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Red Pen Edit: Allie Volpe on Travel
Vox wants to teach us how to travel
Allie Volpe recently published the article “Tips for being a responsible, respectful traveler” on Vox. As an experienced traveler myself, I was eager to see what these tips were. Some of the suggestions are rather interesting. Here is my take.
When travel reporter Victoria Walker first embarked on international travels at age 22, she was of the “very American view,” she says, that the world was her oyster. She’d jump at cheap flight deals, often never giving a second thought about why she even wanted to visit certain destinations. She was guilty of visiting all the same Instagram-friendly destinations and posting the same photo as thousands of others before her.
One of the greatest privileges Americans have is that, relative to the citizens of most countries, the world is their oyster. An American passport conveys visa-free entry into 185 different destinations, one of the highest of any nation. The US also has the highest median disposable income of any country in the OECD (a group of mostly wealthy countries). Americans have the money and legal ability to travel the world. That privilege comes with responsibility, but it’s something to celebrate, not bemoan.
Second, there is nothing wrong with visiting “same Instagram-friendly destinations and posting the same photo as thousands of others before her.” If thousands of people are posting the same photo as thousands of others, there’s probably a reason for it. There is something to be said about people who are spending more time looking at an attraction through their phone than with their own eyes, but it makes sense that people visit places that they see others going to. Yes, people go to the Grand Canyon because they want to post cool photos, but they also go there because the Grand Canyon is awesome. Millions visited before Instagram, and they will continue to visit after Instagram. Most importantly, people should vacation where they want. If that means visiting the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, great! If it means staying in little villages in the Polish countryside, also great!
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As recently as 2017, American travelers were least interested in exploring a destination’s culture and history and were most likely to book a cruise for their next vacation, according to an Expedia survey.
This is a great example of why a reader needs to use caution when an article uses a survey as evidence. First, the survey in question is of 1,000 Americans, so it may not be terribly representative. The Vox article makes it sound like Americans were least interested in exploring a destination’s culture and history relative to travelers from other countries, but the survey doesn’t do any cross-country comparisons. The 1,000 American respondents did rank “culture & history” as having the lowest importance when planning a trip, but given that the other five options were Friends & Family, Relaxing, Food & Drink, Outdoors, and Events, this isn’t particularly surprising. It’s also worth noting that Food & Drink and Events are very much a part of culture, so it isn’t a great comparison.
Additionally, the respondents of the survey did not say they were most likely to book a cruise for their next vacation. Respondents were asked which types of trips they were interested in taking, not which type of trip they were actually taking. These are two different things. The options: Cruise, All-inclusive, Self-guided, Backpacking, and Group tour. Given the list, I’m not surprised cruises were the most important. Also, insinuating that cruises are a bad way to visit a destination is overly broad. Certain places, such as the Alaskan panhandle or Antarctica, are best visited by water.
While making these decisions, consider the nature of your trip. If you’re planning a bachelor or bachelorette party and expect many late nights, you’ll want to identify a locale — and a neighborhood within that city — that supports these activities.
This is a good point. The bachelor/bachelorette party is obvious, but travelers should do this with every trip. Those that want to spend all day sitting on an expansive beach, shouldn’t book a trip to Belize, which has lots of water but has few sandy beaches. The Gulf Coast of Florida, on the other hand, has great beaches but does not have the nightlife scene (or prices) of the Atlantic Coast of Florida. It’s always a good idea to make sure that your vision for a trip is realistic - don’t be the tourist who shows up in San Francisco in June wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
When you’re booking lodging, if you can, choose locally owned hotels and Airbnbs — you’re putting your money back into the community. While Airbnb has been linked to rising rent and diminishing housing supply, without any systemic policy change targeting short-term rentals, individuals choosing to abstain from Airbnb bookings will have negligible impact.
This surprised me. Left-leaning outlets like Vox are generally anti-Airbnb for the reasons listed. Using Airbnb is more likely to put money back into a community than staying in a hotel. That said, if a traveler views Airbnb as a bad thing, it’s poor ethics to use it because any one person has a negligible impact. Under that logic, one can do just about anything because their actions alone won’t change the world.
For an extra step, you can call a hotel and ask how much of their staff live within a few miles of the property and if they’re paying at least the minimum wage to all employees, Francis says. Other things to consider to minimize your carbon footprint while staying at a hotel: Do they have space devoted to nature on the property? Do they offer plant-based food options? Is the hotel powered by renewable energy?
Please. Do not do this. This is just the liberal version of the ugly American who shows up in Thailand and complains he can’t get a good hamburger. Calling a hotel and asking them where employees live is just strange. I’ve worked the front desk of a hotel; it would make me uncomfortable to start talking about the incomes and domiciles of my colleagues with a guest. I understand the sentiment, but it’s a terrible idea.
If you’re considering a tour guide or excursion company, choose a locally run business, Francis says. Not only are you supporting the economy, but locals speak the language and know the most authentic restaurants, photo opportunities, and hideaways.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you ask a tour guide for a restaurant recommendation, you are likely being told about a place that the tour guide will get a kickback from if you eat there. A local tour guide isn’t likely to tell a group of tourists about their favorite local spot, for obvious reasons. That the head of a travel agency doesn’t recognize this is concerning.
“When I think of my favorite memories when I travel, it’s never the wild moment of peering over the Grand Canyon, although that’s cool,” he says. “What’s always memorable to me is on my way to the Grand Canyon, I stopped at a gas station and I met an old guy and sat down and had a cup of coffee with him and he told me about his life living in the area.”
Again, people can enjoy what they want to enjoy. But if going to the Grand Canyon is overshadowed by a casual conversation over a cup of coffee, maybe you shouldn’t have traveled all the way to the Grand Canyon. It honestly makes me think the person being quoted is the exact type of Instagram traveler that is being criticized in the first paragraph of the article.
For locations without posted visitor guidelines, err on the side of caution and ask someone nearby if entering a space or taking a photo is permitted — especially if you are photographing another person.
I wish this was explained better. What kind of locations are we talking about here? In today’s world, there is an expectation that one can take photos and videos in public at will. That means that strangers will often be in them. The idea of asking someone on a street corner if you can take a picture of a local statue seems odd. On the other hand, I have seen tourists disrespectfully take up-close photos of random strangers without asking. The line between wanting to document a trip and invading someone else’s privacy is blurry, and it’s a conversation that needs to continue.
Operate with respect when visiting nature preserves: Stay on marked paths, take your trash with you and only dispose of it in clearly marked waste receptacles, don’t take plants, sand, shells, or other natural objects with you, and don’t disturb or touch animals.
Again, this advice is overly broad. Taking a few shells from a beach for personal use is fine; judging by the number of local shops selling shells in any beach town local governments must not have a problem with it. Some travelers also like to take a small vial of sand with them as a souvenir; this isn’t going to decimate the beach. Regarding animals, however, this is great advice. Apart from some rare cases such as the deer in Nara, wild animals are wild! Do not touch or feed them.
The most memorable part of your vacation might not be angling for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, but rather the lively chat with the owner of a fromagerie. “If you went to a destination and you only spoke to other tourists, or people in a service role,” Walker says, “then you didn’t do well by that destination, you didn’t do well by that trip.”
This is personal preference masquerading as objectivity. I’ve gone on trips where I stayed with locals, ate at local restaurants, and hardly interacted with any other tourists. I’ve also done hermetically sealed trips to Florida where I rarely leave the resort. And that’s ok! It depends on what trip you want to have. Also, I wish good luck to any international tourist trying to get a Parisian fromagerie owner to have a lively chat.
Want to be a respectful traveler? Then be a respectful person. Use common sense. Treat a location as if you lived there. Don’t go to a different place and complain things are different. Say please and thank you. But for the love of God, don’t call up a hotel and ask them if renewables are powering their electricity.