Two years ago I visited Cambodia. My husband and I woke up at 4:00 AM to see the temples, and still we had to wait for half an hour to buy our admission tickets. Angkor Wat, the country’s most popular tourist destination and the 7th wonder of the world, received nearly 2.5 million visitors in 2017. But just over 20 years ago, fewer than 10,000 made the trek. The incredible rise in tourism has deeply affected the small country in both positive and negative ways.
I thought, as I walked among these sacred ruins, how beautiful, how foreign, and how crowded it was. I cringed, watching tourists jump off walls to get a selfie. Others broke off pieces of the temples, stowing away stones in their pockets. Throughout the park, private cars and tuk-tuks transported tourists, including us. We tried to be respectful, quiet as we roamed the grounds, tactful about our picture taking. We obeyed the few signs that were up but ultimately were in awe that nearly the entire site was open to tourists.
The driver we hired for the day, Kimsan, lamented the growth of the site. He said it brought much-needed commerce to his country, yes, but that the sudden boom was changing everything. The economy, the air quality, the resources. More and more children, he explained, were dropping out of school to beg from tourists. Foreigners, in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the site, were building restaurants that put his friends and neighbors that ran local cafes out of business. Large hotel chains often brought in expat managers instead of hiring and training Cambodian citizens.
But we, as tourists, also have a responsibility to practice sustainable tourism. That is, to positively contribute to a place’s long-term health, socially, economically, and environmentally.
I thought then, is it possible to be a sustainable tourist? There is much talk about the harms of sustainable voluntourism, if not researched properly. But I hadn’t given much thought as to how my visit to a specific place affected the locals until that moment.
Cambodia is not the only country struggling with the sudden load of tourists. As more regions and countries develop their tourism industry, they often have to scramble to accommodate the expanding and rotating population while still maintaining cultural integrity. Much of the burden falls on the government leaders and city planners. But we, as tourists, also have a responsibility to practice sustainable tourism. That is, to positively contribute to a place’s long-term health, socially, economically, and environmentally.
But the big question is, what can I do? How can I, as one tourist, make an impact?
Here are five things you can do on your next trip to leave a positive contribution:
We’ve all seen the little signs left on hotel nightstands that say something to the effect of: ‘A towel hanging up means I will use it again. A towel left on the floor means please exchange.’
Of course I want my towels exchanged every day, I remember thinking. After all, isn’t that one of the luxuries of staying in a hotel? But then I read this statistic: The average Canadian household used 326 liters of water per day. A village of 700 in a developing country uses an average of 500 liters of water per month. And a luxury hotel room guest uses 1,800 liters of water per person per night.
Wasting and consuming large amounts of water is damaging to many areas. You can help conserve by taking shorter showers, turning off the taps while you brush your teeth, and hanging those towels back up. These small decisions could make a big impact on the locals if everyone participates.
Don’t Take From the Environment
As mentioned above, I saw multiple people breaking off pieces of the temple to stow in their pockets. I couldn’t help but wonder what the site would look like in 20, even 10 years, if every tourist decided to do that.
Sustainable tourism in large part has to do with how you protect the environment. Plants, rocks, and seashells are part of the habitat you’re visiting. Leave them where you found them, so that others can also enjoy them.
It’s also important not to pollute the environment with litter. Trash and cigarette butts should be put in the appropriate receptacles. If the country has a recycling program or bin, help them out and recycle your bottles and cans. When everyone does their part — or at least doesn’t damage any existing environments — the location remains a place that others can come to enjoy in the future.
Respect the Locals
When visiting a foreign place for a short period of time, it’s easy to forget that people live there. I couldn’t imagine living at the base of Machu Picchu or just minutes from Angkor Wat, but people do.
When taking a picture — especially of people, ask them if it’s okay. If they say no, respect their wishes. Learn a few phrases if possible, before your trip. While most tour operators will speak English, it’s polite to greet individuals in their native tongue. In Thailand and France especially, I found that the locals wanted to be greeted in their manner. An American “hello” is considered rude. Interacting with people in a dignified way should be essential for everyone — but especially for American tourists, who are often considered loud, pushy, and entitled.
You also respect the locals by dressing appropriately. Do your research before packing for countries with deep religious views. Avoid miniskirts, tank tops, and even shorts and capris in certain areas. Revealing clothing, especially when entering a church or holy site, is offensive to locals. And certain sites require a head wrap or shawl.
“First and foremost, as soon as you remember that you are visiting people’s homes, and see them as hosts rather than homogenous holiday providers, you become more responsible tourists.”
Despite the extreme heat at Angkor Wat, appropriate attire is required, including long pants that cover the knee, and shirts that cover the shoulders. I still saw many tourists rolling up their pants or tops, which in America, would be understandable. Cambodia is hot! But you help the local culture retain their integrity when you are conscientious about your clothing decisions.
Catherine Mack, a writer for Responsible Tourism says, “People are at the heart of the responsible tourism movement. First and foremost, as soon as you remember that you are visiting people’s homes, and see them as hosts rather than homogenous holiday providers, you become more responsible tourists.”
Spend Your Money Wisely
A boy no older than eight attempted multiple times to guide my husband and me through the ruins at the Bayon temple. But on our drive in, Kimsan warned us against giving money or other items to local children, since it encourages them to beg instead of staying in school. The boy was so disappointed when we politely told him we would not give him money and I felt awful.
I expressed guilt about this to my husband and Kimsan. But Kimsan told us that if we wanted to help the local children, there were appropriate avenues to do so. He told us about multiple charities we could donate to, including the Cambodian Children’s Fund. He then offered to take us to a special store in Siem Reap called Artisans Angkor.
We were greeted at the shop by one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He introduced himself as Joe and offered us a free tour through the workshop. We walked through multiple buildings, watching the artists sculpt, carve, paint, and work with various other mediums. Many of the artists are disabled, and others come from rural areas. Their pieces are beautiful, and high quality — so different than a cheap gift shop with imported trinkets. We bought a small painting in the gift shop that now hangs in our home.
Spending your money wisely, instead of doling out coins to children, empowers the local culture.
Do Your Research
Before booking a hotel, ask the hard questions. Do they recycle? Have fair labor laws? Have an environmental policy? The same goes for booking tours. Yeah, it’s awesome to get a picture of yourself riding an ostrich — but how is it affecting the ecosystem and the animals in that specific culture?
As a kid, I remember visiting a picnic site at a national park. A sign above one of the tables read, “Leave this place better than you found it.” Years later, when I moved to Hawaii for a semester of college, I called my mom in tears, telling her how lonely I was, how I had no friends, that it was hot and rainy. She reiterated that sign, word for word. “Leave this place better than you found it.”
It is the golden rule of sustainable tourism and one that we, as members of this big, vulnerable world, are duty-bound, and privileged to observe.