Welcome to another edition of Travel Unravelled! This time, we’re unpacking some tricky topics, including travelling to controversial places (and what even makes a place controversial to begin with!). We also dive into the ethics of “living like a local” when you travel and when it goes too far.
What are your thoughts on travelling to controversial places? Is it ethical? Where do you draw the line?
An interesting (and tricky) topic! There are many reasons why a place could be considered ‘controversial’ – ongoing conflict, extreme political regimes, human rights violations, strict laws – the list goes on. I’d also count safety as a major factor here, as it’s likely going to be the biggest cause for debate in conversations with family and friends.
It pays to do your research and there are plenty of questions to weigh up before you book a flight, including:
- Is it safe? Travel advisories can help here. It might be that some regions are safe while others are risk areas. You’ll also have your own definition of ‘safe’. Some people are fine visiting places known for petty theft, others are not – decide what feels right for you.
- Is it ethical? Again, you have to set your own criteria. What are your core values and beliefs? What would stop you from visiting a country – its laws, environmental footprint, political landscape, role in current conflicts?
- Is it stable? While nothing is ever truly stable, it’s good to consider whether a situation might change rapidly. Consider upcoming elections, protests, the economy – even things like hurricane season. I tend to keep countries on a ‘watchlist’ and make a call later as to whether it feels right or not.
These are all ways to rule out places to travel to, but it makes more sense to consider what you are looking for and go from there. Personally, I prioritise places that are affordable, warm and have beautiful natural scenery. I’m not so concerned about picking a place that is easy to get around, predominately English-speaking or catered to tourists. I’m willing to risk having my phone stolen or to try navigating unreliable bus networks if it means experiencing somewhere totally different to where I’ve been before. I tend to rule out destinations where I wouldn’t feel welcome as a solo female traveller or where I feel like the crime rate is too high for me to travel without stress. Basically, my measure is whether I would feel safe walking alone during the middle of the day.
From an ethical standpoint, I don’t feel comfortable travelling to a country where the laws conflict strongly with my values or to places with ongoing human rights abuses. At the end of the day, I’m a backpacker, not a humanitarian or a war reporter. My trip is for my own benefit and I shouldn’t be helping fund or support something I am ethically against for the sake of a cheap vacation or to tick somewhere new off the list. That said, I know that my perceptions of the world are built from deep-seated stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions I have from growing up in a Western country. Every country on Earth has its own dark history, questionable politics and ethical failings, and it’s unfair to judge an entire region on the actions or views of those in power.
One of the things I value most about travelling is the chance to learn more about the world around me. You can’t really understand a place or its people until you’ve been there yourself. I try to keep an open mind, which means that there are actually very few places I would cross off my list entirely. Nothing is ever set in stone. Countries go from being war zones to thriving tourism hubs in a matter of decades. A natural disaster can render any area too dangerous in a heartbeat. Elections and uprisings take place year after year. It’s the way of the world.
Should we really be striving to “live like a local” while we travel?
Another interesting question! On a surface level, I think it’s great to dive headfirst into your travels to make the most of what a destination has to offer. Try the local cuisine, visit the market, take time to learn about the history and join in the local festivities! The whole point of travel is to experience new things, meet people and see different corners of the world, so why not embrace it as much as you can?
Making an effort to understand local customs and culture is also important as a general show of respect for the place and people. This means learning some local words and phrases, dressing appropriately and understanding what is considered offensive or rude to locals (e.g. being loud and drunk in public, taking photos at sacred sites, etc.).
When people talk about living like a local, often what they really mean is trying to travel as cheaply as possible. There’s nothing wrong with travelling on a budget – that’s the life of a backpacker. While luxury travellers spend more money in general, it’s unlikely that money is ending up in the hands of local workers. More likely, they’re staying at an international hotel chain and eating at expensive restaurants or franchises, rather than a hole-in-the-wall place in the market. Travelling on a budget can actually help support local businesses and stop costs from skyrocketing up to “tourist prices” – which can force locals out of tourist hubs and gentrified neighbourhoods.
I think the line is crossed when travellers start to take advantage of locals. I’ve heard stories of people “begpacking” their way through Vietnam by asking for money and food to continue their travels. It’s entirely unethical – particularly in a low-income country where locals would never ask for anything themselves. If you do find yourself in a situation where you run out of money while travelling, stop and take stock. Is it time to go home? Can you volunteer in a hostel and stay put for the time being? Asking for money from locals isn’t the answer.
Travel is both a privilege and a choice. While you might decide to live cheaply to travel for longer or get more out of your trip, many locals live that way out of necessity. They may never get the chance to leave their country or even their region.
Take a moment to think about your intentions when you travel and what you’ll take away from your experience. Are you striving to live like a local to learn more about a place and its people, or are you just trying to find the cheapest option? Are you taking the time to speak to locals and support small businesses? What can you give back to a place in return, other than money?
There are plenty of ways to become a more ethical traveller. We hope this article helps you think deeper about your own travel choices and re-consider the stereotypes you’ve heard. If you have your own Travel Unravelled question, drop us a DM on Instagram @hostelworld. We’d love to hear from you!
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