Truong: Letter to Travelers

Tourists, rather than locals, need to be responsible for their actions.

by Valerie Truong | 1/9/18 12:30am

I hope you enjoyed your winter break. Perhaps you traveled somewhere: to another country for a few weeks or another state to visit family and friends. Or maybe you visited a more local attraction, like I did. My family and I endured a two-hour car ride to Joshua Tree National Park, a desert named after the shaggy, Dr. Seuss-esque trees dotting the otherwise barren landscape. At one particular sight, Skull Rock, we clambered up the boulders to join the equally eager throngs of visitors who, like us, hoped for a picture with the rock resembling a human skull. Near me, a middle-aged woman, clutching her phone camera, prepared to take photos of her husband and pre-teen son who were standing a few boulders away. She audaciously hollered across the way at the pair, instructing them to stand up straight, shuffle a bit to the left and smile, alternating between Mandarin and Cantonese. This exercise continued for several more minutes until the woman was satisfied with the photos she had taken.

Even if tourists are not as blatantly discourteous as the woman at Skull Rock was, they are still often unintentionally disruptive to the local environment. The issue lies in their view of themselves as customers. Because visitors are paying for these unique experiences — in my case, a $25 admission fee — they feel entitled to act as they please. Even if there is no cost for admission to an attraction, visitors have still invested resources into getting to their destination, like time and gas money.

It is our responsibility as tourists to keep our behavior in check; we cannot always rely on locals or an attraction’s employees to rein us in. At natural habitats or sanctuaries, it is particularly difficult for supervisory forces to regulate each tourist. In order to respect the environment, culture and customs of the places we visit, we must be observant of how locals behave and exercise common sense. If we have questions, we ought to ask them and research our destinations before arriving. We should also be present — if we have made the effort to travel somewhere, we should perhaps avoid experiencing our trip entirely through a camera lens. Finally, we ought to leave a place exactly as we found it. Being a tourist is an immense privilege: We are guests in someone else’s home, and we must be cognizant of that.

It sounds simple, but this is easier said than done. I used to assume that the government, local citizens, tour guides and others in the tourism industry would spoon-feed tourists pertinent information and police their actions to ensure the preservation of their homes. Though laws and advice may have influence, officials cannot reasonably account for every visitor at every location. Tourists hold the most power because they possess capital. As consumers, they ultimately influence decisions made regarding the places they visit. As a result, locals are driven to catering to tourists because they need to make a living.

I spoke with my friend, Caroline Atwood ’21, about her experience living in a town seasonally inundated with tourists. She is from Fort Myers Beach, a seven-mile-long island off the southwest coast of Florida. About 10,000 people live on the island, but Atwood estimates that the number doubles during the winter season when “snowbirds” — people who normally live in the cold northern states — flock south for the winter. Each year, more than 1.8 million people visit Fort Myers Beach, which has led to a significant surge in hotels, restaurants, bars and other attractions. The perpetual construction on a tiny island with only one principal two-lane road means that it can take Atwood up to two hours to drive off the island. While tourism is vital to the town’s economy because many of its residents work in the service industry, the influx of buildings has raised property taxes to the extent that long-time residents have had to move off the island, no longer able to afford living on the beach. Ignorant beachgoers discard plastic straws on the sand after finishing their drinks, leaving behind scraps to be ingested by seagulls and other wildlife. Visitors renting a beach house may leave their lights on at night, driving just-hatched sea turtles away from the ocean.

Atwood noted that boards at beach access points warn the public not to remove sand dollars and other beach flora and fauna. Laws prohibiting lights during turtle season and restaurants and hotels from using plastic straws have been enacted but are difficult to enforce. Ultimately, it is up to individual tourists to preserve the beauty of the beach.

When I asked her about the changes to Fort Myers Beach she had noticed over the years, Atwood reminisced on the loss of cohesiveness in her community, recalling smaller, older houses with retired couples and local workers with whom she had personal interactions.

“I knew and I babysat everybody’s kids on the island,” Atwood said, “everybody knew everybody’s business.”

With real estate becoming more expensive, many of the families Atwood knew have moved off the island.

Those from wealthier backgrounds have taken their place, building bigger mansions on the beach and lacking the same emotional attachment or care for the community as those before them, opted instead to bulldoze and replace much of what Atwood knew as her childhood home.

I am not advocating for the halting or even reduction of travel. I believe traveling, when done tastefully and from a culturally relativistic point of view, can give you new insights and perspectives of our world. However, I urge you to be aware of your surroundings and try to minimize disruptions to the local environment and its people.