Gentle Steps: The Responsible Tourist Checklist
It can be tough being in another country, especially one with cultural practices, language, and climate very different from your own. Assumptions you make about where you can go, what you can film, with whom you can speak, and what you can eat, may be terribly wrong, and in the end terribly damaging. At the same time, people in small island nations like Fiji, are heightening their own sensitivity to the potentially damaging impact of tourism to their environment and culture. They have responded by creating various codes of conduct that they hope tour operators and resorts, and the tourists that take advantage of them, will uphold and promote in an effort to ensure a sustainable and pleasurable tourism experience. The Nacula Tikina Tourism Association Code of Conduct is just one example.
Here are a few things that you can do to lighten your step, deepen your experience, and be a responsible visitor – one that would be welcome back to the Pacific again.
* LEARN a few important phrases in the most common language of the place you are going – you’ll make friends and quite possibly gain access to a deeper cultural experience.
* BE AWARE of the social practices in the country where you're traveling and try to live within them. Simple things like dress, table manners or eating habits that may seem unimportant to you might offend or even frighten local people. This might mean doing things you aren't accustomed to like taking off your shoes when entering someone’s home, office or place of worship, or accepting heavily sweetened tea and coffee when visiting someone’s house. It might also mean curbing some behaviour that many of us engage in instinctively: refraining from holding hands in places where public displays of affection are frowned upon, is just one example. Most travel guides offer insights into cultural norms and expected behaviours.
* WOMEN travelers, especially, might notice a lot of difference in the way you are treated. Be aware that in some places it's not appropriate to show your calves, for example, or to wear a sleeveless shirt. Nor is it appropriate in many countries, to enter a temple or place of worship if you are menstruating. A good rule to go by is: don’t do anything that you feel will put you in danger, but also remember that there are reasons for these traditions, and that if the local women accept them, you probably should too. Again, check the travel guides and talk to locals to learn more about what is acceptable.
* USE your judgment, and try to keep an open mind. Think of it as a great opportunity to experience a new culture and get a feel for what the lives of the local people are like.
* RESPECT the cultural property of the local people, and be careful of commodifying or "cheapening" that culture. For example, there may be places where taking pictures is not considered appropriate, whether they be of artifacts, buildings, or people; even asking permission might be seen as an intrusion. It's best to ask a tour guide or cultural interpreter before breaking out a camera. Try not to approach locals and offer them money for stories, dances, or other cultural arts. In many places there are performances of such arts offered in tourist locations. These performances will often be more respectful and will include an interpreter or host who will explain the significance and historical context of the arts you are experiencing.
* NEVER remove cultural artifacts from their setting, even if they are as small as a carved stone on a beach or a piece of string or paper tied in a tree. These items may have considerable significance, and removing them may be considered theft or cultural destruction. Similarly, don't carve, write on, or otherwise mark landmarks, natural features or cultural articles. While such practices may be acceptable in some contexts in your own environment, they may shock and offend others in different parts of the world.
* TREAT the natural environment with respect and care. “Take only memories, leave only footprints," – it applies in the Pacific as much as anywhere. While picking plants, collecting beach stones, traveling off the beaten path, or collecting shells might seem like a great way to bring back a souvenir, it could be very harmful to the environment or to yourself. For example, fruits or berries that look similar to edible varieties could be very poisonous, or a vital and fragile food source for local wildlife. Coral, limestone cave and grotto formations, and certain plant life take decades or even centuries to grow, and even brushing them with your hand could undo years of growth. Read the literature at park interpretive centres, in pamphlets and travel books, and consult guides and local people before venturing out alone; better yet, make friends and invite them along with you – most people are happy and proud to show you their environment. Rules and warnings are there for a reason, and it's better for you and the environment to respect them.
* CARRY a card with the name of your accommodation and maybe a quick map of how to get there in case you get lost (if you don't read the language of the place you're in, write it in your own language, too!).
* GET ACQUAINTED with what services exist for tourists, like tourism information booths, translators, guides, and other services. Know where your country's embassy or consulate is in case you get into any kind of trouble.
* ALWAYS KNOW where your passport, travel insurance, or any other important documents are. In some countries it’s best to carry these documents on you in a safe place at all times; ask your travel agent ahead of time to figure out what is the best way to deal with your travel papers.
* ACT the way you would like visitors to your country to act!
There are many situations where cultural differences and language barriers may make you uncomfortable or confused. If you act respectfully, are ready to learn when someone points out that you've acted inappropriately, and are careful not to take or damage anything around you, people will often forgive your transgressions. But remember that being an "ignorant tourist" is not a license to do anything you’d like; nor is it a good way to immerse yourself in another culture. Get informed! And be ready to laugh at yourself a little; soon, people will be laughing with you, and you may find that you've made a friend you never expected to make.
For more information on responsible tourism, visit the following sites:
* The Centre for Environmentally Responsible Tourism
* Avalon Travel Publishing – Moon Handbooks travel guides
* Nacula Tikina Tourism Association
* Wayalailai Eco Haven Resort
* Indigenous Tourism Rights International
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