Six Tips for Becoming a Better Tourist

A lot of people have written a lot of books and articles about travel safety–how tourists can protect themselves from fraud, theft, and assault when traveling to unfamiliar places. But when visiting new cities, how often to we think about the safety of the people who live in our vacation destinations? My point here is that in addition to thinking about our own safety as travelers, we also need to take seriously the ways in which our actions and assumptions may create unsafe environments for local residents.

In short, don’t be a racist or sexist tourist. As countless critical race theorists have argued, though, racism (and sexism) need not be intentional in order to be harmful. One could even argue that the mere act of tourism is inextricably entangled  with a historical-geographical system of hierarchy, privilege, and power that is more than just the sum of your individual plane tickets and all-inclusive resort packages.

But nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the behaviors, practices, and assumptions that can create hostile or exploitative environments in the places where we travel. With that in mind, here are some ideas about how to be a better tourist. While this list is far from exhaustive, I’ve tried to move beyond common, anodyne (though not unhelpful) tips like “learn some words of the local language.”

Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour

Overdoor in Amsterdam showing a merchant with a Black man, possibly his servant or slave

1. Do your homework

Once you’ve finished thumbing through your guidebook, try to go deeper. Find local news outlets that broadcasts/publishes in a language you understand, look for a novel written by an author from the city you’re visiting, or watch an unconventional documentary. You won’t have time for exhaustive research, but try to get a working sense of the country’s history and, importantly, the connections (military, political, economic, cultural) between the place you call home and the place you’ll be visiting. This information might open your eyes to the transnational power dynamics that will shape your experiences and how people interpret your presence. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re now an expert in the local culture, either.

2. Don’t yell

Contrary to popular belief, U.S. Americans don’t hold a monopoly on this one. It should go without saying, but screaming is quite possibly the worst–and most disrespectful–way to attempt to overcome a language barrier. Use hand gestures, mime, draw pictures, pull out your phrasebook or translation app, but for goodness’ sake, don’t raise your voice.

Along similar lines, be conscientious about volume when traveling with groups. I understand that visiting a new city is cause for great enthusiasm, and in your eagerness your excited whispers may unintentionally escalate to raucous laughter. Remember, however, that people actually live and work in this place, so your loud voices will be extremely disturbing and jarring to those around you. Be respectful; there’s no need to shout.

3. Don’t essentialize

X women are exotic beauties who love sex. Men from Y country are shifty and love to prey on blond girls. The people of Z region are so passionate; even though they are poor, they are happy because they understand the joys of a simple life.

These are all things I’ve heard travelers assert about various countries and the people who inhabit them. And  the so-called “positive” stereotypes are just as harmful as their obviously negatives counterparts. When I was living and working in central and eastern Europe, for example, I couldn’t go a week without hearing a male expat (usually a white American or Brit) say something some variation of the following: “Czech/Ukrainian/Russian women are the most beautiful, desirable women in the world.” Sure, there are plenty of drop-dead gorgeous women in Moscow…just as there are in Milan, Medellin, and Mumbai! But this popular assertion about Slavic women is based on profoundly patriarchal, power-laden ideas about female submissiveness, male entitlement, and untainted whiteness. (Plus, the myth of the simultaneously docile but alluringly sexual Slavic woman is always pitted against the image of a fat, whiny, Western woman who has been corrupted by feminism.) Essentializing is an inherently dangerous activity because it denies the diversity and complexity of people and reduces them to easily exploitable cliches.

Street art in Avignon

Image of Nina Simone painted on a wall in Avignon

4. Rethink “authentic”

Someone warns you not to visit such-and-such market because the stalls aren’t run by “natives” anymore; the immigrants have taken over so it’s no longer authentic. Statements like these are deeply problematic because they dismiss the contributions of immigrants, naturalized citizens, and “second-generation” youths to the cultural-economic fabric of a city’s life. (Check out this recent New York Times article about the Piazza Vittorio market in Rome for a nice description of a multiethnic market in the heart of Italy’s capital.) Assertions about “authenticity” are based on a simplistic, billiard ball understanding of culture in which national identity is permanently fixed in space and time rather than produced through interconnections and interrelations. In other words, don’t skip on the market just because the faces of the owners have changed.

In July, my partner took me to the Avignon “Off” Theatre Festival to see a play about slavery called Moi Jacob, l’esclave d’Agbodrafo Wood Home, which then led to an amazing conversation with the actors (Fernand Prince and Basile Siekoua) about how the remembrance of slavery is cathartic not just for African-American or Afro-Caribbean people, but also for Black French people. While I may not have had time to visit the Palais des Papes while I was in Avignon (it’s still on my to-do list), I learned so much from this one-act, three-man play on a small, makeshift black box stage.

When visiting a new city, try to look for alternative tours, ones that focus on social movements or subaltern history–the Black Paris Tours, the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, or the South Asian Radical History Walking Tour in Berkeley, to name a few.

Schiphol airport

Signs in Amsterdam Schiphol airport warning tourists not to purchase dangerous or fraudulent items from immigrants

5. Don’t go to the “immigrant neighborhood” because “the food/clothes/etc are cheap”

In your quest to rethink “authentic,” don’t kid yourself into believing that eating Turkish food in Berlin automatically makes you an anti-racist activist, a progressive, or an ally. I once had a woman tell me that she wanted to visit a predominantly African neighborhood in an Italian city because “they have good prices.” Think about your motives: are you going to that neighborhood simply for bargain-basement prices? To make yourself feel edgy? To snap some cool Instagram photos? The thing about identity tourism, slumming, or whatever you want to call it is that unlike the people you are gawking at, you have the freedom to drop into the neighborhood for long enough to satisfy your curiosity and then retreat to the comfort of your hotel.

Street art in Padova

Street art in Padova

6. Don’t be a protest tourist 

This is a particularly timely one, given the protests that swept countries from Brazil to Turkey this summer. It’s not ok to check out a protest or demonstration  for the “adventure,” particularly when you have only the vaguest sense of why it is happening in the first place. Don’t reduce an uprising to a cool story you can tell your friends later.

What have I missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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