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