On my recent trip to Myanmar, I questioned what it means to be an ethical tourist. I then explored possible ways to reduce travel’s environmental impacts. Social impacts are equally important and complex, so here are a few thoughts on how one might address these.
As a tourist, a transaction occurs between you and other people. Superficially, this nearly always involves money. In my opinion, ethical travelling encompasses more than this. There should be a two-way interaction, benefiting both parties. It shouldn’t simply be about the tourist getting the best experience or photographs, especially if this in some way harms local people. Nor should it be about people taking advantage of tourists, viewing them solely as income sources. If the exchange between tourists and locals is conscious, I believe it can be enriching for both, and there is potential for learning from each other.
I found that in more touristy places, like Bagan, people were more interested in my money; I felt constantly hassled to buy things. Conversely, some locals appeared averse to having photos taken of them, possibly sick of being the subject of tourists’ photos. In quieter places, such as the Shan hills, where I went trekking, tourists were rarer. People were curious and appeared to want to engage on a deeper level. Smiles were genuine and kindness was shown without expectation of monetary rewards. One evening I spent time playing with my home-stay’s children and watched some of the Myanmar news (not understanding much) with their neighbours. We attempted to have a basic conversation with our minimal shared Burmese and English words. But language wasn’t necessary to feel the mutual respect and warmth in the room. I hope my presence was as beneficial for them as it was for me.
In Thailand, where I’ve been living for the past year, I am not a tourist as such, but still an outsider. Here I am ‘Farang’, a foreigner. I’ve learnt that Farang can be viewed as dirty or rude by Thai people, likely due to tourists often being scantily clad, disrespecting religious or cultural traditions, excessive alcohol consumption or not speaking the local language. In my experience, attempting to speak a few words (especially thank you) of the local language can remarkably assist bridging the cultural and language divide. Often this is enough to soften someone’s demeanor and pave the way for a helpful or friendly interaction.
I’m not sure I’ve answered all the questions that I was confronted with during my trip to Myanmar, but overall I think ethical travel requires having an open approach, being prepared to learn and connect on more than a perfunctory level. Respect for people and their culture is imperative, as well as being self aware and willing to share something of yourself. Encouraging people to travel in more ethical ways (both socially and environmentally) is paramount, especially now when tourism continues to increase. Travel provides an opportunity to learn and grow and to foster understanding of different cultures and perspectives, but it must be done in a manner which serves both the traveller and the local people. What tips do you have for fellow ethically-minded travellers?