It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the wonderful and exciting choices when traveling in strange new places: the interesting food, the unusual customs, the mystifying language, the crush of vendors and touts trying to sell excursions and souvenirs. It’s a great idea to add some spice and excitement to your travels with side trips and adventures and to bring home local crafts for yourself or as gifts, but how do you know when you’re making a responsible choice? How can you tell if the exotic carved Balinese fertility fetish is made from sustainable wood? How can you check to make sure that the Amazonian riverboat trip you are planning on taking is not disrupting local trade and cultural patterns or polluting the water? Or that the guide leading you through Canaima National Park to Angel Falls is being paid fairly? One way to make sure that you are traveling responsibly is to book tours with a responsible tour company and to do business with established indigenous groups, i.e. those that support and enrich the local community. Here are a few other suggestions for traveling responsibly:
1. Do your research. Ask locals who do not work in the tourist trade and fellow travelers about their experiences, read through trusted guide books and visit travelers’ community websites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree or official government visitor sites to inquire which guides and artisan groups are trustworthy.
2. Support indigenous cooperatives: Visit local community markets and indigenous cooperatives for hand-made crafts and cultural demonstrations of dances and traditions. The crafts may be more expensive than buying from someone on the street, but, in general, are better quality and more authentic, and a large percentage of profits goes toward the education, housing and medical needs of marginalized indigenous communities. These centers are almost always highly educational and fascinating and provide a glimpse into local cultural life and history.
3. Tip your guide. This is a personal choice, and many travelers refuse to tip for services they have already paid for. Fair enough, but keep in mind that most developing world guides get paid next to nothing. Of the price you pay for your tour, generally 90-95% goes directly to the tour company and the government, with the guide receiving only a few dollars for several days’ work. Guides are also expected to absorb their own expenses, such as lodging, food and transportation to and from their places of employment. In the case of very remote sites, such as many national parks in South America and Africa, the only option is a costly flight, usually much more than the guides can afford, thus requiring them to save for months just to visit their families and their home towns once or twice a year. Also, US$10 or US$20, the cost of a couple of cups of latte and a snack to those who live in the developed world, is an absolute fortune to those who don’t. It’s a relatively small tip for several days of a well-guided tour and can go a very long way in most parts of the world.
4. Limit your souvenirs to photos and videos. With advances in digital technology and the popularity of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, what better way to document your trip in real time and share your experiences with friends and family without impacting the environment? Always remember to ask permission before snapping a photo though and, if it seems appropriate, offer a small gift or coins. Children especially love to pose for pictures and see digital photos of themselves.
5. Be mindful of what you take: If you do decide to purchase local crafts, check with each country’s customs office as to the regulations for exporting the item. Many countries prohibit tourists from removing what are considered national treasures (one woman visiting Russia was detained for several months by customs authorities for trying to take home Russian military memorabilia and currency). Customs officials may also require that wood products, such as carved walking sticks, flutes or didgeridoos, have been certified that they have been chemically treated to prevent insects or their larvae from infecting the agriculture of other countries. It’s also a good idea to check the import laws of your home country, especially regarding plant, food and liquor laws.
While it’s important to enjoy your travel experiences and support local industry, it’s equally important to be a good global citizen. Ask questions, maintain respect for culture and the environment and adhere to customs laws. By doing so, you will ensure that the wonderful places that you visit will be around for many years for locals and other travelers to also enjoy.