The Conscious Traveller

With travel restrictions opening up, there are certain factors that I feel are important to consider. When visiting the incredible places that we do, we need to keep in mind the local cultures and how we can be respectful of them whilst entering their space. It can be easy to get caught up in tourist traps and the razzle dazzle of traveling that we forget or lose sight of those whose land we are actually treading on. Local people and their history can often be exploited for the benefit of the tourism industry without any real regard for them. What I want to address in this article is how we can combat this and engage in a way that is as considerate as possible.

In 2019, six million people visited the Grand Canyon. Most of them would have left without learning the names of the 11 indigenous tribes for whom the park is an ancestral home. In 2013, Outsider magazine published an article detailing the destructive effect of ‘Everest Tourism’ on the local communities in Nepal. They stated that “no service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. The dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts.” This all happens while tourists climb a peak that the locals view as sacred. Uluru (also known as Ayer’s Rock) in Australia is another example of tourism affecting the locals. It is a sandstone monolith that is famous for its auburn hue that seems to change colour along with the seasons and the time of day. While it is open to the public to climb, Uluru is a sacred site for the Pitjjantjatjara Anangu (who are the Indigenous people from the area) and they ask travellers to respectfully refrain from climbing the rock as it plays an important role in their creation mythology and the path that tourists take crosses a sacred traditional Dreamtime* track. Despite this and Parks Australia’s recommendation against climbing, 30% of visitors still choose to climb Uluru, with some even stating that they felt entitled to the view from the top.

The first step that should be taken before even leaving on a trip is to research the area that one is planning to visit and gain insight into the culture, the history and the people. Nowadays there are so many more resources available to everyone that can help amplify Indigenous voices and stories. If you do research before your trip, you will already be going in with a better awareness and understanding of the land you are visiting. The idea of research might be less appealing than just experiencing the journey once we arrive somewhere. However, doing research about the culture and its history allows us to deeply enrich our experience of the trip and enables us to feel more connected to the place we are visiting. It also means that we are less vulnerable to being taken in by tourist traps. In addition, this helps us to be aware of any cultural ‘rudeness’ where we can inadvertently offend locals when we behave in a way that might be perfectly acceptable in our own culture but is considered unacceptable in other cultures. An example of this includes taking your shoes off before entering a building- in many countries in Asia, it is considered disrespectful if one does not do so. In countries like the USA and Canada, it is regarded as disrespectful to not tip your waiter at an establishment. We can also look at the way that locals are engaging with us as an indicator to whether we are breaking cultural norms or offending anybody.

When we arrive at our destination, the next best thing for us to do is to listen to and adhere to local’s advice. ‘Secret spots’ that we’ve ‘discovered’ might actually be a sacred site for locals. Follow the direction and guidance of the local guides. It will give you a more authentic experience as well as ensure that the local culture is being respected.

Something else to consider when traveling to a country is to support the local businesses. Instead of buying trinkets and souvenirs from tourist traps, find local businesses. Design an itinerary that will contribute to the local community and avoid plans that will take advantage of local cultural sites. Try to book your stay at a locally owned lodge rather than a hotel or resort. Eat local cuisine from locally owned restaurants instead of any franchises that may be in the area. Take your trip as an opportunity to really experience the place you are visiting as a guest instead of as an outsider looking in.

Communicating with the locals is another step that can enrich your experience and show consideration to those who live there. This can demonstrate your appreciation for them as well as giving you insight into the surrounding culture that you would not have learned from a tourist pamphlet.

You can also support the local or Indigenous communities by including a visit to a museum or culture centre that is run by Indigenous people. You can learn about historical events through the lens of the people it impacted most. This will deepen your understanding of the culture and the land you are visiting because you are learning directly from the communities themselves.

Another factor that is vital to consider is how Covid-19 has ravaged Indigenous communities. As we perhaps decide to travel in these times (which will probably happen more and more frequently as travel restrictions are lifted) it is important to acknowledge that vulnerable populations have been disproportionately affected. It’s more essential than ever to be mindful of how we as travellers interact with the land and the people we experience on our travels. We must ensure that we are being safe and not exposing the communities we are visiting to any more harm.

By being conscious travellers we are not just being mindful of the communities we are visiting. We are also creating a much more meaningful, authentic and special experience for ourselves, something that we will always remember later in life. All we really have to do is keep an open mind, be willing to learn and most importantly, listen to the voices of the communities we are visiting.

*Dreamtime is the foundation of Aboriginal religion and culture. It dates back some 65,000 years. It is the story of events that have happened, how the universe came to be, how human beings were created and how their Creator intended for humans to function within the world as they knew it.


About the author:

I’m Tessa Schroenn, a 17-year-old girl from South Africa who has a passion for travelling and exploring the world, loves a good laugh, and can’t wait to curl up with a book and a blanket, especially on rainy days!


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