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Responsible Travel in Asia

Ethical Travel in China

With tourism growing at such a rapid rate, it is imperative that travelers take steps to maximize the positive influences of their trip on the economy, culture, and environment of their destination. This article provides suggestions for the ethical traveler and offers examples from my own experiences of living in China.

1. Learn about China. Before your trip read up on China’s history, politics, and economy. This will help you to understand what you see in China, and will also minimize culture shock after arrival. It is respectful to be aware of topics that are sensitive in China; some Chinese are offended and embarrassed by conversation about Tibet, Taiwan, and religious cults. It is also important to learn a few words and phrases in Mandarin to aid communication. This will be a good way to make friends, and the Chinese respect and admire travelers who can speak the language—even a few sentences can make a big impression. Learning English is popular in China, and many people are eager to introduce themselves in order to practice their oral English skills. Offer to help and be patient; realize that people may be nervous when talking to foreigners.

2. Contribute to the local economy. China is bustling with both national and multinational companies that provide useful goods for visitors. However, think carefully about who benefits from the money you spend. In order to contribute to the local economy stay in local guesthouses, eat in local restaurants, shop at local markets, consume local goods, and buy handcrafted products. Most attractions, such as museums, charge an entrance fee. Consider giving money to free attractions if a donation box is available.

3. Fair Bargaining. Haggling over the price of goods is both common, and expected; indeed, Chinese shoppers and traders often enjoy the process. While you shouldn’t shy away from bargaining, do it fairly. Find out the realistic prices of goods and don’t worry if you are slightly overcharged. A small amount of reminbi—especially for local market stallholders—can go a long way. Also be aware that some shops, especially supermarkets, do not allow bargaining and instead quote real prices.

4. Contribute positively to the local environment. Consider the effect tourism has on your destination, and make a plan to minimize your impact. For example, switch off electrical and gas appliances when not in use, and take a shower rather than a bath. Make an effort to visit attractions that directly contribute to the preservation of the earth’s resources, such as nature reserves, animal sanctuaries, and activities organized by local charities.

5. Respect Chinese customs and culture. It is important to understand and respect the customs, culture, and religious beliefs of different groups within China. Many irritations and complaints reported by foreigners can be explained by lack of knowledge. Some behavior considered antisocial and rude in the West is considered normal in China. Examples include spitting in buses, restaurants, and at home; speaking loudly; intense curiosity with foreigners, including staring; different table manners; and asking personal questions.

6. Choose an ethical travel agent. It is worthwhile finding out more about ethical travel, which is now a growing industry. Use travel agents and tour operators with established ethical policies. You could go one step further and plan your trip around a program that offers responsible alternatives to conventional holidays, such as volunteering. Examples include community development and education; teaching English to disadvantaged children; caring for orphans or the disabled; building homes and communities; wildlife conservation; staying at eco-friendly hostels; and visiting locations that use tourism to replace activities such as forest logging.

7. Promote China. In the West some people develop biased assumptions about China that are based on unrepresentative information sources such as media reports. Your trip will show you otherwise. The country’s rich cultural diversity, unique history, exuberant festivals, hospitality, and mouth-watering cuisine will leave you craving more. For some, China becomes a life-long passion. So when you return, tell people about the realities of the country and encourage them to visit and see for themselves. The more people who visit, the more who will benefit from the cultural delights that China offers.

For More Info

Travelers have a growing number of responsible travel options that enable closer interaction with local cultures and environments. The online travel agent ResponsibleTravel.com lists ethical travel programs in China and other countries.

Why not stay in the Wenhai Ecolodge, a community-owned scenic mountain ecolodge in Yunnan province in southwest China? This mountain retreat has sustainable energy systems and directly benefits local people, because they manage the lodge. Book through www.responsibletravel.com. Or, contact Wenhai Ecolodge via www.northwestyunnan.com/index1.htm.

Looking for gap year ideas? Projects Abroad (www.projects-abroad.org) arranges placements in the areas of teaching, community care, conservation, animal care, business, journalism, and medicine in China and 20 other countries. The projects allow direct involvement in local communities and look great on your CV.

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