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Travel Ethics Meets Colonialism

I’m on the coast of Bali, enjoying a sweet little resort for a week. It’s the perfect spot to relax and get some work done — and yet, I’m having a lot of mixed feelings about being here.

I came here to catch up on work and get my mojo back between my two Indonesia/Bali Women’s Adventure Tours. I’m staying in a small resort, mostly visited by older Australian couples who own timeshares.

I wake up, make coffee in my little kitchen, then work on my balcony with a view of the pool and ocean. I can eat under the swaying palm trees at the restaurant or get room service. I enjoy a delicious swim in the afternoon, and in the evening I can watch HBO in my room, have cocktails in the lounge, or read a book. Sometimes there are even live bands.

It’s very luxurious to be living in a resort, and yet I can live here on less than $1,000 a month. I rented through Airbnb and I’m paying just $23 a night to be here. That’s $690 a month for rent, utilities, and wifi — way cheaper than I could live in the States. Most of my meals cost under $7, and a massage is $14/hour. I’m having a very rough year financially, so I really need this cheap living right now. The nomad life is good, right?


This kind of resort represents the most colonial/imperialist travel imaginable. I’m very uncomfortable with being waited on hand and foot by people who live in a previously colonized country, especially when almost all the guests are white.

If you haven’t had these feelings yet, let me tell you how they started for me.

Six years ago in Cusco, I discovered a graffiti artist who had sprayed a stencil all over the historic district; it said: “Tourism is colonialism.” I had to think about that pretty hard at the time, but it finally sunk in. We think we’re bringing prosperity and jobs to these communities, and we are — but there’s another point of view to consider (especially when the resorts and tourist attractions are mostly foreign-owned).

Let’s imagine

Try to imagine a scenario where your home town is conquered by… let’s use the Chinese as our villains today. They occupy it for a very long time, exploit the economy, virtually enslave the people, etc.

You fought for your freedom; people died, and your economy and infrastructure were all but destroyed, but you won. Now, years later, Asian people as a group have decided that your hometown is a lovely vacation spot. Besides the natural beauty of your home town, this is in part because your occupiers trained you to serve them, cook for them, and observe their manners and customs, and in part because you’re economy isn’t as vibrant as theirs, so they can enjoy luxuries here that they can’t at home — particularly your services.

Your economy is still weak so you have no choice but to welcome their investment. They build resorts on all the best land around your town, and the jobs they offer include rubbing their feet, scraping their plates, and cleaning their toilets. You’re expected to wear a uniform and always call them Madame and Sir.

How does that feel? Are you grateful for the job? Probably, if you really needed the work. But that’s not all you’d feel, is it? Let’s go a step further.

image by Chris Buck for O, The Oprah Magazine, May 2017

It gets worse.

This constant stream of Asian visitors likes to think of themselves as “travelers” rather than “tourists,” so they’re not content to stay on the resort.

Now they want to rent apartments in your neighborhood. They’re trying to squeeze into your daily life in as many ways possible so they can tell stories of your culture to the people back home.

They like to come to your grocery store, in droves, every day, and photograph you shopping for food. They think all the children in your town are just charming, and they love to talk to them and take photos of them. Almost every day, a group wants to visit the school or day care center to spend time with the kids.

Now they’re starting to volunteer to teach your children (even when they don’t speak English or have any teacher education). These volunteer teachers bring needed funding, so the schools find ways to accommodate them. Your kids are being taught by untrained people who don’t even speak their language, while teaching opportunities dwindle and your friends who are qualified teachers can’t find work. You are worried that your kids, and all the kids in your community, are learning to look up to foreigners as their main adult role models outside the family.

How do we travel ethically in a world of power imbalances?

I’ve been grappling with this question for six years, in one form or another. I’ve made serious mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll make more. I’m still learning and evolving, but here are some of the answers I’ve come up with so far. Your answers may be different; what matters, I think, is that we give some real thought to the issues as we travel.

1. Visit non-touristy areas

I think Airbnb and other apartment rental works best in a small town or village where there aren’t very many tourists. The town isn’t overrun, and the people are just as intrigued by you as you are by them. Here, it’s easy to participate in the local economy rather than exploiting it. I find these places by zooming out on the Airbnb map and looking for places that are far from any other Airbnbs. I always feel welcome and appreciated in these communities, even though the children sometimes point and stare at me.

2. In touristy areas, stay in your lane

If you are in a touristy place, meet the locals in the spaces they provide for you. Don’t keep pushing deeper into their private spaces in order to prove that you are somehow different from other tourists. What the locals choose to provide for you might not feel as “authentic” as you’d like, but you’re on their turf and should play by their rules and respect their private spaces. If you go to a local market it should be to shop, not to observe.

3. Seek out locally-owned businesses

Make it a priority to find hotels, tour companies, stores, restaurants, etc. that are owned by a local person. They’re much more likely to keep your dollars in the community and use their economic power to support the local people’s best interests. When I can rent an apartment or hotel room from a local person, buy my groceries at a market stall, and patronize a roadside food stand, I’m meeting my fellow entrepreneurs face-to-face and supporting them. That’s so different from being waited on by someone in a uniform who has to bow and call me ma’am. We are equals, as much as our cultural circumstances will allow. When we do this, our tourism provides real opportunity for local people, not just menial jobs.

4. Don’t be a “White Savior

It’s possible to help without being a White Savior — just don’t center yourself. Don’t offer to volunteer unless you have some really useful skill to offer. Don’t expect to interact with children or orphans without an Interpol clearance and a damn good reason. Don’t try to bring “presents” to kids you don’t know, and don’t post photos of yourself surrounded by children unless have spent time getting to know them, and have the permission of the adult in charge of them.

What can you do instead of short-term volunteering or giving gifts? Give money. These places need money, and by their standards, you and your friends have lots of it. Find a solid organization that is run by locals, not foreigners, and help publicize them, centering the local people who are doing good work instead of yourself. Do a GoFundMe for one of their projects — or just quietly donate.

Real volunteer opportunities exist, but they’re usually long-term situations. Expect to recieve a couple of weeks of training and then work for several more weeks to make the arrangement worthwhile for the org. There are also “voluntourism” projects, where you offer the org some money to let you engage with their project, and work-for-lodging arrangements like These can be ethical if no children are involved.

5. Respect peoples’ humanity

I remember reading an article by a Dominican woman who talked about mothers training their kids to always make way for white people on the sidewalk — since then, I always stand back and invite the locals to go first, hold the door for them, etc. Make eye contact with waiters, vendors, drivers, and other people you come into contact with. It’s a very small gesture, but I hope it reminds people that they are just as deserving of dignity as I am.

image by Chris Buck for O, The Oprah Magazine, May 2017

6. Start seeing the colonialism

Once you notice it, you won’t stop. Blonde women on billboards advertising white beauty standards; rows of white Barbie Dolls in the store for brown children to covet. “Volunteer” opportunities that put untrained white visitors in charge of rooms full of children, even teaching them, taking job opportunities and role modeling away from local people. You don’t have to be in a constant state of outrage, but try to see it.

7.Don’t mess up other people’s environments:

Poor countries don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the waste tourists bring. Carry a refillable water bottle and/or a Steripen. Carry a packable tote bag and refuse plastic bags when shopping. Walk, bike, or use public transport or shared shuttles instead of taking taxis as much as you can.

8. Research Animal Attractions

There are some valid animal sanctuaries around the world that deserve your support. There are also a lot of places that call themselves “sanctuaries” but are actually something much worse. A facility that is legitimately devoted to animal welfare isn’t going to allow tourists to ride, bathe, feed, or handle the animals.

9. Don’t give money to children, or mothers with children, and don’t buy from children

Seeing an adorable tyke who wants to sell you a bracelet, or asks for some change on the street, can melt your heart. Be strong. You don’t want to create demand for child vendors and beggars. As long as it’s profitable to have them on the streets, they won’t be in school. And in some countries, syndicates actually buy children from hungry parents to use as beggars because they’re so effective. The same is true of women beggars holding small children – the children are often drugged so they will sleep or stay quiet for hours on the street. Don’t create demand for that. If you want to help, give to a locally-directed charity instead.

Traveling consciously is difficult, and there are no easy answers. Sometimes you will find yourself in an Australian-owned resort taking up space on the coast of Bali, with uniformed staff bowing to you and calling you Madame and it’s OK to enjoy that for a little while because it’s a fact and you can’t make it go away.

We all need to draw our own ethical lines in the sand, and yours will be different than mine. But making those decisions consciously, with an awareness of the issues, will make your travels much more meaningful in the long run.

image by Chris Buck for O, The Oprah Magazine, May 2017

I’d love to hear some of your ideas for moving ethically through the world. Please comment with your ideas below!