Travelling is fun, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Though it’s uncomfortable to think about, it’s possible that your vacation could support violence and oppression in ways that you might not see at first glance. The following is a guide to how you can leverage your privilege as a tourist to create cultural exchange and mutual benefit, and avoid participating in exploitation.
UNDERSTAND YOUR PRIVILEGE
The very nature of privilege means that it’s difficult to know if you have it – if you’ve never experienced certain issues, you may not even think of them as potential problems. Here’s a guide to help you figure out if you are privileged when it comes to travel.
Check any of these that apply:
- I’m allowed to visit countries whose residents aren’t allowed to visit mine. For example, I have the ability to enter up to 176 countries without securing a visa in advance.
- Most places I travel will accommodate me in my own language.
- Drug stores and hotels will stock the shampoo I need in miniature, flight-approved bottles
- I can go by train, bus, plane, car, or motorbike — every mode of transportation will accommodate my body
- I can go wherever I want without finding out if the entrance is wheelchair accessible
- I can travel to places without access to sufficient medical care and not worry about it
- I don’t have to stress about leaving my home country and not being allowed back in
- I can access diplomatic representation in most countries worldwide
- I am not labelled as lazy or stupid because I can’t speak the local language well, or at all
- I am able to easily find foods or products similar to those in my home country while abroad
- I can show public affection to my partner while travelling without risking discrimination or violence
- I never have to worry about being misgendered (and the awkwardness or even violence that might result)
- When people are rude to me, I don’t automatically worry it’s because of my race
- My daily paycheck surpasses the average monthly local salary
If you’re able to tick off several of the statements above, you’re better off than many of your fellow global citizens.
LEVERAGE YOUR PRIVILEGE
Here are some practical things you can do to travel well.
Small is beautiful. Avoid big name tour organizers and instead seek out local tourism operators, so that your money can help the host community that provides your amazing holiday experience. Websites like this one can help you find ethical travel companies, too.
Shop Local! Someone in the village may offer you a handcrafted item that takes hours or days to make for a few dollars. Sometimes we can be a bit wary of these moments, assuming that it’s just the host’s way to squeeze more money out of us. Actually, in many cases, this is a family’s only source of revenue. Most of the rural hill tribe villages in Thailand are subsistence farmers: they don’t grow enough on their farm to sell for a profit but just enough to feed their families. So what might be in an insignificant amount of money to you could go a long way here. See this as an opportunity to bring back truly special souvenirs for your friends and family.
Advocate and spread awareness. If you see another tourist making a cultural faux-pax or unwittingly participating in oppression, educate them! We’re not suggesting you police your fellow travelers, but rather start conversations from a place of empathy. Most people will understand and be grateful for the tip. You can open with something like, “I know you didn’t mean to be rude when you just __________ but I learned that is actually not respectful of __________’s culture because __________. You seem like a nice person, so I thought you would want to know!”
Respect elders. The oldest person is a group is most likely considered to be the most respected. Don’t ignore an elder because you assume they will not understand you. You can communicate your respect without words – in Thailand you can Wai and lower your head slightly when you walk past them.
Elders are keepers of tradition, guardians of culture, the wise people, the teachers – and are central to any genuine [indigenous] learning space. – First Nations Pedagogy
Photograph Respectfully. Ask people (just like you would at home) before snapping away. Once you’ve taken a couple shots, include them in the fun! If they seem interested, show them some shots or take some together. If you’re just taking photos and walking away, people might feel like a zoo attraction.
Eat Together! In many parts of Asia meals are an important occasion for gathering to spend time and share together, and neighbours, friends and visitors are often invited to join the table. In Thailand, the chances are good that you’ll be welcomed into someone’s house for dinner. Feel free to bring along a snack so that you can contribute something. Even better, if possible share something from your home country.
These simple practical steps empower you to take positive action… because this is not about chastisement or feeling guilty for the privileges we enjoy. It’s about reframing your privilege to see it not only as a gift but also as a responsibility – and learning to travel mindfully.