The Codes of Responsible Travelers

Ask Nicaraguans taking English classes why they want to learn English, and I’ll bet the majority of them say, “Because I want to be a tour guide.” Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Nicaragua. It is a people-oriented business, geared to revitalizing local communities and providing many jobs. However, like other industries, tourism has its downsides such as: ecological degradation, locals forced to relocate because of increased cost of housing, food, transportation, and other services, loss of cultural heritage, increased petty crime, and economic dependence on foreigners.

We are victims of our own popularity. We’ve seen the impact mainstream tourism has on our tiny Ometepe Island. Its long-term effects on our local island communities have led many of our expats and local islanders to explore programs offering alternative vacations. The problems that go with mainstream tourism will doom Ometepe Island if left untethered. The proposed Nicaraguan canal could prove to be an ecological disaster. (I’m writing a post about the canal soon.) Sustainable tourism is the perfect alternative for responsible travelers seeking educational and low-impact adventures that will benefit the local communities of Ometepe Island.

Notice that I use the word ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists.’ A tourist visits to be entertained by experiences and images created especially for the tourist market. Think…luaus…beach cocktails with paper umbrellas…going somewhere just to check it off the list…white sneakers…camera draped around the neck…you get the picture.  A traveler…blends in with the locals…travels by local transportation…considers a trip a journey or a quest…researches, plans, and explores the culture.

Before developing programs, we need to know what responsible travelers really want, what resources we have available on our Biosphere Reserve, and how we can provide sustainable tourism that respects both the local people and the travelers, the cultural heritage, and our environment. In order to understand the needs of travelers, first, we must learn the codes of responsible travelers.

                                    The Codes of Responsible Travelers

1. Prepare in Advance
Travelers learn about the culture, customs, history, and language of foreign lands long before their passports are stamped. They are avid researchers. Ask a traveler for a list of websites, blogs, and books to read and you’ll be surprised at the number of resources a traveler can recall off the top of his/her head. Travelers tend to be expert packers, too. They have memorized the airport codes and know the best days and times to book a flight, or all the locations of the local bus stops, including a schedule of the times of departure.

Brochure for Los Ramos2. Choose the Right Tour Operator
Travelers choose home stays and locally operated hotels and hostels over expensive resource-consuming international hotels. They select tours that support small-scale projects and employ local guides. They seek tours that are designed with the input of the local community.

DSCN06773. Respect Local Customs, Cultures, and Lifestyles
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…the mantra of travelers. They are sensitive to the intrusion of photographing people and places. They respect the local customs and try to “fit in”. Offensive behaviors such as drunkenness, sexual advances, and improper dress are avoided at all costs. Travelers accept that people have different, not wrong or inferior, ways of living. They understand the myths of poverty and instead of tossing money to beggars, they offer them clothes, shelter, or food.

IMG_23784. Consider the Impact of Presence
Travelers eat the local food, not only because it’s adventuresome, but because the expenditure will stay in the country. They shun McDonald’s and Burger King, instead going for places with names like Pizza Hot or the Mini-Super. They avoid buying products that are made from protected species, never litter, and try to conserve limited local non-renewable resources like firewood or water. They enjoy cold showers…

IMG_0027and local drinks. They are aware of the impact of tourism on the people and places that they visit. Travelers are careful when bargaining that they don’t exploit the local vendors. They walk, run, hike, bike, and explore the country using local transportation instead of large, energy-consuming tour buses.

IMG_52665. Present Yourself Realistically
Travelers learn to speak the language and present themselves as citizens of the world. They share ideas and other information with the local people about their social, economic, and environmental realities in their home countries. They do not glamorize their lifestyles or their culture. They focus on similarities, instead of differences. They empathize.

IMG_02366. Continue the Experience
When travelers return home, they often share their stories…but they DO so much more. They are activists. Travelers are not content simply sharing photos of their experiences. They join human rights and environmental protection groups, volunteer their services, and share their experiences in the hopes that we can all become citizens of the world. Travelers are our eyes without borders, our dreams and hopes for a better future, our voices for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

IMG_0864                                      Are you a traveler or a tourist?

The six codes of responsible travelers were taken from the UNESCO website called Being a Traveler-Six General Principles.

22 thoughts on “The Codes of Responsible Travelers

  1. These are all good tips, Debbie. However a person travels, the bottom line is being interested enough in the culture to research it, understand its uniqueness, accept its differences and travel or tour with respect. The longer a person stays in a location, the more opportunity one has to carry out and build on those tips. Tourism all over the world has impacted cities and rural areas in both positive and negative ways. The bottom line in many emerging and developing countries is for the governments not corrupting themselves with all the pay offs they get for permitting the large conglomerates from moving in. The beaches of Bali are owned by the Chinese. Thought provoking post, Debbie.

  2. I grew up farming and I am still involved with agriculture. I strongly respect Mother Nature.
    I would like to schedule a visit to Nicaragua and I definitely do not want to do it as a tour group. I want to meet locals and interact with them. Maybe some day I could help someone to visit me in Iowa, U.S. Please reply. It seems very difficult to find a service that helps with
    down home info.
    come and visit me in Iowa, U.S. Please respond. It seems very difficult to find any type of service that offers down home visiting contacts.

    • Hi Dennis,
      Thank you so much for your comments. I agree. It is difficult to find programs abroad that offer authentic cultural experiences. Please read my post, Part Two: Natives with Netiquette. At the bottom of my post, you will find contacts for the Los Ramos program. I’ll try to add more programs after I review them. It’s disappointing because some programs just use the buzzwords such as “permaculture”, “eco-friendly”, and other keywords to increase their businesses monetarily and draw more volunteers. My third post in the series will be about this problem.

  3. I note your mention of Nicas’ reasons for learning English and hope the two whose lessons I’m providing will use their skills in other businesses.

    I am also concerned about the canal’s effect on the island and have increasingly bad feelings about it. The Santa Maria is presently beached at Charco Verde repairing damage caused by (I have heard but not verified) low water in San Jorge. At this time of year. In truth I have doubts about that but recall the damages the El Che and other boats suffered last spring due to low water and the frequent dredging required on both sides. I cannot imagine how it will be with the canal draining a substantial amount with each transit. Hope El Costeña will offer a frequent flyer program

    Probably should have waited for your canal post…

    Really appreciate the ‘Being a Traveler’ tips. Very well done.

    • Brian, there is an article in the La Prensa about the serious need for dredging the port at San Jorge. The ferry captains said that unless the dredging starts immediately, they will have to ground the ferries in two weeks. Now, that concerns me because if they don’t dredge, there are hundreds of runners and families coming to Ometepe for the Fuego y Agua next week. Last year, the runners were stranded on the island for an extra day because of high winds. The port looked like a refuge camp. Moyogalpa ran out of food, runners missed their flights out of Managua, and it was a total mess. Can you imagine if they attempt to build a canal across the lake? I don’t even want to think about it.

  4. I have appreciated your willingness to share your experiences and enjoyed seeing you on House Hunters. I wrote a few months back and now my husband and I are moving forward with our move to Managua. We are already working on the requirements for a residency visa and are confused by the ‘health certificate’. Do you know if that is a special form and where you obtain it?

    Thanks for your time

    • Catherine, thanks for your sweet comments. The health certificate is not a form. It involves 2 sentences from a doctor on his/her letterhead. For example, my letter said, “Deborah is in good health. She has no communicable diseases.” It was dated and signed by the doctor. The most important things are: the letterhead, the 2 sentences, and the date and signature of the doctor. Very easy. I hope this helps. We just had a doctor friend write us two letters.

  5. Beauty, there is a fine line we tread in offering services to unaware tourists vs aware travelers. I honestly enjoy a comfortable hotel room. Hot showers are a luxury for me. We have our local taxi driver that takes us to most places in Nicaragua. I see no problems with those comforts. It’s the bigger picture of waste and consumption in the tourism industry geared to the hoards of tourists who do not seek authentic experiences and care little about the culture and customs of the local communities. It’s the land grab… shoving locals out of their communities and replacing their homes, that have been passed down through generations, by international resorts or gated communities. It’s the giant cruise ships with 4,000 tourists, that rush tourists past the local restaurants and gift shops in their massive energy consuming tour buses. It’s the isolation and unauthentic experiences geared for tourists who are unaware of the problems that occur with mainstream tourism that frighten me. I’m writing another post about the problems that sustainable tourism brings to our local communities, too. It’s such a dilemma and there is no quick fix. The only thing I can do is try to create an awareness. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

  6. PS: I probably should have addressed my earlier comment to other commenters’ remarks.
    I am more than a little irritated by some of these ill conceived “PC” concepts.

    Don Cuevas

  7. Debbie, I appreciate the sincerity of your ideas on responsible travel, and so, I must have a soul stained with sin. I like my creature comforts, comfortable hotels, taxi rides and eating good food, whether it be in restaurants , fondas or street stalls. We travel on large buses in reasonable comfort. (Does traveling on chicken buses* make one a better person? Are we supposed to walk, hitch hike or what to get from place to place?)

    *I’ll ride one for short distances if necessary.

    I do research our trips very well, speak better than passable Spanish, have considerable knowledge of our adoptive country’s (México) history, geography and culture, and I interact with “the locals” on a personal and friendly basis. I do not feel guilty about wanting hotel room with private bath and plentiful hot water. Deprivation does not necessarily, I say, make a traveler a better person. If that sort of travel style appeals to you, then go for it. But please don’t denigrate those of us who enjoy more comfort.

    For a look at truly clueless tourists, see my blog post “Last Sunday Morning In Barrio Jalatlaco, Oaxaca”

    tu amigo viejo,
    Don Cuevas

    • Don Cuevas, you have missed the point of this post. It’s not about comfort and deprivation. It’s about creating an awareness of the impact that mainstream tourism can have on the local communities. You, of all the people I know personally, have integrated into your community, respect the customs and traditions of the local people, and speak the language fluently. I think I must have hit a nerve with the cold water showers. But, that’s not the point. If a local hotel, not a big international all-inclusive resort geared to mainstream tourists, has hot water..go for it. I, too, enjoy hot showers and travel with our local taxi driver or the big air-conditioned Tica or Nica buses. This post is all about the hoards of truly clueless tourists and tourism industries, those unaware of the impact that they create by irresponsible behaviors in fragile ecological environments. The tourism industry must balance the wants of tourists or travelers with the needs of the local communities. Maybe I didn’t make myself clear in this post, if not, I’m sorry for that, but you, my friend, don’t have to worry about your soul being stained with sin. However, if I see you hovering over our island in a helicopter tour, I’ll start to worry.

  8. This is the first time I am seeing these traveler principles in writing and I realize just how much I have embraced these for myself as a way of experiencing another culture. How many people realize how much of a strain they place on local resources just by demanding/consuming at the standards they are accustomed to? I am thinking about long, hot showers, specific foods and drinks that have to be imported, a hotel room with its own bathroom and a/c, private taxi transportation, and on and on. I have seen “paradise” deteriorate ecologically over the course of 20 yrs due to the strains of tourism. People still think what they are seeing now is beautiful, but I (and the locals) remember the past – and it’s heart breaking (think dead reef trampled by too many tourists and hotel sewage).
    I am glad you are participating in a responsible tourism effort – it is badly needed!

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