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100 Ways to Be Less of a Colonialist Jerk When You Travel

Repeat after me: It is never OK to take pictures with smiling, barefoot children. Even if it's for your Tinder. Especially if it's for your Tinder.

by Lynn Brown
Mar 21 2019, 5:39pm

Photo by Alejandro Moreno De Carlos via Stocksy

You know how there are certain unspoken rules for how to behave in a stranger’s house? Don’t put your feet on the furniture, don’t go through the fridge, and just generally try to act like a polite, respectful person. Well, travelling is a lot like this. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to have gotten the memo about not offending, appropriating, or exploiting while navigating places foreign to their own. In an attempt to make your trip worthwhile and respectful to the people you will meet while on vacation, here’s how not to be a jerk when visiting another country, from someone in the know.

1. Keep your clothes on. This seems like a no-brainer, but a surprising number of people seem to think flashing various body parts, at religious sites no less, is an acceptable way to behave. Unless you’re at a nudist colony, or somewhere that’s expressly told you otherwise, it’s a good idea to assume no one in another country wants to see your bits.

2. Be polite. People in foreign countries are not your serfs. Treating people with respect, no matter where you are, is just basic human decency.

3. Guess what? People in India have smartphones too! And not everyone in Africa lives in a hut. Do everyone a favor and leave your stereotypes at home. People in foreign countries don’t want to have to deal with your offensive characterizations any more than people at home do.

4. Do take the opportunity to learn about the cultures—before you get there.

5. But please let the people who actually live there teach you. Sweeping assumptions like “misogyny is part of the culture in Latin America” are offensive. Cultures are like people: They’re never that simple.

6. That said, remember that it’s not anyone’s responsibility to teach you anything. Learn to respect a “no.”

7. The invention of the Internet means you no longer have an excuse for not knowing the proper way to dress or whether not a place you’re visiting is considered sacred. You don’t have to learn a whole dissertation-worth of information, but knowing a little bit about the politest ways to dress, speak, or interact in a place you’re visiting is a quick and easy gesture of respect. Google is your friend!

8. Learn a bit of the language, even if it’s only “Excuse me. Do you speak English?,” “Please,” and “Thank you.” Most people will appreciate the attempt.

9. SPEAKING LOUDER WILL NOT MAKE SOMEONE MAGICALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING.

10. Now can you lower your voice, please?

11. Be aware of where you spend your money. That eco-resort might seem really cool and sustainable, but is it helping the local community or pushing them out? If it’s the latter, reconsider.

12. Also, if you do end up in an eco-resort, make sure it actually is sustainable. As a growing number of people are interested in green travel, many places advertise themselves as “eco-resorts,” when in fact they’re just as harmful to the local environment or community as traditional hotels. When deciding on a place to stay, find accommodations that use eco-friendly materials in the building process and day-to-day operations, as well as those that respect and benefit the local community.

13. For the record: AirBnB misses these standards by a long shot. The popular company is often called out for not only decimating the hotel industry (particularly small locally owned hotels), but also contributing to the rise in rents in cities like Dublin, Toronto, and New Orleans, effectively pricing out long-term residents. This ‘live like a local’ phenomenon, like other forms of gentrification, can often disproportionately affect already marginalized groups such as women, the elderly, and people of color.

14. In general, when looking for a place to stay, small locally-owned hotels and inns are the way to really support the community that you’re visiting.

15. If they’re using sustainable practices, even better.

16. Please don’t travel to other countries just to participate in religious activities you don’t ascribe to at home. Other people’s religions are not candy for you to sample.

17. Please don’t call yourself a “yogi” or a “shaman” while travelling abroad.

18. Never walk around assuming that you know more about a culture than the people who live there.

19. Ask before you take pictures and respectfully accept refusals. Around the world different places, people and ceremonies are off limits to photographers for various cultural and religious reasons. Respect this.

20. Absolutely no pictures of you surrounded by smiling barefoot children.

21. Even if it’s for your Tinder.

22 ...especially if it’s for your Tinder.

23. Related, but please remember that the locals are not your Instagram props. The woman selling fruit at the market might seem like a great opportunity to test out the color saturation of your new camera, but honestly, she’s just trying to make a living.

24. And yes, I know the architecture on that house is beautiful, but please don’t do full photo shoots outside someone's private residence without permission either.

25. Refrain from commenting on, or worse, trying to change, cultural or religious traditions that are not your own. That means no lecturing women in Muslim countries about wearing hijabs.

26. Context and knowledge is very important and when you’re a visitor somewhere, you can pretty much assume that you don’t have enough of it to engage in cultural “critique” in a way that doesn’t feel colonialist, condescending, or just plain rude.

27. That said, if you personally don’t feel comfortable with participating in a tradition for an ethical reason it’s OK to politely decline. Just don’t lecture the locals about it.

28. Human beings are not tourist attractions. Bus tours through the favelas in Brazil or excursions that turn Indigenous communities into sideshows are gross. Don’t do it.

29. A much better way to really get to know an area is to get out into the local community, make friends, and support local businesses.

30. Don’t isolate yourself on luxury resorts where you only ever see other tourists.

31. Be safe, but also…

32. Be skeptical. Remember that some places that are considered “unsafe” have that reputation more because of racist or colonialist attitudes. Do your research and make a determination for yourself.

33. That’s not an invitation to leave your common sense at home however.

34. Is tipping appropriate in the culture you’re visiting? Find out and if so, leave a tip. Ignorance is no excuse.

35. Pass on that volun-tourism trip. The vast majority of these types of trips rely heavily on the colonialist idea that “poor” communities aren’t capable of helping themselves. They’re set up to make the paying visitors feel good about themselves, rather than to provide any real help to the locals. They also tend to encourage exchanges that feel more like the “white savior” trope than real cultural exchange.

36. Some great alternatives to volun-tourism can be found in local communities that allow you to work on small farms or help out with the running of a small local business for room and board. If you really want to contribute to the local community, consider one of these opportunities instead.

37. Respect the natural environment and leave things as you found them.

38. Take your garbage with you and be careful that the products that you use aren’t harming the local ecosystem, for example how oil-based sunscreen destroy coral reefs.

39. Don’t ride elephants…

40...But do consider visiting animal sanctuaries and other places that help protect and rehabilitate the local wildlife.

41. Please do not go big game hunting. Especially not in places where the local wildlife are endangered or poaching is a major issue.

42. Also, don’t buy anything made of animal parts. First off, this is illegal in many places, but more importantly it contributes to the decimation of the local environment.

43. Support small family-owned businesses every chance you get.

44. Buy local handcrafted goods instead of mass manufactured ones.

45. But please don’t take them home and then sell them for an inflated price. If you think it’s worth more, pay the artist more for it.

46. Don’t expect things to be exactly as they are at home. The pace of life might be way slower, the Internet might be patchy, there might not be a Starbucks for miles. Relax and embrace it. It’s all part of the adventure.

47. It should go without saying, but follow the laws of the country! The penalty for petty crimes you may consider “minor” can be much harsher in other countries. Vandalism is still punishable by jail time an corporal punishment in Singapore.

48. Please don’t visit war zones just to “see what it’s like.”

49. Absolutely do not shoot a cow at a Cambodian shooting range.

50. Be aware that some gestures and practices you do at home might be considered offensive abroad. Simple hand gestures like thumbs up can mean very different things when traveling.

51. Africa is a continent, not a country. The same goes for South America. Be aware of exactly where you are and what the culture is like there rather than lumping places together.

52. The idea that people who live in poverty abroad are happy to live that way, or do it because it’s part of their culture, is absurd. No-one enjoys living in poverty—and we shouldn’t make patronizing statements about the virtues of a “simpler” way of life, without understanding the socio-economic context that forces them to live a certain way.

53. Don’t go on about how “resourceful” the locals are. People everywhere make the best of bad circumstances. Don’t be condescending about it.

54. A little bit of awareness about the international policy between your country and the one you’re visiting can’t hurt.

55. Acceptable body proximity is different in different countries and cultures. This can go both ways, kissing both cheeks is a common greeting in France, regardless of gender, a fact which might make some Americans uncomfortable. On the other hand in many Muslim countries, even shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex can be considered taboo.

56. The same goes for PDA. While making out in public is not a big deal in many places in Europe, the stakes on this kind of behavior may be higher than you think in other places. Several couples have been arrested for having sex on the beach in more conservative cities like Dubai.


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57. Don’t assume that your country is “the best.”

58. And for God’s sake don’t say it out loud to everyone you meet.

59. Yes, I’m talking to you, fellow Americans.

60. Don’t wear clothing that could be considered offensive or appropriated. No Hanoi Jane memorabilia in Vietnam, colonial safari outfits in Africa or confederate flag t-shirts...well anywhere.

61. Be aware that staying in former plantations turned guesthouses is essentially the same as staying overnight at a concentration camp, no matter how charming you think the architecture is or how cute it will look on your Instagram.

62. Also when touring plantations for historical context, comments about how “kind” the slave owners were, are extremely inappropriate and hurtful.

63. While we’re on the subject, if you decide to tour plantations anywhere, do some research and find those that highlight the experience of those enslaved there, like the Whitney plantation in Louisiana, rather than those that glorify or ignore the history of racism and human suffering.

64. Remember that when you travel you’re in some way representing where you’re from. Do you want them to remember you as being those people who only show up to get trashed because the booze is cheap?

65. Spend some time with the locals when you travel! They know all the best spots and can help you get a real feel for a place that you just won’t get by traveling around in herds of other tourists.

66. Plus you’ll make new friends that you can visit when you come back!

67. Haggling is expected in some areas and frowned upon in others. Knowing the difference will keep you from getting rocks thrown at you in the mountains of Nepal.

68. Don’t be an asshole. Even if haggling is OK in the country that you’re traveling to, do you really need to pay fifty cents for that tea instead of a dollar?

69. Cultural appropriation is an issue no matter where you are, but some people find it especially confusing when traveling. Two helpful questions to ask yourself if you’re not sure if you’re appropriating are: Do I fully understand the historical/cultural/religious significance of what I’m doing? If the answer is yes, then ask yourself if what you’re doing is appropriate within that context and act accordingly. If the answer is no, reconsider.

70. Context is also an issue with appropriation. Wearing a sari might be fine at an Indian friend’s wedding, but it’s a big no no at a Halloween party. Culture is not a costume.

71. Please don’t attempt to bribe your way out of problems abroad. Best case scenario you’ve encouraged corruption and left the locals to deal with it. Worse, and most likely, you’re being offensive...not to mention about to be arrested.

72. Be open to unexpected experiences with the locals. Let your taxi driver choose a local hotel for you. Have dinner with the family of that person you met in the market. To often people travel abroad and are afraid to speak to, much less spend time with, the locals. In most cases, there’s no reason to be afraid.

73. That said, basic safety rules still apply abroad. Use as much caution when travelling as you would at home.

74. Trying, and learning to love, new foods is one of the most fun parts of traveling.

75. Also, food is a great way to bond and make new friends.

76. Of course you don’t have to eat anything you’re morally opposed to, but trying new dishes is a great way to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

77. New experiences in general are a great way to get out of your comfort zone and travelling is full of them.

78. Spend some time in the local environment, not just in town. Find a local guide to take you hiking or snorkeling or just out in nature.

79. Don’t harass the local wildlife. No, that baby buffalo does not need a lift to the ranger station. Leave it alone.

80. The local wildlife also doesn’t want to be “adopted” (aka smuggled) home with you either.

81. Remember that entrepreneurship can look different in other countries. Feel free to support the guy selling his wares on the beach.

82. Just be prepared to pay tourist prices for it.

83. Do not participate in “archaeological” digs with tourist groups or any unauthorized group.

84. Don’t bring home cultural or religious artifacts either.

85. If it’s morally wrong in your country, don’t do it abroad. Even if it’s technically legal in the country you’re visiting.

86. Leave your germs at home please. Please don’t bring your unvaccinated children to other countries. Anti-vaxxers, I’m looking at you.

87. Particularly not to countries where the local population may have less access to vaccines or other medical care.

88. Don’t travel to other countries, pump the locals for traditional recipes and then serve those recipes in your new “upscale” restaurant with no attribution or payment.

89. Don’t flaunt your problematic political slogans abroad. I don’t care if you need that MAGA hat to keep the sun out of your eyes!

90. In fact, keep your political opinions to yourself unless asked directly.

91. And don’t be surprised by the reaction you get, if you voice your opinion and other people find it problematic or offensive.

92. Under no circumstances should you travel to another country and panhandle. If you don’t have enough money to cover your expenses, stay at home.

93. Do connect over cultural similarities. One of the great joys of traveling is that moment when you can say “Oh! We do that too!”

94. Do share your positive travel experiences with others.

95. Especially if they’re contrary to negative stereotypes of a place.

96. Be mindful of the power of your opinion as a tourist. Your word of mouth, especially when shared online, can have a profound impact on a small business. Be kind. Leave TripAdvisor reviews!

97. Take the time to really appreciate what is beautiful, different, or special about a place, instead of just checking off destinations just to say you’ve been there.

98. Repeat after me: You cannot “do” a country. It’s just not possible.

99. Learn more about the art, literature, and music of a place, not just historically, but also what cool artistic things are happening there right now?

100. Overall, traveling is about learning, both about the world around you and about yourself. It can also be a great way to grow as a person. Doing your best to move through the world in the least harmful way possible is a small price to pay for what you’ll gain.