Traveling the World Taught Me About Ethical Travel

The world is wide and wonderful — but are we welcome?

Kayli Kunkel
Nov 5, 2018 · 8 min read
Positano on the Amalfi Coast — a beautiful coastal Italian city that’s struggling under the effects of tourist-induced gentrification. (Photo Credit)

When I first set out to travel for months on my own in Europe, my motivations were purely selfish.

During my months away, the only thing I felt important to document was my mental health journey. I did this to help others and myself. Words and insights flooded my personal journal and my Medium articles once I corralled the tiny courage to share. My private Instagram account was reserved for honest moments of joy and sadness for friends and family following along.

A few days before my one-way flight, someone I generally admired and respected posted a strong opinion online: that all travel — especially the travel blog lifestyle of digital nomads — was generally unethical, “modern-day colonialism.”

At the time I challenged this claim. But in my months on the road, I’ve evolved a position to really question my effects on the world I travel to see, and how I share that world with others at home.

When I describe myself as a “writer” and a “traveler,” everyone seems to encourage me to “travel write.” When I first set out, this seemed like a great idea. Sharing my favorite cafes, meals, hostels and memories, and even getting paid for it? What an amazing idea!

Many people I’ve met on my trip make extra cash sharing photos of their travels, topped with dozens of yummy-sounding hashtags: #NoBadDays, #SoloTravel, #SeeTheWorld. You know, the delicious stuff of millennial daydreams.

But every time I felt like writing about the world around me, I paused. I remembered the things I wrote years ago when I first saw northern India.

I took pictures with local people I did not know — yikes — and commented on the “culture shock” I felt at the poverty I saw. While my worldview expanded, I didn’t do my fair share to challenge stereotypes when I brought my experiences back home. I did more harm than good.

In the past few years of my life, as I’ve built real relationships with people who are brave enough to educate me and others about the injustices and stereotypes that white travelers (and white people in general) can propagate in their communities or cultures, I adopted some discomfort and self awareness that rightfully hasn’t left.

Once I started traveling alone, I became more aware of how receptive the world was to having me there.

Through my travels I’ve met so many people. But more than that, I’ve also listened and done my best to open my mind. I’ve changed a lot to reassess my place in this world, evaluate my importance and refocus my lens to be less ethnocentric, in ways that occupied quiet and mostly unacknowledged corners.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s incredible that increasing social mobility in some countries has enabled people more personal choice and pleasure, rising into a growing middle class that has the shiny new ability to venture out of its comfort zone.

However, living in a tourist mecca myself for several years taught me what happens on the receiving end of the Big Red Tour Bus.

During a recent summer in NYC, one of the biggest causes of my anxiety — the kind where my hair actually started to thin and fall out — was my commute. It involved quite literally shoving past hundreds of tourists shuffling around the Empire State Building, where I worked on the 42nd floor, all vying for the same picture and rudely oblivious to the daily life trying to occur around them.

I’d get my toes smashed, my gut elbowed, my face smacked by selfie sticks, and end up late for meetings daily. I stopped going out for lunches altogether to avoid the high adrenaline levels that kind of street-boxing required.

When I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I experienced an even more troubling side of tourism. I grimaced every time I saw tour groups gawking at the street murals, because they poured money in the pockets of impartial tour groups without sticking around long enough to support local artists in a meaningful way.

My experience pales (quite literally) in comparison to that of others on the receiving end of inconsiderate tourism. Hair touching and other bodily devaluations are common for African American women. Photographs of “poverty porn” can hurt perceptions about communities and further a dangerous “white savior” complex.

While tourism can lift some economies up, it can hurt others: like the recent rise of roughhousing and rising rent in Amsterdam or gentrification in Positano, a city not equipped for a mass influx of visitors. As the local newspaper comments on its changing environment (translated into English),

“Slowly the physical and social space changes, losing its original local character to give it a global one.”

As I’ve grown and listened, I’ve gathered some principles that guide me when I travel. Its a long rule book, yeah, but an important one. It’s made my experiences traveling more rewarding, not limiting.

First, I strive to be quiet and respectful. I listen more than I speak. I never, ever try and share my worldview or beliefs with someone who is not actively engaging in a two-way debate or discussion — just like how I wouldn’t soapbox at home. I try and be conscious that life moves around me as a traveler and do my best not to disrupt it.

Next, I don’t photograph people as subjects. It’s common sense of privacy — I absolutely resented being chased around with a camera in Delhi, India, or resignedly posing for family pictures with families who weren’t my own— but this decency somehow dissolves when we visit somewhere so “other” to us that we end up exotizicing and productizing the cultures we admire.

Ultimately, another person’s body or appearance is not my art to profit on or broadcast unless the person has freely consented to model for me, with compensation, and full context of how their image is being shared. (I have not done this even so.) In fact, sometimes just consenting to a picture isn’t enough, since the power dynamics at play may push someone to say “yes” when they really feel “no.” I didn’t understand this before, but I do now.

Next, I don’t claim to know the story of any place I’ve visited, to fully know the “personality” of the people there, or to write authoritatively on the challenges they face. Instead, I study up and learn as much as I can about the history, challenges, and socioeconomic situation in the places I visit.

I use my travels to inform and supplement that education. Walking tours are often free, and getting them from a local guide (and tipping generously) has given me the most authentic experience — like what it was like growing up with Communism as a “Little Drummer” in Hungary, or how a diced-up nation questioned its sense of cultural identity when Czech Republic and Slovakia separated.

Finally, I fight stereotypes actively and wherever possible, especially when I come home. I never assume that anyone in this world needs my help without asking for it. I use what I’ve observed to think more critically and be more active when I hear global news about a place and its people.

As my first few months on the road wind down, I’ve learned to keep in mind that real life happens off of the tourist circuit. Nothing irks me more than when people visit New York City and say, “Ugh, so chaotic, the people are so mean, how do you live there?” These people have almost certainly only seen cramped Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. They haven’t met real New Yorkers, and haven’t engaged in friendships or working relationships with the kind, complex, inspiring, unbelievably driven and diverse people there. They simply don’t know, and I wouldn’t want them to speak for or about me.

In fact, many Americans would be shocked and upset to hear the drastically simplified stereotypes about our country and people that I’ve picked up on the road. That we don’t care about our families because we are too driven by work. That we all carry guns and that it’s not safe to go anywhere, because violence is rampant. That we must not want to help others, because we would rather leave someone homeless on the street or sick and unable to pay.

How does it feel to be stereotyped? Hurtful? Damaging? Like you’re not understood? That’s how it feels to everyone else in the world, and we need to actively challenge our own stereotypes when we set out and experience people unlike us.

I loved meeting people from dozens of countries and continents, making friends, understanding them as humans. Keeping in touch, asking about their lives. Seeing them as complexly as I myself would want to be seen, and never attempting to speak for or about them.

To the acquaintance who boldly shared her misgivings about travel: I understand you now. But still, after all I’ve learned, I disagree that travel is an altogether avoidable evil.

If we are introspective enough, travel is an amazing way to develop a deep concern and admiration for the world and for the diverse people and belief sets within it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without gathering knowledge and meeting friends and mentors who shape my worldview today.

Especially if you live in a homogeneous bubble — like the one I grew up in — it’s critical that you get out of that comfort zone and actively find more perspectives. We can learn so much from people by their music tastes, their food tradition, the religions they practice, their political climate, their cultural ethos, and the way they see interpersonal relationships.

I have made plenty of mistakes in my time traveling. My generalizations and privileges shine too brightly sometimes. I say things that cause offense, I misunderstand. I originally started to write a post a month ago about what I’ve learned from each country I’ve visited. But I soon “x’d” out the draft and acknowledged how hard that undertaking was. Because in the end, we all want to enjoy life, we all care about friendships and family, we all feel lonely, and none of us fit into neat stereotypical boxes.

When I think about the meaning of travel, I think about one of my best friends, who I was privileged to serve as the Maid of Honor for in her wedding. She met her fiance while living in Asia, and through their travels, they met a huge network of close friends from dozens of countries and different continents.

They spoke different first languages, but they had fun nights, helped each other through heartbreaks and new love, shared memories and learned from each other’s unique backgrounds. Their wedding was a beautiful metaphor for global community.

Isn’t that the greatest benefit of globalization — meeting, embracing, and loving other humans in the world outside our own?

Mariposa Magazine

A platform for those who have been through major life…

Kayli Kunkel

Written by

Queens, NY. Sometimes traveler. Creating new narratives on mental health and sustainability. Founder of Earth & Me, a zero-waste small business and publication.

Mariposa Magazine

A platform for those who have been through major life transformations, through vonluntary or unvoluntary change.

Kayli Kunkel

Written by

Queens, NY. Sometimes traveler. Creating new narratives on mental health and sustainability. Founder of Earth & Me, a zero-waste small business and publication.

Mariposa Magazine

A platform for those who have been through major life transformations, through vonluntary or unvoluntary change.

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