Recently, while walking through Mataró, a seaside suburb of Barcelona, I spied a bit of graffiti: Stop turismo masivo.
A few days later, I thought of the graffiti and immediately felt self-conscious bumbling through Barcelona with my carry-on. Even though the crisis of overtourism gripping cities like Barcelona has many structural factors, it was hard to ignore that, to the locals, I may be one of them—the tourists causing a masivo problem. Frankly, it didn’t feel great.
Even so, I’ve had enough travel experiences to know that there are plenty of locals who are happy to welcome respectful, curious, and grateful tourists—as well as their wallets.
Perhaps part of the problem is that, while a lot of advice exists on how to have a good trip, less is extolled on how to be one of those respectful tourists while you’re on it. Here are some things to keep in mind on your wanderings.
Do your due diligence
Staying in an Airbnb or homeshare or some other new-fangled form of accommodation? Make sure it’s legal first. Some cities, like Barcelona, have websites that allow you to verify if your listing complies with local laws. Others have outlawed the practice all together. If you’re not sure, ask the host if he or she complies with local regulations before you book. If a listing contains instructions asking you to not tell building residents you’re an Airbnb guest, that’s a pretty sure sign you should stay somewhere else.
Go somewhere less obvious
Overtourism is a problem caused by more than just tourists, one involving a much larger set of structural issues, policy decisions, and global trends. It is also less a problem of too many tourists than it is a problem of too many tourists in one place. So do your part by skipping the obvious and heading somewhere less impacted. You may miss the main sites in the guidebook or geotags on Instagram, but chances are you’ll have a much better trip. After all, you’ll have to work a lot less hard to see local life up close.
Adjust your customer service expectations
Nothing says “tourist” like someone who sits down in a restaurant and gets peeved if they haven’t been greeted with ice water and free bread within 90 seconds. Customer service norms vary vastly across the globe. For Americans in particular, it can be difficult to accept that, well, the customer is not always right. There is no need to put up with hostility, but you should get comfortable with indifference or non-effusive interactions with people who are serving you. No one said locals needed to be thrilled you decided to visit.
Don’t patronize places you can visit at home
Creature comforts are nice, but traveling to another country to drink the same Starbucks latte you drink every day at home makes very little sense. Get out of your comfort zone and change your habits. If it won’t compromise your health, let go of your dietary restrictions temporarily and eat how local people eat. If you find a great restaurant, ask your server what he or she likes the most. Being humble and adventurous in your eating and drinking habits is not only delicious—it’s also a subtle sign of respect for the place you’re visiting.
Learn a few words
No one is asking you to learn Japanese for your ten-day trip to Hokkaido, but learning a few words in the local language can go a long way. “Please,” “thank you,” and “hello” will probably do it.
Exhibit spacial awareness when checking your phone
It’s great that it’s becoming much easier to use your data plan when traveling—what’s not great is craned-necked tourists standing in the middle of the sidewalk as they look for the Natural History Museum or live stream their visit on Instagram Stories. Nothing will annoy a local more. So, avoid standing in people’s way, always. When taking photographs, be discreet and respectful. Don’t take pictures of actual humans without asking. And before you do, first ask yourself: Would you like it if someone did that to you?
Be respectful about wifi and laptops
Look, it is not the quaint cafe owner’s responsibility to make sure you can Facetime your parents or download a movie before your train leaves. While you are certainly entitled to connectivity at your accommodation if it was an advertised amenity, wifi is not a human right. In addition, if you are bringing your laptop out in a cafe or setting where you might be the only one doing so, ask the proprietor if that’s okay with them first.
Do as other people are doing
Don’t lie on the grass if others aren’t; don’t eat on the metro if other people aren’t; don’t stand on the left of the escalator if people are standing on the right; don’t walk in the middle of a bike lane; don’t stand up and take selfies on ancient monuments; don’t speak at a volume several notches above everyone else. In other words, be courteous and self aware.
Bargain, but also be reasonable
If a merchant has quoted a price that is vastly higher than what you can afford or what you pay at home, sure, bargain them down. But getting haughty or aggressive about a few bucks that you can afford to part with—purely because you assume some guy is ripping you off—is decidedly an asshole move. Don’t expect to “pay what the locals pay” because, guess what—you’re not a local. And of course, don’t bargain in a context where it’s not appropriate (a shop with printed price tags, for example).
Research cash and card culture
It’s worth doing a little research about the culture of money where you are going. Do people commonly pay in cash? Do taxis accept cards? What’s the tipping culture like? Paying for your coffee order with a credit card may make you unpopular fast, so try to emulate how locals pay.
Listen and observe
As a tourist, a honest manner of deference and quiet curiosity can go a long way. Be observant, humble, and gracious. When you first arrive and make your way through the streets, watch and listen more than you consume and interact. In short, you are not in your home city—so don’t walk around as if you own the place. The good is that, in my experience, people will mostly be happy to have you.