Responsible Tourism

My husband and a friend bargaining for a cut of pork outside Langfang, China.

Just having returned from an impromptu trip across Guangxi (Nanning–>Yulin–>Guilin and back), and planning a jaunt to Yangshuo for our anniversary in late May has me pondering responsible tourism. A couple months ago, I read an article in the Travel section of the New York Times that wondered about the same topic. Kevin Salwen, contemplating the responsible response to peddlers on the street, writes, “The expanded power of a dollar, combined with what seems like infinite need, creates so many situations in which no answer seems appropriate. I find myself feeling like either a deep-pocketed patsy or a skinflint.”

I tend to loathe bargaining myself, because it seems arbitrary and nearly impossible to find an equilibrium and inevitably orchestrates injustice: either you get cheated, or someone else can’t earn a living. When shopping with Chinese friends, however, they insist you shouldn’t buy unless you can bargain down to the meager price their local sense tells them is appropriate (this has often amounted to either Evan or I running what I call “interference:” one of us distracts our Chinese friend in the other direction while the other buys whatever item we want at whatever price we want, however inflated!). In the end, Evan and I, like the Salwen, have settled on a resolution to buy the item for what we want to pay, regardless of whether we’re overpaying by local standards. As the article says, consider “stop[ing] bargaining before you are the only winner,” and let someone earn a decent wage. The final thought I have on this topic would be that we keep our privileges and blessings, as travelers in perspective. The ability to travel and enjoy other places is not a right but a blessing, and we’re visitors in someone else’s home country, and need to reflect on the way we represent our country as well.

What thoughts do you have on responsible tourism? How do you shop when you’re on the road?


2 thoughts on “Responsible Tourism

  1. Erin,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I’ve run into the same difficult question when shopping in Mozambican streets years ago, or even when I visit a culture where tipping isn’t customary. I remember visiting the Dominican Republic years ago with my extended family. We stayed at a resort for a portion of the visit and often ate our evening meal in the resort restaurant. Though many of my family spent their entire lives in the country and assured me that you wait to tip until the final meal, I simply couldn’t leave the table without throwing additional money onto it, and this surreptitiously. For me the uneasy question of bargaining – and tipping – just brings into relief the embarrassment I feel at my own excess; the extravagance of resources I’m accustomed to forgetting I possess until confronted with another way of life.

    At any rate, I like your and Evan’s “interference” approach – it seems like your comfort level meeting cultural demands about halfway. It’s also quite sneaky!

    1. Hi Keri,
      Thanks for thinking about this with me, and I really appreciate your thoughts, especially about our disease with our own excess. A friend of mine from Davidson recently wrote a blog post on “what is enough,” that I thought you might enjoy, tangentially related to all this:
      Good to hear from you, and I hope you and Jake are well! Love, Erin

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