At first, I was upset. Our plans were ruined. Our trip was completely squashed. But I’m glad it happened the way it did. After all, I learned something from it — and isn’t that the whole point of travel?
It was May of 2014, and I was living in Australia. My roommates and I were planning a trip through Southeast Asia, and figured we’d start in southern Thailand and make our way north from there. But Thailand’s government was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, which led to civilians taking to the streets for what appeared to be a battle for democracy. It seemed that basic human rights were being violated, and who were we to enjoy the endless beauty of a country whose citizens couldn’t do the same?
So, despite how enticing the beaches in Phuket appeared, we decided it was best to alter our plans and go elsewhere. This way, the people of Thailand could look after themselves and not worry about a couple of Canadian backpackers getting in the way.
You might have your own story like this: somewhere along your journey, you crossed a border (or tried), and were met with a sticky situation. Maybe you heard rumors of the unsustainability of Easter Island’s tourism while you were in Chile, or learned of the massacres in Myanmar as you traveled east across India. Maybe you wondered why these little girls in northern Thailand weren’t in school.
Whatever it was, hopefully your revelation prompted a question or two: Should I still go? Should I even be here?
It’s no secret that many of these places and people rely on tourism. It’s a great boost to any economy — from the market vendors in Cusco, to the employees of heritage sites in South Dakota. Traveling can help people, especially if you volunteer while doing so. But, unfortunately, you can’t hide from the harsh realities these destinations may try and hide.
We, as travelers, carry responsibility wherever we go. Each day we spend abroad, we make choices. These choices can be big — such as deciding which guided safari to pick — or small, like packing a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing a disposable one. In both of these cases, though, the city down the road might be experiencing one of the largest droughts in modern history — which means every decision matters.
This essay’s intent isn’t to deter you from your dreams of international travel and enriching cultural experiences. Rather, it’s an attempt to educate, challenge, and open your mind to where you’re going before you buy that plane, train, or bus ticket.
As our planet struggles to endure our ever-growing presence, we owe it to ourselves to be as mindful as possible while traversing it, to endorse ethical practices that promote travel for the right reasons. We owe it to ourselves and, more importantly, the citizens of these places.
There’ll be another time to lay on the beaches of Phuket.
Header image by @carlyscamera