You’ve seen the headlines: “Woman Gets Gored by Bison,” “Man Falls Off Edge of Grand Canyon While Taking Selfie,” “Tourist Arrested for Defacing Local Treasure.” It seems that fairly consistently, there is some tourist or another doing something totally dumb. You may think you would never do something so bold as what you find in the headlines, but the little irresponsible things tourists do can also add up. I get it. You’ve paid a lot of money to get where you’re going and you’re just so excited! However, too often it seems that tourists leave their brains at home and it is giving us all a bad name. After all, you’re a guest wherever you go. You heard me. You are a GUEST wherever you go. It truly is a privilege, not a right, to visit the amazing places around the world and it’s time we start acting that way. So, let’s talk about some common problems and solutions (that are really just a reminder to use your common sense) that are important for ALL tourists to be aware of.
The Problem: Petting or feeding the wildlife.
Don’t do it. Ever. No really. It’s never okay to pet or feed the wildlife no matter where you are. Unfortunately, when you’ve left your brain home, the part of you that says, “But they’re fluffy and cute,” tends to win out. “Just one Cheeto won’t hurt this chipmunk.” “This bison seems nice.” “I’ve seen them do this on Shark Week.” Trust me, I know. No one likes a cute animal more than me. But they are wild and if they have a way to hurt you, they will use it and there’s no telling when. Besides the obvious biting/goring issues, are you aware that many animals often carry diseases? For example, out here in the Western United States, rodents like Prairie Dogs or ground squirrels carry Bubonic Plague. You read that right. Bubonic Plague. You want to leave that nonsense alone. By feeding or petting them, you are putting them and yourself in danger. Giving them food habituates animals to humans. It messes with their natural diet and makes them dependent on humans so they can’t survive on their own. And petting them! That’s a sure-fire way to get trampled, gored or bitten. If I see one more headline about someone petting a bison and getting gored, so help me! I’m going to say it. If you pet an animal, or get too close and you get hurt, it’s 100% your fault.
Even when you’re being responsible in your wildlife viewing, there is always a risk and that risk should be respected. For example, we were recently traveling in the Grand Teton National Park and wildlife viewing is one of the highlights there. We had come across a mama moose and her twin babies. The cutest! We and a group of people were watching from a safe and appropriate distance, when Mama Moose started getting agitated and moving towards us. If you’ve never encountered an angry moose, count yourself lucky. They are huge and mean when they want to be. Anyway, we were moving away as she got closer when all of a sudden, she started charging and ran right through where we had all been standing just moments before. Fortunately, most everyone was able to move out of the way because we noticed her agitation beforehand and were trying to keep our distance. However, there was one woman taking video that wasn’t as quick as she should have been to stay out of the way and she nearly got trampled. If she had, likely that Mama Moose would have had to be put down and those cute twin babies would have been orphaned and likely killed too. A lot of people don’t realize their actions often lead to an animal being euthanized because it’s no longer safe to have it around humans. It’s tragic for everyone involved, especially the animals.
The Solution: Leave wildlife alone.
Keep your distance and be aware of their behavior so you can get out of their way. Respect them for the incredible creatures they are and remember you are a GUEST in their natural habitat. You yield to them. You don’t pet them. You don’t feed them. Like the Mama Moose we were watching, their behavior can change fast, and you are responsible to make sure there is enough distance between you and the animal to make sure you can get out of its way and everyone stays safe.
The Problem: Tourists are Oblivious to their Surroundings.
Selfies are killing people. Okay, that may be a bit dramatic, but it’s also true in some instances and the point is, getting a picture is not worth risking your safety or ruining the experience of the people around you. You know what I mean. You’ve traveled somewhere great and have got the perfect shot lined up, only to have some oblivious tourist step into your shot to get a picture of their own. If this has never happened to you, you are likely the oblivious tourist ruining other people’s photos. Not only is it discourteous, it can also be dangerous. Often, amazing places we love to go have an inherent danger to them (i.e. the Grand Canyon is a collection of cliffs, the waterfall is slippery, the cobblestones are uneven, etc.). When you’re not aware of your surroundings, you can quite quickly become a headline yourself. Just because it’s a tourist attraction, doesn’t mean it’s been made completely safe, nor should it be. Often the beauty is in the natural rawness of a location.
The Solution: Slow down & be aware.
Be courteous and look around. Are you about to block someone’s shot? Can you wait ten seconds so you both can get a great picture? Are you standing on the edge of a cliff and need to take a few steps away before turning your back on it to take a selfie? In my opinion, there is almost always enough time and space for everyone to get those social media-worthy photos. Slow down. Enjoy where you are. See it through your own eyes instead of just through your camera. If you just take a minute to think, observe and be courteous, we can all do it safely and without making the other guests around us mad.
The Problem: Not appreciating/degrading the local culture.
Have I mentioned yet that no matter where you travel, you are a GUEST there? So why would you think it’s okay to make demands in someone else’s “house” as it were? One of the best parts of traveling is learning about and experiencing different cultures. One of the most unfortunate things I’ve witnessed in my travels is someone getting angry at a local because they aren’t speaking the tourist’s language, or they in some way aren’t conforming to what the tourists thinks they deserve. News flash! You have no right to bully the locals (or anyone – let’s be real) because their culture is different than yours. Nothing gives tourists a worse name than irate, entitled jerks who think they’re better than everyone else. This also goes for recognizing important locations for what they are and not just as a tourist destination. For example, in Italy (and many European countries) they require that shoulders and knees are covered in order to enter their churches and cathedrals. St. Peter’s Basilica may just be a tourist destination to you, but it’s an important place of worship to many and should be respected as such. It is your responsibility to adhere to their requests in a respectful manner. It is not for you to decide what is appropriate in someone else’s house. What is appropriate is to show respect for different cultures and the places that are important to them.
The Solution: Do your research about the local culture & customs before you travel.
Not only will this be helpful to you, but it’s kind of fun. There are so many interesting people and places to learn about. If you’re going where they speak another language, learn a few words in that language like: Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where’s the bathroom, etc. You do not need to be fluent, but showing that you respect their language and are trying, often endears a level of goodwill among those you are visiting, and they are much more willing to try to accommodate you. If you need help, download a language app like Google Translate. It can certainly be a great tool in communicating what you need, or finding your way around, while still respecting the local language/culture. Also, research the places you’re going in advance and take note if there are special considerations you should be aware of (i.e. dress requirements, they only accept cash, tipping is offense, etc.). This can save you a lot of embarrassment & frustration in advance. Remember, your lack of personal education on a destination doesn’t give you the right to demand things from the locals. Be a respectful guest!
The Problem: Vandalism is vandalism is vandalism.
“But everyone is doing it!” Most people probably wouldn’t spray paint a wall when they’re traveling, but are you aware that scratching your name into the rocks, trees, bridges, benches or walls is just as bad? Even stacking rocks along a trail is vandalism if they aren’t being used as an official trail marker. Vandalism takes many forms and many tourists excuse their behavior because others have done it too. For example, here in the western United States, we are lucky enough to have beautiful Native American artwork from up to thousands of years ago both etched & painted onto rock faces. It’s a wonderful thing to see, but nothing ruins it like the words “S & A 4ever ” scratched into the rock right next to it. Well, but there’s also a “Wanda was here 2006” scratched right next to that, so it must be okay, right? WRONG! Two wrongs don’t make it right, it just means there are multiple people who left their brains home and who are selfish enough to ruin culturally significant sites for their own pride. It is wrong and as a guest wherever you go, you are responsible to leave things better than you found them.
The Solution: If it’s not yours, don’t touch it.
Seriously. Is that painting in the museum yours? No? Don’t touch it. Is that rock art yours? No? Don’t touch it. Is that sculpture in the park yours? No? Don’t touch it. Tourist-related vandalism is real and unfortunately, too prevalent. It may not seem like a big deal at the time, but if thousands and thousands of people do the same thing because they’ve seen others do it too, then we all have a big ugly problem. You wouldn’t vandalize the walls of a home you’d been graciously invited to, so don’t do it anywhere you travel either. As a guest, leave it better than you found it.
Remember, it’s your vacation, but it is NOT all about you. Quite the opposite in fact. It is about where and who you’re visiting. It is their chance to show off their corner of the world and it is our privilege to be invited in as a guest. But it is an invitation, not a right. Keep your brain with you, practice common courtesy, and enjoy immersing yourself in this joint experience with those around you & we may just be invited back.