying for everyone, and the constant diet of fear and scaremongering has pushed society into a corner where the fundamental principles of medical ethics, human rights legislation and even common decency and manners have been replaced with self righteous indignation and judgemental condemnation, and this is leading society down an ideological road it really does not want to go down again.
From vaccination status to mask mandates, the threat of vaccine passports and airlines making up their own draconian rules in direct contravention to legislation and international health standards, judgemental attitudes and discrimination has become the norm. This is wrong. The right to medical privacy, dignity and confidentiality has been a fundamental cornerstone of medical ethics forever, and informed consent and choice based on individual health circumstances has been the bedrock. No one has the right to contravene those now just because they are afraid. Even when the UK government had a mask mandate in place it still stated very clearly that there were a long list of conditions that made people exempt from anxiety or panic disorders, autism, breathing difficulties to dementia and many more besides. The list is extremely long. The UK mandate also explicitly stated that no one had under any circumstance any moral or legal obligation to prove they are exempt, no individual or business had any right to ask for or demand proof and it was up to the individual how – or if – they wanted to communicate that to others. And yet despite that fact, and the fact that the mandate is no longer in place in the UK or many other countries, airlines still feel they can make up their own rules on that and individuals still feel they have the right to judge and condemn others. Don’t be one of those people.
Don’t be one of those people who screams at someone else for not wearing a mask, don’t be one of those people who posts videos on social media insulting or berating others for not following what you think the rules should be.
Just remember what travel was like before this pandemic, when we still travelled through numerous pandemics, endemics and the spread of a a whole host of diseases from Zika, Ebola, Hantavirus, Hepatitis, H1N1, H3N2, H2N2, Influenza, Japanese Encephalitis, Cholera and many more. We didn’t get out the pitchforks for everyone who didn’t visibly wash their hands after going to the loo did we? We didn’t expect everyone to don full hazmat suits before boarding the plane if someone had a cough or undergo strict security measures to ensure they hadn’t had diarrhoea that morning. Just take personal responsibility for your own health, take reasonable precautions to protect yourself and maintain your own personal hygiene and don’t concern yourself with what others do and don’t do. It is none of your business or concern and it doesn’t affect you in the slightest.
Be Careful Posing For Selfies And Photos.
Everyone takes a selfie or two, or a dozen, when they travel. It’s normal and expected and on the whole it is perfectly fine. The absolute majority of the time they are just harmless souvenirs of your time at that awesome site and do no one any harm, so take as many selfies as you want. Fill your boots. It is important to remember though that you still have to be considerate when doing so.
Many countries have different laws, norms and expectations than you may be used to, and a harmless gesture such as turning your back on a Buddha statue or raising your arms at a Mosque or Muslim place of worship for example may be considered rude or insulting. Now everyone makes little mistakes, I did myself when having a photo taken at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago, I just didn’t think and raised my arms slightly when having a photo taken in front of it. One of the guards came over a gestured for me to keep my arms down and accepted my apology with a smile. It happens. The trick is to try and keep local sensitivities in mind and be humble if you get it wrong.
What isn’t acceptable however is being so disrespectful and so unaware that you are one of those tourists who will clamber over ancient temples, sacred statues or even safety railings or ledges to get that perfect instagram shot, and if you are one of those infamous travellers who stripped off for a glamour shot at Chernobyl or Auschwitz there is no hope for you. Being so spectacularly unaware is never a good look. Like I said, the occasional faux pas is probably expected and generally tolerated, but don’t act without any consideration at all. That is just disrespectful.
Remember Locals Aren’t Your Photo Subjects.
Closely related to the last point of how you take photos when you are in them is how you take photos of everything else too, and again common sense should reign supreme here. In general terms photography is fine and acceptable, and getting locals in shot when taking in a large building or scene is inevitable and non obtrusive, but sticking your lens directly in the face of a local without warning because you think you are some award winning Nat Geo photographer, or taking images of sensitive buildings or where photos aren’t allowed will at the very least label you a disrespectful arse, and at worst you could even get you in trouble.
The trick is to ask, and do so respectfully. I have taken photos of individuals many times with their consent simply by asking, or gesturing with my camera and smiling and pointing when there was no common language. Very rarely has someone said no and most of the time has led to a nice interaction or I have bought something from them to say thank you. The point is there is a respectful and disrespectful way to do things.
Be Mindful Of Your Surroundings.
Again, a lot of this is common sense, but being aware of your surroundings and more importantly how you act and are perceived in them can be the difference between being a respectful traveller and an annoying tourist. The key here is to do your research, be mindful of local customs and culture and try to blend in as much as reasonably possible. No one expects you to be Marcus Brody here with friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, speaking a dozen languages and knowing every custom, but just try to take up as little space as possible. Don’t be overly loud or obnoxious, ask polite questions if you don’t understand something, don’t wander up to a local food stall and demand a full English breakfast, you get the point.
I don’t care if you think you look awesome in that low cut top or you think that vintage Megadeth T shirt is the best thing since sliced bread, it may well be perfectly acceptable when walking to the corner shop at home but that doesn’t mean it will be everywhere. Every country has its own set of rules on what is socially acceptable or not and some will be more conservative than others. It is your responsibility as a respectful traveller to respect that. As a general rule modest but comfortable clothing is best, and avoid wearing anything with icons or imagery that may be offensive to local sensitivities, you can get away with wearing things on Khao San Road that you would not be able to in Tehran. Just take your cue from locals and blend in a little bit, and if you are visiting local places of worship then make sure you take steps to respect those rules too.
Adjust And Adapt.
When you are travelling it can be tempting to try and fit as much in as possible, and it can be frustrating to find that the train you wanted to get to the other side of the country doesn’t run until next week, the local ferry to the island has shut down for a few days due to bad seas or that shop you really wanted to visit is shut every second Wednesday for a local holiday. It happens. Locals may not do things the same way you do at home, delays happen and things go wrong. You can either choose to get frustrated by them, or you can adjust your expectations and adapt to their way of life. Guess which one is more respectful? This is the beauty of slow travel and long term backpacking, you can take all these little hiccups in your stride, spending an extra day or two on the island until the boats start going back to the mainland again can be seen as a blessing instead of an inconvenience and you can always go back to that shop the next day.
Support Local Communities.
One of the key ways to be a respectful traveller is to ensure that your travels have as much of a positive impact as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to ignore the international tour groups and chain hotels and support local businesses. Always choose local family run guesthouses wherever possible, go to the local run business for your coffee or choose the local street food stall instead of the large international chains, hiring a local guide from the tourist information centre or ticket booth for the national park you want to visit or supporting local artisans and markets all make a huge difference and ensures your money goes directly to that community.
Be Aware Of What You Buy.
It’s normal to want to buy a lot of stuff as you travel, sometimes for a practical reason to replace clothing along the way if you are travelling for a while or just for a simple souvenir, and in many cases supporting the local economy is a great thing. Sometimes however those things travellers can buy can have a seriously negative impact on the local area, the environment, local wildlife or even all three, and it pays to do your research and ensure that you are a conscious, ethical and respectful consumer.
It should go without saying that certain products made from animal or natural products are off limits as they contribute to the destruction of the environment or the species involved, and in some cases may even be illegal. A leather coat may be okay dependent on your personal beliefs, but anything made from rhino horn, ivory or natural coral are obvious examples of this. No one should want to support the destruction of these species for a souvenir.
But it goes far beyond physical products. Carrying a reusable water filter bottle instead of buying endless plastic bottles of water is good for your wallet as well as the environment, and indulging in local cuisines and discovering new dishes and new tastes is one of the absolute, undeniable joys of backpacking around the world, but there are some delicacies such as sharks fin soup, birds nest soup, bush meat and kopi luwak coffee that support flagrant disregard of conservation laws and are threatening many species with extinction entirely. Don’t support these practices by making it profitable for restaurants to keep supplying it.
In many parts of the world haggling is not only an acceptable practice in market stalls, but it is expected, and when it is done right it can be a fun and enjoyable experience for all involved. The problem is some people take it way too far and try to argue over every last (literal) penny, hurl insults and barter traders down to as insulting a level as they started off at! Yes, those market stall traders in Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Street or Cairo’s Khan El Khalili may mark you out as a tourist and jack the price up straight away, but you can both come to a respectful price in a friendly way, and as long as you are both happy with that price, you get a nice trinket and they make some profit, does it really matter if you could have got it for a penny less?
Don’t Support Unethical Practices.
This is a slightly more complicated rule to live by because it is so varied in it’s scope. Throughout your travels you will undoubtedly come across practices such as orphanage factories (where tourists are bussed in en masse to look at and photograph the poor local children, buy a few trinkets and then leave), the sex trade, slum tourism, voluntourism and countless more examples where the tourism industry creates a negative impact in a variety of ways. Again, education and awareness of the issues before you travel is the key, if tourists and travellers stop making these practices profitable, they will stop. Educate yourself, be aware of your practices and change them where you can.
Learn Some Of The Language.
Learning a new language is hard. Very hard. For some people like myself who just don’t seem to have the aptitude to be multilingual it can seem downright impossible, so I get why this can be daunting to some people. The truth is however that a lot of the time you don’t need to be absolutely fluent in a language, learning just some of the basics such as hello, goodbye, please or thank you shows a ton of respect to the locals you are visiting, and trying out your basic ‘how much is this’ or ‘where is the library’ is appreciated to the point where locals will make much more of an effort with you too, and I promise most will be very forgiving of your mauling of the pronunciation! Unless of course you inadvertently insult their mother! Showing respect gets respect in return. Every single time.
Embrace The Differences.
The world is a wonderfully varied place and one of the absolutely best things about travel is experiencing all those differences and seeing how they can have an impact on you, but not everyone feels that way at first. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is not easy for everyone and it can make many people feel uncomfortable, so those cultural differences can lead to a bit of culture shock. That’s normal. Everyone gets it and it is perfectly fine.
The best thing you can do is to embrace that change, not let it overwhelm you, try and forget any stereotypes you may have, especially negative ones, and replace that with a curiosity for those differences and respect for other paradigms and ways of living.
Travelling the world can be one of the best things you will ever do, it will make you a better person, give you strength and a confidence you never knew had in you, open your mind and give you a lifetimes worth of memories, experiences and stories, so the least you can do is try and be a little bit respectful to the countries you visit, locals who open their homes and culture to you and other travellers you meet along the way.
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Great article. Good common-sense reminders as the world opens up again. Thanks, Michael. Carry on!
Thank you so much, really happy you liked it.
Great advice, especially about forgiving yourself and allowing for mistakes. Not everyone is perfect but learning is one of the big benefits of travel.
I couldn’t agree more Carl!
Yes! I don’t know when it started to become acceptable to demand people’s health background but it’s wrong and it’s good to hear someone call it out!
It really is Simon, this last year or so really has seen the worst come out of people.
Very timely reminders!
Excellent list. I think people have lost all ability to be kind and considerate over the last year though. I wouldn’t hold out much hope.
Thanks, I see your point, I really do, but I think we can come back from it.
Oh my god, yes! I am so sick and tired of all the judgemental nonsense about masks and vaccines! This needs to be said a lot more.
Thank you. Me too.
I don’t think there is such a thing as manners and courtesy any more
There are, it’s just buried deep under a lot of fear.
I’m sorry no. No one has the right to go around infecting anyone else and it IS my business if someone is sitting next to me on a plane unvaccinated or without a mask.
No, it isn’t. Fear and ignorance don’t change the fact everyone, and I mean everyone, has the right to medical privacy, dignity and confidentiality. Those are fundamental medical ethical princuiples alongside choice and informed consent. And I don’t think you know how virus’ work, you don’t have the right to remove people’s freedom and demand not to get sick.
Excellent post with some great reminders to just be thoughtful and kind.
Thank you Lisa.