On Being a Respectful Tourist

Audrey O'Donnell
April 25, 2018

I am spending this spring break with one of my favorite travel buddies, my mom. She’s fun and fearless and feisty and sometimes we fight, as you are wont to do when you spend that much time with anyone (especially those to whom you’re related), but all in all, she’s one of my favorite people to travel with. Whenever I travel, specifically to popular tourist attractions, I’m reminded of the kind of tourist I don’t want to be: one who speaks too loudly or at inappropriate times, takes an inordinate number of pictures, holds up lines trying to get the perfect selfie with the Mona Lisa, etc. For the most part, I think these things are universally annoying and the majority of travelers do not behave that way because we recognize that it is a nuisance. But being a respectful tourist is more complicated than just not being annoying.

My mom and I spent the first half of this break in Peru, seeing Machu Picchu, exploring Ollantaytambo and the surrounding sites, and visiting a friend in Lima. There was a particular moment during our travels from Ollantaytambo to Cusco when I was struck both by how important and how difficult it can be do be a respectful tourist.

The day following our visit to Machu Picchu, my mom had arranged for a guide to show us around the Sacred Valley on our way back to Cusco where we subsequently caught a flight to Lima. One of the places this guide took us to was to the top of a mountain where the Incas had built beautiful ceremonial sites in the remains of sinkholes. There were four such sites, two of which are still in use. As we stood looking down on the smaller of the two, our guide told us how this particular one had the energy of the moon and it was used only by the women of the surrounding communities and that it was important that they always take their shoes off before entering. Just as he finished telling us this, we watched as a group descended into this sacred space, male and wearing shoes. I was outraged. I asked our guide, “does it bother the women in these communities that men and/or people with shoes enter here?” Essentially what he said was, “Yes, very much. But there is nothing they can do about it.”

Initially I was angry at these tourists and their complete lack of respect and consideration for the Inca culture and their practices. But then I realized that I had been completely ignorant of the importance of this space until five minutes prior and, had mom and I not been so sick of stairs at this point in the trip, we may have made the same mistake. I was fortunate both that my mom had thought to get us a guide for this trip and that we were able to afford it. Planning extended international travel such as this is complicated and time consuming and expensive. It’s impossible to think of everything and to spend money on everything.

Following this tour, we went to see how the women in a neighborhood just outside of Cusco make products out of llama and alpaca fur. We saw how they cleaned it, dyed it, spun it, and wove it while the woman giving the presentation encouraged us to take photos and videos. I was awed by the amount of time, effort, skill, and artistry that goes into this practice and I have nothing but the utmost respect for these women. And, even though Flor, our guide, encouraged us to do so, recording her work felt like an invasion, like making a spectacle out of her livelihood.

So, are we inconsiderate and selfish human beings? Are we doomed to a life of unintentional acts of disrespect? I don’t think so. I think these questions, concerns, and feelings are important because they are the first step in taking action toward being the most considerate tourists possible. I’m not sure what the next steps are. I think they involve a lot of time, research, patience, and humility. While it is unlikely that, even if we do everything possible, we will make it through all of our travels without committing one faux pas or another, we can only do what we can do. We can research and learn as much as possible, acknowledge that we will never be able to know everything, and ask for compassion and forgiveness from those we may offend. Ultimately, the responsibility is on us to be informed and respectful. The importance of this cannot be overstated. But, in this endeavor, as in any other, we are fallible.

Audrey O'Donnell

<p>I'm a senior at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, with a major in English and minors in Creative Writing, Psychology, and Spanish. I started training psychiatric service dogs as a junior in high school and continue to do so on school breaks when I return home to Connecticut. Much of my time is spent reading, writing, practicing yoga, and playing with my dog, and I'm a big fan of peanut butter, early 2000s television, and the Oxford comma.</p>

Home university:
University of Tulsa
Hometown:
Harwinton, CT
Major:
Creative Writing
English
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