Respect in Developing Countries: 7 Behaviors Travelers Should Avoid

20 Jan

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I recently got back from traveling around Peru for a month, and as it was my first major trip in a developing country, I’ve taken time to think about the most important tips for being respectful while traveling in developing countries.

I think that in rich countries, people get an image of poor countries as being hopeless places. When positive trends take place in developing countries, the US media doesn’t report on it, unless the supposedly positive trend is that white people are going over to help them. By watching the news footage of whatever tragic event has recently happened in a poor country, or by seeing charity ads with poor, starving African children, you wouldn’t know that extreme poverty has decreased from 30% of the world’s population to 10% of it since 1990. You wouldn’t know that Sub-Saharan Africa has several of the world’s fastest growing economies. You wouldn’t know that literacy rates in developing countries have seen incredible gains in the past 50 years. You may know that many Africans have no access to clean tap water, but you wouldn’t know that more Africans have mobile phone service than have access to clean tap water.

We get such a warped view of developing nations in the media, to the point where even when well-meaning backpackers visit those countries, they are influenced by this, using travel as a chance to confirm their pre-existing biases rather than learn things they may have otherwise not learned.

For example, a person may go to a country in Latin America and have no problems getting around on buses most of the time (as I did). But as soon as they have one experience sitting on a delayed bus with a driver running late, they see it as evidence of the “laid back culture” of Latin America. And so, it makes them feel adventurous, as if it’s an interesting story to tell. But if these same people had more delayed bus rides in the United States, it wouldn’t be about a “laid back culture”. Instead, they’d be complaining about America’s infrastructure problems nonstop, and talking about the failures of the US government to build High Speed Rail and improve the nation’s congestion problem.

When Western tourists visit developing countries, they can contribute to local businesses and help their economies. But they can also give locals a sour impression of westerners, sometimes deservedly so. I think that in developing countries, it’s especially important to respect local norms and respect the people.

And so, this list is of 7 problematic behaviors westerners should avoid in poor countries.

1) Taking photos of local people without permission

This is problematic because it violates the privacy of people, and also turns human beings into “props”, or trophy pictures for your Instagram profile. It’s important to remember that when people take these photos, they often selectively choose the most “exotic” looking people in the most “exotic” places. In Peru, hardly anyone takes photos of the local people in Miraflores, a wealthy suburb of Lima. But many people take pictures, without permission, of rural, traditionally dressed indigenous people in the Sacred Valley region near Cusco. And since that’s the image that many westerners get of Peru, they don’t realize the fact that wealthy suburbs exist in the country too. This contributes to the problems with how developing countries are perceived by westerners. No one ever goes to wealthy places in the US and takes photos of the “strange Americans going to work in their business suits”. So neither should you do that with people in developing countries, unless they really want you to.

2) Making tasteless jokes or remarks

You’d think that travelers who go to developing countries would know better, but unfortunately, many will make tasteless or downright racist remarks or jokes, often to other tourists, about how local people live. On the first trekking tour I did in Peru (in Colca Canyon), there was one woman who kept making offensive jokes and remarks about “primitive native people believing in evil spirits”. This shouldn’t be happening. Traveling should be an experience that teaches people how insignificant we are as individuals in this world of seven billion, and how millions of people are fine living differently than we do. Sadly, some travelers don’t realize this.

3) Choosing tour companies that don’t have ethical business practices

It’s important to research the business practices of companies that offer tours. Make sure tour companies give back to their local communities with the money they make from tourists. Not all of them do. For example, In northern Tanzania, there is a lot of competition among safari companies, and many have unethical business practices. These practices can include racism, a lack of commitment to preserving wildlife, not giving back to locals, and cutting corners with safety.

4) Volunteering to do work that locals could do themselves

In March 2012, The Atlantic magazine published an article called “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole. See the article here. It talked about how a voluntourism industry has grown massively in the years following the Haiti Earthquake. Many westerners who want to do good in developing nations will pay money for the chance to volunteer in a rural village for a couple of weeks, laying bricks for a local school, taking pictures with the kids, and then going home with a huge ego and idea that they are a hero. It may sound harmless, but it really isn’t. The problem is that in many of these communities, the work tourists do is work that locals could do themselves. When tourists do this work, it contributes to the problematic “white savior” narrative and takes work opportunities away from local people. So unless you have a really specialized skill that no one in the local community has, it’s best to avoid being a “voluntourist”.

5) Ignoring Local Customs and Etiquette

In developed nations like those Western Europe or Japan, American tourists are made fun of for being ignorant and not knowing the local customs. And while it annoys the people who live there and do business there, it is often given a pass. But when you ignore the local customs in a developing country, you are doing more harm, leaving the people with a very sour view of the few Western tourists they get (relative to developed nations), and sometimes leading them to lose faith in the ability for tourism to help their communities. Vang Vieng in Laos is notorious for attracting backpackers who go tubing, party, and trash the place while ignoring local customs. This has really hurt the locals’ relationship with the tourism industry. Just don’t be another neocolonialist. Learn basic etiquette.

6) Eating the same food you could eat back home

This isn’t common among all backpacker circles, but still does happen. There are people who will go to Southeast Asian countries and eat cheeseburgers, pancakes, and pizza, and only eat from touristy restaurants. Sometimes it is because people don’t want to venture outside their comfort zone, but It’s often because of an irrational fear of local food. It’s usually very safe to eat local food as long as you do your research on food safety beforehand, and avoid places where locals aren’t eating.

7) Becoming a pretentious, “enlightened” narcissist after your trip

Look, I’m sure three month trip in South America was great. You learned a lot. You gained a lot of knowledge about the world. But it doesn’t make you superior to your friends back home. It doesn’t give you an excuse to be a pretentious narcissist. Travel shouldn’t just be about you “finding yourself” (whatever that means), it should be about the places you go and what you learn about the world from it. An insecure person becomes an arrogant know-it-all after traveling, who talks about travel when it isn’t wanted. A happy, knowledgable traveler should become more humble after traveling, as they learn more and more that it’s impossible to know everything about the world. Listen to what friends back home say, especially if they’ve had a different travel experience then you. And don’t dismiss those who love to read about other cultures but haven’t traveled much. Travel is a great way to learn about the world, but it isn’t the only way. Travel is a privilege and costs a lot of money too. Many people can’t, no matter how many articles on the internet talk about someone who “visited 100 countries for free” or how “Anyone can travel if they put their mind to it”.

 

So there you have it. These are seven very problematic behaviors to avoid in developing countries. It’s important to keep these in mind as you travel and plan future travel.

 

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