“Off the beaten path” is a phrase that is constantly being thrown around by travel companies, bloggers and influencers. They claim that by veering off the established tourist trail that you’ll not only beat the crowds but also have a more authentic experience.
While all of this this is true, it’s equally important to keep in mind that by going off the beaten path you’ll encounter local communities that will have had limited interactions with tourists, if any at all. So what does this mean for you?
As ethical travelers, we need to set the example for what sustainable and beneficial tourism looks like. By following these 9 guidelines for how to responsibly travel off the beaten path, you’ll ensure that you do just that.
1. Follow the rules, even if not enforced.
In some areas where tourism is just a budding industry, appropriate rules and regulations may not be set in place and even if they are, they’re probably not enforced. This occurs because the locals, who are not used to tourists, may not yet be aware of the precautions and restrictions they need to place on visitors in order to properly preserve their natural and cultural resources. Such restrictions include forbidding travelers to climb on ancient ruins or discouraging them from veering off established trail routes while hiking through the jungle or any other natural environment. Unfortunately, learning the hard way within the tourism industry often falls into the “too little too late” category.
Even if the locals are aware of the potential threats that can result from not enforcing such regulations, they may turn the other cheek in order to keep tourists happy. After all, happy tourists are starting to put food on the table. But as a responsible travelers, we need to set the example and do the right thing, even if we technically don’t have to.
2. Make an effort to learn the local language
This practice should be adopted any time you are traveling to a destination where you’re native language isn’t spoken but it’s even more pertinent if traveling off the beaten path. The further you veer from the established tourist route, the less likely you are to find someone who speaks anything other than the local language.
Taking the time to learn key phrases such as hello, thank you and where is the bathroom really does go a long way and the locals will appreciate the effort. It’s also a good idea to arm yourself with tools that will help you communicate, such as downloading the Google Translate App to your phone. As responsible travelers we need to recognize that the burden of trying to communicate should fall on us, the outsider, and not the local.
3. Use Water Sparingly
Water is a vital resource that is often difficult to obtain in developing countries, especially the further away you get from the larger cities. To avoid being a burden on the local community, be respectful and use only what you need – limit shower times and possibly think of the rule “if it’s yellow keep it around, if it’s brown flush it down”
Speaking of potty time, most developing countries keep small waste baskets close to the toilet for you to throw away your used toilet tissue and feminine products – use them. Their plumbing may be older or not as sturdy and therefore, unable to handle paper products which could lead to blockages or overflowing toilets. No local community should have to deal with your shit – literally.
4. Pack it in/Pack it out
Proper Waste Management is a global concern but is often an issue that is felt more in smaller towns, isolated regions and in the developing world. When going off the beaten path, be sure to hold onto any trash you create that is not biodegradable until it can be properly disposed of whether that’s in the next big town or until you return home. If you pack it & bring it in, pack it & bring it out.
Also, try to limit your use of one-time use plastics such as water bottles. Bring your own reusable bottle if possible and if not, try refilling the plastic water bottle you already have.
5. Be Respectful and Don’t Complain
This is one of my biggest pet peeves! As a Latin America Specialist for a tailor-made travel company, I frequently worked with clients who requested off the beaten path destinations for more authentic experiences but would then relentlessly complain when the hotels and restaurants within those destinations didn’t meet their high expectations.
When traveling off the beaten path you need to remember that the community’s tourism infrastructure may not be fully developed nor equipped to handle even the slightest influx of visitors – set your expectations accordingly. It’s also essential that you adopt a go with the flow attitude and accept that things can and WILL go wrong from time to time. Never forget that you’re a guest in the host country and that you’re privileged just by being able to travel when so many people around the world don’t have the same opportunity – be grateful. After all, knowing that the unexpected should be expected is part of the charm to traveling off the beaten path in the first place.
While complaining in a way that is rude, demanding or disrespectful to the host community is unacceptable, constructive criticism can be helpful to those new to the tourism industry.
If you have feedback that could help improve the services of a hotel, restaurant, or tour agency, etc. get the contact info for the person in charge and write them a thoughtful email. Also, you may want to consider reaching out to the host country’s tourism board if you have suggestions on reducing environmental impacts or increasing benefits to the local community.
6. Request ethical Experiences
Show those new to tourism that there is money to be made in offering ethical and sustainable tours. Set the example that travelers do not want to spend their money on activities that exploit human & animal rights or that harm the environment.
7. Be Cautious of the souvenirs you purchase
Similar to guideline #6, do not purchase products made from endangered species or from products that were once vital to the ecosystem from which they were removed such as conch shells or coral.
8. Use Local Transportation
This reduces your carbon footprint and contributes to the local economy beyond businesses directly involved in the travel/hospitality industries.
9. Be informed. Research the local culture.
Learn local customs and traditions before visiting any destination, especially one that isn’t used to tourists. This will not only help you avoid making any cultural faux pas, but it could also help keep you out of trouble since the smaller “off the beaten path” towns tend to be more conservative than the bigger cities.
For your own benefit, learn the appropriate interactions between men and women within that culture (can they touch in public?), how to dress appropriately (especially when visiting religious sites), find out how the local people view having their photograph taken (you should always ask for permission first anyway) and what is the country’s stance on drugs?…possession of marijuana in Indonesia can be punishable up to life in prison.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my recent post 5 Ways to be a Responsible Traveler in Thailand