Learning how to travel more consciously

How to travel more consciously

Recently, I visited Hawaii for the first time (if you don’t count the time my parents brought me along when I was two, which I don’t, because I have no recollection of it). I had an incredible time, but I also couldn’t help but feel conflicted and guilty as well.

Every time I travel to places affected by U.S. imperialism, I am deeply uncomfortable. The same systems of oppression that have and continue to inflict violence upon indigenous people make it possible for tourists like myself to visit and enjoy these places.

For example, Hawaii’s history of settler colonialism and U.S. military intervention ultimately resulted in the U.S. overthrowing the Hawaiian government and eventually incorporating the islands as a state. Even before the official transition of power, American settlers and business owners worked to disenfranchise both Hawaiians and Asian immigrants brought over to provide cheap labor for American-owned plantations.

Today, Hawaii’s history of U.S.-inflicted violence is sanitized. Tourists can visit Hawaii without ever thinking about the military violence and systemic oppression of Native Hawaiians that ultimately enabled American tourists to enjoy Hawaii as a vacation destination and American corporations to profit from the Hawaiian tourism industry.

And even though tourism makes up a huge chunk of Hawaii’s economy and employs a lot of people, most of the money goes towards big corporations, not Native Hawaiians—not to mention the negative impacts of tourism, including degradation of sacred sites and driving up costs of living. Many Native Hawaiians feel that tourism itself forces Hawaii to sell and degrade its culture and land to corporations and tourists.

I don’t think there’s any way I can be an American tourist/traveler and not be complicit in U.S. imperialism in some way, because I’m inherently benefiting from it. Even the ease with which I can travel to so many countries because of my U.S. passport is a testament to the privilege I have as a result of U.S. imperialism.

Although I, like all American travelers, am inextricably tangled up in U.S. imperialism, I’m trying to figure out how I can be a more conscious and thoughtful traveler.

Through my experiences traveling and conversations with friends and people affected by the tourism industry, I’ve come up with some guidelines for how I can travel more consciously. These are by no means definitive or comprehensive—I’m still learning and this is as much of a way to document what I’ve learned for my own reference as it is a way to share these lessons with you.

5 ways to travel more consciously

5 ways to be a more conscious traveler:

1. Respect the communities that live there.

This seems pretty obvious, but even well-meaning travelers can be rude and inconsiderate if they are unfamiliar with the culture of the place they’re visiting. Research the history and culture of the place so you have some context for where you’re going. It also makes the trip much more meaningful. Seeing pretty views and doing fun things is great, but just treating your destination as a place for your entertainment is disrespectful in itself.

Some other tips: Learn local customs and some key words and phrases if the place you’re visiting speaks a different language (even if you can get around using English). If you’re visiting sacred spaces, make sure to look up what’s appropriate to wear and follow those rules. Don’t say shit like “everything is so cheap here!” loudly, or to locals, if the exchange rate is largely in your favor because that’s probably a result of imperialism and stuff isn’t cheap for people actually living there. Consider donating to community nonprofits, especially those that benefit indigenous groups.

2. Support local businesses instead of corporations.

Please don’t travel somewhere only to eat at McDonald’s (unless it’s a really fancy one in Japan or something…then I can’t really blame you)! When you support a local-owned small business, the money you spend will go more directly towards the community rather than to a corporation. It’s also a great way to truly experience life in that community.

For example, one of my favorite things I did in Honolulu was to eat at Helena’s Hawaiian Food, a family-owned restaurant and mainstay in Honolulu for over 60 years! Not only was the food representative of classic Hawaiian fare, but it was also so delicious that we went twice during our five-day trip.

3. Take care of the environment as if it were your home, too.

Clean up after yourself! Don’t trample on coral reefs or feed the wildlife! I went snorkeling in Thailand and it hurt my heart to see tourists carelessly stomping around and damaging the coral. Of course, this is partly the fault of opportunistic tour companies that just want to make money from tourists without educating them in order to preserve the natural beauty that enables them to make money in the first place…but anyway, as people already thinking about how to travel consciously, it should be a no brainer to treat the places wherever you go with respect.

4. Walk or take public transportation when possible.

If you flew to your destination, that’s already pretty terrible for the environment. Walking and taking public transportation reduces your carbon emissions once you’re there and can give you the chance to explore more than you would if you were driving. Plus, no looking for parking!

Other options include taking cabs or using ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Unfortunately, we had to rent a car in Hawaii to make the most of our short trip, but I have enjoyed taking public transportation in my past travels to major cities.

5. Don’t buy souvenirs you/your loved ones will just toss away.

It’s so tempting to buy all the shiny things being hawked in the souvenir stalls, especially when they’re cheap, but make sure you’re buying things you genuinely love or think your loved ones will love and use. Many times, souvenirs are cheaply and/or unethically made and will end up contributing to landfill waste. I’ve made the mistake of buying souvenirs that end up unused or tossed away because they were poorly made, or lost their appeal once I had returned home and realized I didn’t need things to remember my trip.

Now, I like to buy local food as souvenirs! One-of-a-kind handmade items are also great, especially when you can buy directly from the artisan who made it. Even if you don’t take home anything, you’ll still have cherished memories and life lessons from traveling.

Learning to be a better traveler is still a work-in-progress, and probably something I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.

Let me know your thoughts! I’m hoping that this post can be a way for us to continue the conversation about what it means to travel consciously.

Outfit details:

Sports bra & leggings set: Girlfriend Collective (reviewed here) | $10 off your first purchase
Backpack: thrifted

Further reading: Here’s another article that helped me work through my feelings about traveling as someone with privilege.


26 thoughts on “Learning how to travel more consciously”

  • Thanks for sharing about how to be a thoughtful traveler. It is amazing and important to be able to visit new places and expand our perspectives, but how do we balance that with the impact on the world from those travels? It is good to be reminded to tread lightly both culturally and from a sustainable perspective.

  • I just love your heart Cat! These are things I’ve never really thought about, but they are so important! When David and I traveled Europe we had one goal: act like the locals. We wanted to blend in, be respectful, use the languages as much as possible, and basically just not be an arrogant American. I suppose it’s a similar concept, but being even more intentional is never a bad thing!

    • Aw, thank you Karin. I feel the same when I travel, because I’ve witnessed the American tourist stereotype and it is not pretty! Made me really embarrassed and ashamed to be American, actually. Travel can be such a great experience for those of us with the privilege to do it, but it shouldn’t come at a cost to those that welcome us into their communities.

  • This is so awesome! I think a lot about being more conscious of the history around me when traveling as an American. I think a lot of us have that problem – and just don’t realize it. This is a great way to looking at being a better tourist!

    • Yes! It’s really easy to forget about the history when you’re having a great time, so I get it…but it’s something we can all work on. Thanks for reading!

    • I think so, too. That’s the real beauty of traveling for me – getting to understand another way of life or thinking and bringing it back into my own life.

  • I like the way you think! I have had this internal struggle when traveling, too. I’m a photographer and love to capture the beauty I see everywhere, but I try to be conscious of never using my camera in a way that could seem exploitative or disrespectful to natives of ANY place. I’m also very cognizant of buying souvenirs handmade in the place I’m visiting rather than mass-produced and sent there from somewhere else.

    • I could see this being something you’re really cognizant of as a photographer! That’s so great that you think about the way your photographs could potentially exploit or disrespect people because I think a lot of travel photography can be that way. Handmade souvenirs are the best!

  • These are great points to make. Each time I visit a new country I try my best to be as respectful as possible of the space I’m and try to open myself up to different cultures and traditions.

  • Cat I absolutely loved this post about traveling more consciously. One way I try to travel consciously is to make it a point to understand the history and the people of the place. I feel especially connected to Hawaii because Hawaii was such an important piece of our immigration path and history! Thanks again for the great read!

    xo, emma

    • Thank you, Emma! I loved reading your post about your grandmother’s story and how Hawaii was a piece of that. I’m sure visiting Hawaii is so meaningful to you!

  • This is a great post. I have a half- native Hawaiian cousin and we often chat about the similar experiences of our islands (I’m part Puerto Rican). Many of the hot tourist spots have been forced under American ruled and have no choice but to utilize that form of economy. The best things someone can do is take 30 minutes or so to research a place and found out how their dollar can benefit locals and not larger corps.

    • Yes, thank you so much for putting it so perfectly. I hate it when people say that tourism benefits the local economy without thinking about why the economy needs to rely on tourism in the first place. I haven’t been to Puerto Rico, but I can imagine that the tourism industry there has many parallels to Hawaii. Thanks for your perspective!

  • I love this. When my family and I travel, we always try and make a conscious effort of being aware of how our presence affects the places we visit. This is so important to teach to our kids too! Like you, we try and do public transportation, support local businesses, and respect the communities that are there.

    • I love that you teach your kids about traveling responsibly! Love that you also practice these tips 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Born and raised person from Hawaii here — thank you for this necessary post! I also think that traveling more consciously leads to a better overall experience. Even if you never leave the Waikiki area, there is so much to explore and learn about.

    • Yes, definitely! It’s kind of like consuming fast food vs. healthy food (or fast fashion vs. slow fashion!)…it’s easier to do what brings you instant gratification and short-term happiness but when you put in the effort and intention, you’re ultimately better off.

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