Guidelines for Responsible Travel
1. Cultural Issues
2. Social Issues
3. The Environment
1. Cultural Issues
Respecting Cultural Differences
Things are done differently in Asia, which is one of the reasons why it is so appealing! In general, we should accept the differences in the areas that we are travelling and do not try to change them for the benefit of our own comfort. Patience and courtesy are virtues that open many doors.
Assisting the Locals in their Understanding of Western Culture
The flip side of cultural understanding when travelling is to help locals gain insight into your culture - beyond the superficial attractions of money and wealth. When dealing with locals respect that they may wish to develop economically and have access to material possessions that you take for granted. While this undoubtedly changes villages for tourists, it is something that we should respect and understand. Everyone has a right to development and a better standard of living. The role you can play is to help assist local people to gain a balanced view of development by sharing not only the advantages of your culture but also some of the negative influences that come from increased material wealth, on both the family and the community.
Asian people in general, dress modestly and as a rule Buffalo trip participants should dress as the locals do. While in major cities, such as Bangkok and Saigon, mini skirts and such are popular with the younger generation, the older generation frown upon this and are more conservative. For women, singlet tops, not wearing a bra and tight body hugging attire can be offensive, as well as attracting unwanted male attention!
Modest clothing goes a long way towards making a good impression with the local people. Long pants/skirts and sleeved shirts are seen as appropriate. This is not to say you cannot wear shorts, but there will be situations where they are inappropriate, especially for females. Shorts should never be too short and lycra is best left for the gym.
More formal dress codes apply for temples, mosques or any other religious sites you may visit, and to prevent the wrath of the gods as well as the locals these should be closely followed. In general, both men and women should have covered shoulders and legs, plus shoes and hats should be removed.
Swimming & Sunbathing
There are no areas of Asia where nude sunbathing or swimming is acceptable, despite what other travellers might be doing. In some places Asian women will swim/bathe wearing all their clothes. If this is the case, then a good rule of thumb is to swim/bathe in a sarong or T-shirt where necessary.
Etiquette – the all important ‘Saving Face’
There are a few general codes of behaviour that apply throughout the areas in which we operate.
- Crooking your finger to call somebody is considered impolite. Asian people generally use a subtle downward waving motion to summon someone.
- Showing affection in public is considered quite offensive - definitely no kissing! Away from the major urban centres it is extremely rare to see couples holding hands, though it is quite common to see friends of the same sex holding hands.
- It is polite to remove your shoes before entering a house. Look for shoes at the front door as a clue and follow suit.
- Criticism should only be used when put among praise.
- It is inappropriate to express anger in a raised voice. Becoming angry is embarrassing to the local people with whom you are dealing - they will not be embarrassed for themselves, but for you. "Saving face" is a subtle but important standard of personal dignity. Personal candour in Asia is largely a matter of sensibility and face.
The ideal demeanour for the Asian traveller is friendly and open and ever ready to answer questions like where you are going? Are you married? How old are you? You will likely be asked questions like these that in a Western society may be considered personal. While you might find such a barrage of questions disconcerting, remain patient and remember to recognise that people are just being friendly and curious. Asian people often ask what your religion is. They have a general concern that everyone has a religion, though it doesn't particularly matter which one. If you reply that you do not have a religion, you might find a look of horror on the faces of your local hosts! The same attitude extends to the area of marriage and children. If someone asks you if you are married or have children, and you are not/do not, a good response is "not yet". If you are feeling uncomfortable with such questions, try to be patient or subtly change the subject!
Bear in mind also that attitudes toward privacy differ greatly between the West and Asia. Asian people often have an interest in our books, writing or photographs, things that the Westerner considers to be ‘private property.’ Concepts of property, private ownership and privacy are very different for the rural Asian, who is accustomed to living and sharing in a close-knit community. Be prepared and understand that your local hosts are not being ‘nosey’ but politely interested.
Photography –Still & Video
Sensitivity is the key when it comes to photography. Always ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Minority groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. They may think they do not look attractive (wearing their work clothes rather than festival clothes), while other groups believe that part of their spirit is taken away if they are photographed. There are occasions when you will meet a lot of porters carrying anything from bottles of beer to beds. Please respect that this is their job and that they may not like having their photo taken in these circumstances. Travellers should avoid paying for the right to take a photo as this has been found to encourage a begging mentality in the locals. Instead you can send back copies via your tour leader or directly to the people themselves. The locals gain a great buzz from seeing themselves in photos and it encourages a ‘sharing’ rather than ‘taking’ attitude towards photography. Also in many cases the locals could never afford to take photos themselves.
While you are welcome to pack your video cameras, there are some places that we request you not to film. In some small villages, homestays and remote communities, the local people consider filming to be too intrusive and recording aspects of their private lives. In these communities we also request the utmost courtesy and discretion with still cameras. Your tour leader will advise you in this regard.
Drugs & Alcohol
Buffalo Tours do not allow travellers to use illegal drugs while on a trip. The laws of most Asian countries carry harsh penalties for drug possession or usage, including the death penalty. Foreigners are not exempt from such penalties if convicted of such a crime. It is not acceptable to indulge in opium, marijuana or other illegal drugs whilst on trips. Your group leader has grounds for asking you to leave a trip if you are found to be using or carrying illegal drugs.
The use of alcohol also needs to be carefully considered, especially in smaller villages and tribal regions. For our school groups alcohol is prohibited.
2. Social Issues
Relationships with People in Visited Communities
Be aware that it is taboo in some of the communities we visit to conduct an intimate relationship with a local person. Be aware too that the well-being, social standing and reputation of the recipient of a foreigner's attention can be seriously affected within their local communities.
The prevalence of prostitution is an unfortunate element of Asia today and it is an aspect that Buffalo Tours want to have no part of in running our trips. While there is a risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, there are other wider social implications.
Child prostitution or sex tourism is an abhorrent and illegal act that we strongly condemn. Any incidences of this will be reported to the local and international authorities, who have links with Interpol and will ensure that the person involved will be questioned - and if appropriate - charged.
Donations & Gift Giving
This is a difficult issue for many travellers who want to assist the local communities but are unaware of the larger implications. There are many ways in which you can have a positive input into the communities that you visit:
Buffalo Tours supports a number of local projects and charities. Visit the Responsible Travel section of our website or ask your tour leader about making a donation. We collect clothing, first aid items, stationery and children’s books and ensure that they go directly the requested charity or project.
Do not give to begging children as it reinforces that begging is an acceptable way to make a living for these children. It is best to follow the guidelines set by local people in how they treat beggars in their community e.g. in many places it is considered acceptable to give to the elderly and disabled as there is no social security or other way these people can earn money. Buddhists believe giving to beggars will earn them ‘merit’. Your tour leader can advise you further on this.
Ways not to give!
Giving money and goods away at random to individuals accentuates an unequal relationship between locals and visitors, with tourists being seen as purely ‘money givers’. It also strips self esteem away from people when they get money for simply being poor rather than having to solve their own issues of poverty through community action. We also need to be careful not to pay for acts of kindness in monetary terms (eg. paying kids for photographs). We do not want to encourage the development of a society that equates every human action as a potential money making scheme.
Do not give sweets to children in the villages that we visit. Local people do not have access to dentists, nor can they afford them and again there is the issue of turning children into beggars. Pens, toothbrushes, clothing or other perhaps ‘worthwhile’ items are best distributed via a local charity, school teacher or community leader.
Avoid feeling that you necessarily have to give ‘material‘ things. The best giving can sometimes be shared interactions like a smile, joke, sing-song, dance or playing a game. Giving something of your friendship, time and interest to interact with locals can be the best gift of all.
Shopping & Dining
Please refuse to buy any souvenirs, food or products made from local wildlife - this includes snake-wine, bear, bats, frogs, turtles and sea horses. Though a local delicacy, both bears and frogs, for example, are highly endangered and we should not encourage their demise. Where possible avoid restaurants that make a feature of wild endangered animal species on their menus. If you see an abuse of animals or wildlife, report this to your tour guide who will refer it to an appropriate organisation who can best handle it e.g. the World Society for the Protection of Animals, TRAFFIC - the wildlife trade monitoring program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
Supporting Local Communities & Human Rights
While there are human rights abuses all over Asia, some places are far worse than others. Do what you can to not support the oppressors or perpetrators of the abuses. Learn as much as you can about what is happening in the country you will be visiting. Buffalo plans its activities so as not to financially support regimes that inflict violence on the general population. Occasionally though, there may be instances where our activities are supporting a regime. In that case you should weigh up the advantages to the people over the disadvantages of supporting the regime.
Buffalo Tours support Amnesty International for their work to prevent serious human rights violations. Amnesty International campaigns to free prisoners of conscience, achieve fair trials and lobby governments to change unfair laws and unjust attitudes. They have helped to increase public awareness of political imprisonment, torture and the death penalty throughout the world and have helped improve mechanisms for human rights protection. Have a look at their country reports for the human rights situation in the country you will visit. Be very discreet if you print these out and carry them in-country!
Buffalo Tours is very actively involved in supporting local communities, with a range of initiatives and touring options you can become involved with. Projects that you can visit or volunteer with include Binh Luc Orphanage, Mai Chau hilltribe villages, Medical Treks, The Water Buffalo Fund , the Project with Disabled Children , Northern Thailand Hilltribe Action, Seuang River Experience in Laos and more.
3. The Environment
Environmental Responsibility & Waste Minimisation
In Asia, the enormous economic growth of the region has been at the cost of the environment. Analysts are only now beginning to recognise the extent of the damage and the true cost to the environment and the welfare of its inhabitants. Debris-choked waterways, open sewers, excessive air pollution and plastic littering the streets are an obvious result of unrestrained economic growth. We don’t want our presence in Asia to add to this problem and need to minimise our impact on the places by practising waste minimisation initiatives whilst on holiday. We can also assist our Asian hosts in making informed decisions in developing social and environmental programs that will benefit future generations.
We are looking to adopt preventative actions on our trips by adopting practises that are commonly recognised as the three R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Try not to use plastic covered or wrapped foods when fresh options are available. The disposal of plastic and Styrofoam is a major problem in Asia, and the more we can do to reduce its use the better. Buy in local markets where little packaging is used, the food is fresh and the money is benefiting the local producers. Take your own bags with you when shopping - “say no to plastic”.
Whenever we are away from towns or cities we must not leave any rubbish we take in with us. Tampons and sanitary pads should be taken out of the area and disposed of appropriately. Pick up any rubbish that you see left behind by other travellers, so that we leave a place cleaner than we found it.
Organic waste such as food scraps should not be dispersed or buried in national parks and other protected areas. This practise may introduce exotic seeds and is not the natural diet of the native animals. Take it out with you again. You guide will advise you in this regard.
Bottled water is for sale in much of Asia, but unfortunately there are few facilities for recycling the bottles. Actively try to reduce the ‘consumption’ of plastic bottles by using alternatives. Your options are:
- in hotels ask if you can refill your bottle with purified water for free or for a small fee
- bring your own water filter, water purification tablets or iodine to purify drinking water. 2% tincture of iodine is used at 4 drops/litre of water and leave for at least 30 minutes, 1 hour if very cold water. Povidine-iodine solution can be used in the same proportion and left for 1 hour.
When trekking or in remote areas use the toilet facilities that are provided. If none are established, find out a suitable place which is at least 50m away from water sources and people’s homes. Bury faecal matter, carry toilet paper in a plastic bag for appropriate disposal later, or burn it. On all regular trekking routes most homestays will have an established set toilet for the group.
Energy & Water Conservation
Be prudent with fuel and water. Pollution, greenhouse gases and other problems of fossil fuel use are escalating as developing countries strive towards having modern Western appliances, vehicles and production methods. Clean water supplies are diminishing. Some ways to cut energy consumption:
- Air-con in hotel rooms: don’t use unnecessarily or leave on when out of the room. Turn down to ‘fan only’ or off overnight. This is better for avoiding sore throats and colds too!
- Air-con vehicles: short journeys are easily managed with windows open
- A cold shower may be more refreshing than hot in the tropics. Avoid hot showers where the water is being heated with cut timber or other non-sustainable methods
- An empty room does not need light. Many newer hotels have the key tag socket systems that prevent this
- Walk, cycle or use human powered rickshaws for sight seeing. Avoid taxis when there is a fuel free or shared transport option like a public bus
On treks, use existing tracks and stay on them. This is especially important during the wet season because it is all too easy to create new tracks in order to get a better footing. If people don't adhere to this, the trail soon becomes a series of footpaths that turns into erosion gullies. This impacts on the vegetation as branches are reached for as handholds, broken off, and added to the topsoil that has been dislodged to silt up the waterways.
Snorkelling – remember that touching coral formations can hinder their growth. Coral cuts can easily become nasty infections too. Do not take any coral or shells, as even though they may be dead, it encourages locals to think that they are desirable souvenirs and that there’s a market in these items. Stick with the “Take only photos, leave only footprints” adage but add sensitivity into the equation!
Limestone caves – do not touch formations, as natural body oils from the fingers hinder the formations’ growth and will discolour the limestone.
Fires – reduce deforestation by avoiding unnecessary use of scarce firewood. Fuel stoves should be used for cooking on camping trips and we do our best to choose accommodation that uses kerosene, gas or fuel-efficient firewood stoves. Put on warmer clothes rather than stoking a wood fire for warmth. Avoid lighting fires on those beautiful white sand beaches - the charcoal works its way through the sand, which in time ends up not so beautiful. Bonfires are not to be encouraged.
Soap – On treks when you need to bathe in streams or lakes try to forget about soap for a few days and harmonise with nature! A soapless bathe will still remove sweat! A nail brush and flannel may help! Conventional body soap and shampoo are degradable but it takes time for them to break down and in the interim they may be contaminating water quality for people downstream. The bigger problem is actually products like washing powders which contain cleaning agents that will damage the soil and vegetation if not disposed of in a controlled manner. While it might seem difficult using no soap when the locals have their big bags of Omo on the riverbank, it is important that we don’t add to the problem, as we are visitors and are an additional ‘load’ on the eco-system.
When visiting national parks or reserves where you will be in contact with wildlife, please ensure that you follow the appropriate park regulations that ensure that wildlife is protected. Respect this even if you observe that other tourists don't. Don’t respond to local rangers offering to bend the rules for tourists. Sometimes local people will try and sell protected species to foreigners. While you wish to do this so that you can set the animal free, this actually can be a money making scam for locals and it is a better policy to refuse to pay money and encourage the local to release the animal. When they realise there is no demand for the animal then the practise may eventually stop.
In your feedback form at the end of your trip we request that you tell us how we performed with regard to Responsible Travel issues. It’s very important to us and bringing it to prominence in your mind is also a priority for us. Alternatively – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.