27 Jul 2023

How to be a respectful tourist

Schools have broken up and the peak holiday season has begun. Tourist numbers are ever-growing, no-frills airlines offer bargain basement fares to an expanding range of destinations, and accommodation options are multiplying. The result is that many popular tourist hubs feel disturbingly overcrowded, and – especially in places that are experiencing unprecedented and gruelling heatwaves this summer – tempers can get frayed, and tourists’ behaviour may be seen as offensive.

There are many ways of improving the tourist experience, both for yourself and for fellow-visitors and residents. Whether you’re flying abroad or opting for a staycation, the same rules apply. Consider the following:

• Research beforehand

It is always a good idea to research your destination beforehand. This applies especially if you’re going abroad, where you might be encountering different cultural practices, from tipping and ordering in restaurants to visiting religious sites and wearing appropriate dress. Forewarned is forearmed; with the facts at your fingertips, you will avoid making obvious faux-pas. If you’ve researched the main attractions beforehand, and then talk to residents about them when you arrive, they will be gratified that you have taken an active interest in their home.

• Shop local

Many of the world’s most beautiful places are dependent on tourist income. If you invariably eat in your hotel dining room, or choose to buy from large supermarket chains, you are not contributing to the local economy. Always try and explore neighbourhood options. That means visiting farmers’ markets, patronising local shops, eating in small restaurants, buying regional produce to take home.

• Be a discriminating photographer

The compulsion to take photographs, especially now we all carry mobile phones with sophisticated cameras, seems to be universal. But ask yourself: do you want to fully live the experience, or do you want to endlessly record it, post it, and share it? If you feel a photograph must be taken, try and be aware of other people. Do not block pavements or monopolise views or obstruct locals from going about their business. If your photograph involves taking pictures of “quaint” locals, always ask if they mind first; if you’re moved to take a picture of a resident’s picturesque house or garden, check first; there should be no indiscriminate snapping.

• Get off the beaten track

It’s very easy to get into the “bucket list” mentality, where visiting somewhere involves ticking various star attractions off your to do list. But sometimes the joys of travel involve finding unexpected corners or little-visited places or experiencing a wonderful meal in an unfrequented residential area. Do you really want to spend your time in Paris queuing outside the Louvre, and craning to see the Mona Lisa over a sea of tourist heads, when there is so much of the city to visit and explore?

• Be pedestrian aware

Tourists often congregate in large crowds – especially at key vantage points that overlook famous views. Be conscious that these groups can be very frustrating for locals, who simply want to go about their business. Be observant and aware and don’t block the pavements or jostle other pedestrians because you’re too busy taking in the sights and not looking where you’re going. If you see a spectacular sight that demands a photo, don’t stop dead in your tracks in the middle of the path. Step aside and wait for a suitable moment when you’re not causing an inconvenience. If you’re lost and need to consult a map, also step to one side, and ensure that you’re not getting in people’s way.

• Dress appropriately

In some countries notions of appropriate dress are much more conservative than our own and it may be customary for women to cover their heads, while bare shoulders and legs may be frowned upon. It goes without saying that you must acknowledge these customs and respect them. In more relaxed environments, don’t take the laissez-faire attitude too far. Try and keep beach clothes for the beach, promenade, seaside bars and restaurants only. Wandering around local shops in a bikini or swimming shorts is disrespectful to the locals, who are trying to go about their everyday business. Unlike you, they do not see their local town as a tourist theme park where anything goes, but as a place where they must dress respectably, earn money, bring up their children and look after their elderly parents.

• Leave no trace

Undoubtedly mass tourism degrades environments. It inflicts considerable wear and tear on natural landscapes, seaside environments, and historic sites and buildings. The least we can do is to ensure that we do our best to eliminate our personal impact: that means always clearing away our own litter, never degrading historical buildings (there have been recent alarming reports of tourists scratching graffiti on the walls of the Colosseum in Rome), and respecting any prohibitions about entry into certain areas, which may be vulnerable to damage.

• Respect the residents’ privacy

How would you feel if random groups of people kept wandering into your garden and taking photographs of your prize roses? You might feel a brief twinge of pride, soon to be subsumed by the feeling that you have been invaded and your privacy has been violated. When you are on holiday it is vital to respect boundaries and take note of signs warning that land or buildings are private. Many foreign countries do not have the abundance of public footpaths and rights of way that we rejoice in here in Britain, so do not blithely cut through vineyards, orchards and fields; you may well be trespassing. If in doubt, always politely ask a local.

• Be unfailingly polite

Good manners will go a long way to winning over the local residents when you’re on holiday. That means greeting people with a polite “Good morning” or “Good evening” (try and learn these phrases in the local language), and always saying a heartfelt “please” or “thank you”. A little small talk (commenting on the weather, the view, the delicious produce etc) will go a long way. The locals will be delighted by any compliments or approbation, as they will want to feel reassured that you are enjoying your stay.

It’s all too easy to visit places as an entitled consumer. You feel that you have spent large amounts of money for the privilege and that you have therefore acquired the right to indulge yourself and behave as you please. But the transaction really isn’t that simple: your expenditure is putting you in a privileged position where you are able to experience a different place, a new culture, a beautiful or precious environment. As a tourist you are spending money not only to guarantee your own pleasure but to ensure that these places can survive and by recognising this you are acknowledging that you owe your hosts the courtesy of civilised behaviour, which will not disrupt or negatively impact their daily lives.


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