Responsible travel requires conversation, research, and a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and to adhere to them. As a first-time tourist, it’s impossibly hard to remember everything, but it will make a world of difference, and goes a long way in feeling welcome in a foreign country.
Understand Cultural Norms
Although most locals are polite and know their complex fabric of social niceties are difficult to weave, it's better memorize a few greetings and phrases of thanks, as it will be appreciated. The phrases I use the most are "Excuse me” and “Thank you.”
Hierarchies of respect are an important part of any society. Under this umbrella is everything from bowing etiquettes to the form of "thank you" you choose to use. Customs like not using shoes on tatami mats, and how you enter the baths have precise, specific behaviors associated with them. Elders are almost always given respect and it’s polite to allow them to enter before you on buses, businesses, and other locations.
As a traveler and not a tourist, you are an ambassador of your country. How you act, what you like, and how you vocalize that can be very influential (for good or bad).
As always, ask before you take a photo of someone or their property.
Lower Your Environmental Impact
Be respectful and courteous. As always, when you are traveling in another country, you are a guest there. Treat it like you are visiting a home.
If you notice recycling bins, use them! It is also expected of you not to waste food, water, or products. Every country is beautiful in its own way, and it is important that we do our part to preserve that beauty.
Support Local Artisans
Buying from local artists supports cultural heritage, and ensures the preservation of things like silk fans in Japan, rugs in Morocco, and wood carvings in South Africa that have become art icons. Every country has many beautiful arts, and artists throughout the countries are continuing traditional forms hundreds of years old.
Know the Religious Etiquette
Dressing modestly means covering yourself (yes, even the tropics). I think of dressing appropriately in another culture like wearing a costume; it’s necessary for your performance in another country.
In most countries, REMOVE YOUR SHOES before entering a temple. A small donation at a temple is not only appropriate, but can be a sign of thanks.
Understand: Young monks and nuns are orphans being cared for by the temple elders themselves. They feed them out of their own alms bowls.
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