You know those Hawaiian shirts? The ones famous for gracing the backs of tourists on vacation around the globe? They’re not called Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii. They’re called Aloha shirts. For the first twenty-two years of my life I had no idea.
I have a confession to make: I’ve been a tourist. As a devout traveler, I hate tourists. There’s nothing worse than throngs of sweaty, doughy, slack-jawed camera-toters clogging up the sidewalks and taking all the bus seats. But looking back, I realize I’ve lived among them from time to time. Tourism is a strange beast, as we found during the Travel + Social Good conference at MRY headquarters in NYC on Friday, September 20th.
On the one hand it can breath life into a place. It lends value to intact natural resources, and helps preserve everything from jungles to mountains to animals big and small. Even if only for pudgy vacationers to gawk at. On the other hand, tourism has an unrivaled reputation for spoiling paradises all over the world, and is the reason that if you visit Venice today - a city of just 60,000 with more than twenty-million annual visitors - you’re much more likely to bump into a tourist on the street than you are an authentic Venetian.
No, with tourism there is no wrong or right. There’s only better and worse. So here are some tips from Elizabeth Becker, Author of Overbooked, and myself - a recovering tourist - to help make your next trip less Hawaiian shirt, and more Aloha.
1. EDUCATE YOURSELF: Bad travel writing will paint a picture of every place as a flat canvas of swaying palms, turquoise waters, and smiling locals. It’s a recipe for disaster. In truth every place has its own unique history. I landed in Hawaii completely oblivious of their complex past with the US. This lack of cultural understanding lead to a handful of hostile interactions with locals. People show up expecting grass skirts and tiki torches, and are surprised to find that hawaiians own cars and televisions and washing machines just like everyone else. The same goes for every other country on Earth. People are generally happy to welcome you into their lives, but they don’t want to feel like fish in a bowl. Take a little time to read up on the real history and culture of a place, so that you can partake in it rather than stare at it.
2. WATCH FOR IMPACT ON THE LOCAL COMMUNITY: Hula girls, fire dancing and ancestral music are among the wonders that every tourist beholds when they attend a luau. This business allows Hawaiians an avenue to preserve their traditional culture. But the tourism it attracts comes with a demand for hotels, chain restaurants, and noise that detracts from the islands’ natural beauty. No matter where you go in the world, realize that your presence has an impact on local cultures. It’s up to you, through the experiences you decide to pay for, to determine whether that impact is positive or negative.
3. TIP HEAVY: Don’t rely on your tour company to get money into the hands of deserving locals. Use your tipping power to put money where it belongs. If you enjoyed your meal, tip. If your guide brought you back alive, and with some great stories to tell, tip. Be respectful of local customs, and realize that sometimes your gratuity won’t be accepted. But when the situation calls for it, take advantage of your individual ability to deposit money directly into the hands that deserve it.
So get out there and travel more, tour less. Let your wanderings be the source of awesome cross-cultural experiences, learning, and fun. You’d be surprised how different your wardrobe - and indeed the world - looks when you shed your Hawaiian shirts in favor of some Aloha.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE TRAVEL+SOCIAL GOOD CONFERENCE HERE
Ethan is a traveling writer and entrepreneur. In addition to writing for CATALYST, and SocialFinance.CA he blogs about all sorts of things over at An American Afoot. His recent work focuses on people who are using business to change the world for the better. Always interested in new and fascinating stories, he can be reached via twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org