In my 30 years in tourism, I’ve found there are two types of travelers. Now, as the world is on the cusp of opening up again, read this post.
First, there are the travelers who travel. Hang on, I’ll explain. They go. They travel. They see. They return. And, during the entire trip, they looked at their surroundings through the lens they always look through. They didn’t embed, they viewed from a distance and evaluated everything. They didn’t immerse themselves in the culture, they walked around, criticizing everything they saw, or at the very least, complained it wasn’t as good as it was at home. They never put an ounce of effort into learning a single word of the language, or if they did, it was in done mockingly. Worse, they looked at the locals as beneath them, demonstrated in the condescending way they spoke to them. And sure, they may have found a craft skill interesting here and there, but clearly they felt the locals weren’t at the same level in society as they are. Then there’s the food. They liked some of it, but they compared every item to something they tasted before, either back home or on another trip, and they were very vocal about it. “The fish is pretty good, but not as good as the Mahi-Mahi we ate in Tahiti last year” or “Octopus? Who can eat a slithery thing like that?”
On an incentive trip my company coordinated years ago, we took the top 100 real estate agents from Chicago to the Elounda Beach Hotel on Crete, one of the finest in all of Europe. Each agent had their own sea-view bungalow. The place was, and still is, breathtaking and yet, sure enough, one of the agents called my room just after check-in saying he didn’t like his bungalow. I went to see him. His complaint? There was an olive tree partially “blocking” his view of the water and he wanted another bungalow, or he wanted the tree removed. I looked at him calmly and told him there were no other bungalows available, because we had most of them. I also told him olive trees were sacred in Greece and the tree “blocking his view” was likely 700+ years old or more. I told him how he should consider himself lucky to be able to see this tree every day and appreciate the beautiful wood and the wonderful olives it was producing. I also added (less calmly I recall) there was no way in hell I was going to ask anyone, the manager or otherwise, to cut the tree down. He sulked back into his private bungalow but complained the entire rest of the trip. One night at dinner, he didn’t like that the grilled shrimp still had the head on it and they’d “never serve shrimp with heads back home.” I took his plate back into the kitchen and asked for a knife so I could decapitate the shrimp myself before returning the plate to him.
The other type of traveler experiences their trip. They not only immerse themselves in the culture, they embrace it. They make efforts to understand the culture and customs, and even learn some of the important words in the language, like “please” and “thank you.” They’re fascinated by the surroundings and are genuinely amazed at almost everything. They’ll try the local food – a lot of it – and even enjoy the experience of tasting something that’s new to their palette. And oh, the way they look at the locals is so genuine. They ask them their names and about how they came to be where they are. They ask about their families. They’ll ask to take pictures with them. And, they’ll always accept an offer of tea or coffee, or whatever the customary beverage is. They travel but come home enriched with knowledge and appreciation for the way other people around the world live. And even better, they’ll come home appreciating what they have and empathize with how hard people everywhere around the world work.
So, what I’m saying is “Don’t be THAT traveler” and I’m sure I don’t have to point out to which of the above I’m referring. And by the way, the above lessons hold true as we travel around our own country, so be a good human being no matter where you are. Here are some tips on being a better traveler.
- Before you take a trip, read up on your destination. Learn about the culture and the customs. This way, when you get there, you’re already familiar with what you might experience. You might also save yourself some embarrassment. Did you know in Greece, showing your open palm with all fingers extended (like saying STOP with your hands) is like giving someone the finger? See? You learned something.
- Learn key words and phrases in the language spoken in your destination. Sure, they may speak English, but I promise the locals will appreciate your efforts. Make sure, you learn how to say Please, Thank You, and “where is toilet”, just in case.
- Look through a different lens while you’re traveling. Remember you’re visiting someone else’s “home” so leave the criticism at home.
- Appreciate everything around you. Make sure to experience as much as you can. And, I don’t mean “experience” just in the physical way, but immerse yourself in the culture and the way of life in which you find yourself during the trip.
- Taste everything. Get your palette and your mind out of their respective comfort zones. Try the local food, learn about it and just taste it. You may find you like it. By the way, if you don’t like it – swallow it! Don’t spit it out, don’t make a big deal out of it with a theatrical production. And dear Lord, don’t bring the food to your nose to smell it before you try it! You’re embarrassing all Americans when you do that.
- Appreciate the locals. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Listen to their stories. And by all means, if they offer you a beverage of any type, accept it. You don’t have to drink it all but waiving it off dismissively is rude. Don’t be rude.
- Take pictures, but make sure you don’t look at everything through your phone’s camera. I know, you need social media material, but look around you, without using your phone. Plus, taking pictures isn’t always appropriate (or allowed, for that matter). Hear the languages. Close your eyes and smell the air. Life is so much more than an instagram post.
- Be respectful. I can’t believe I have to point this out, but be mindful of customs and laws and use common sense. And if they tell you to wear a mask, PUT ON A MASK!
- Take public transportation at least once. My friend Julia, on every trip, takes local public transportation at least once, even for a short trip, then gets out and just walks around. What a great way to really experience a destination.
- Don’t be a cheapskate. Tip the people who take care of you. Leave cash in the room for the housekeeping staff. Tip the taxi driver, the bartender, the wait staff and especially the people who carry your luggage all over the place. I’ve always said “I’m from Jersey, we tip everybody!”