Should I use Airbnb?

From the consumer’s side, the sharing economy is pretty fucking rad. Anyone who grew up riding in taxis and then suddenly switched to Uber knows why: getting into a cab used to be like stepping into a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, with drivers who were very frequently about as sane as the War Boys.


Uber drivers, however, depend on good ratings from those riding with them, and as such, have an incentive to not drive like lunatics. Likewise, you as the consumer get rated, so you have an incentive to be on your best behavior.

Consumers get the same sort of benefit with Airbnb: it’s not free, like traveler favorite Couchsurfing, so it doesn’t have the same sketchy feel, and it grants customers the opportunity to stay in actual homes in the neighborhoods they’re visiting, rather than in a generic hotel room.

The problem is that the “sharing economy” manages to conveniently undercut decades of labor laws, housing laws, and civil rights laws in ways that the legal system hasn’t caught up to just yet, which is causing some pretty ugly side effects. Uber deserves attention — it dodges and fights regulations that would apply to other cab companies, underpays its drivers, and leave cities that set a higher standard for them — but for now, we’re just going to focus on Airbnb.

What’s wrong with Airbnb?

Airbnb has two really big problems with it that ultimately stem from the same issue. And to be fair, these aren’t necessarily issues that were created by Airbnb, so much as they are issues that stem from the entire concept of the “sharing economy.”

1. Airbnb is playing by a different set of rules.

I live in the seaside town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Airbnb is a thing here: a lot of people will rent out their homes for a weekend to get some extra money, and Airbnb and its competitor VRBO are the simplest ways to do it. This is a tourist town, so the town encourages people to invite tourists into their homes. But some of the larger businesses in town are hotels, and there’s a good number of boutique hotels and BnB’s as well. And while they are large for the town, they aren’t mega-conglomerates like Hilton or Marriott. They’re small businesses. So it’s easy for them to be undercut by Airbnb. A homeowner’s profit margin doesn’t need to be as big as a hotelier’s — they aren’t running a full operation, they’re just trying to make some extra cash.

All of this would be fine — competition makes the market work, etc., etc. But users of websites like Airbnb and VRBO often don’t submit to fire safety and coding regulations that would be required of hotels and regular BnB’s, despite being legally required to. It’s also relatively easy for the Airbnb hosts to dodge paying their taxes, as they’re small enough to fly under the radar. This puts the Airbnb users at an unfair advantage, and it pisses a lot of hotel and BnB owners off.

Airbnb presents themselves as scrappy underdogs fighting big mean corporate hotel chains. When New York hoteliers claimed Airbnb was cutting into their business, Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesperson told Bloomberg News:

“In fact, without Airbnb many of these travelers wouldn’t be able to visit New York City at all or would have cut their trip short. While the big hotels have been clear that they are concerned about losing the opportunity to price gouge consumers, we hope they will disclose the percent of their profits that stay in New York City and the percent they send to corporate headquarters outside of New York and, even, outside of the country.”

But Airbnb is not an underdog — last year, it was valued at $20 billion. That’s in the same league as Hilton ($27.8 billion) and Marriott ($22.9 billion). Since Airbnb isn’t responsible for making sure it’s users are paying taxes and are up to code, it’s basically just playing with the bumpers up.

By presenting themselves as a mere platform connecting people in the “sharing economy,” rather than as the manager of a huge network of small vendors, Airbnb is skirting regulations and making out like bandits.

2. Airbnb may be the reason “the rent is too damn high.”

The publication Grist explained the basics of this problem in a recent article, using the example of Tarin Towers, a resident of a rent-controlled building in San Francisco. Her building was bought by a real estate developer who wanted to charge way more for the rooms, so he offered the residents buyouts. Towers did the math and realized that even with the buyout, she wouldn’t be able to afford a new apartment in the city’s absurdly inflated rental market. From Grist:

“Towers held out as her old neighbors left and new tenants started moving in. Unlike the old neighbors, these new people were young, mobile, transient. And there were a lot of them. [Her landlord] O’Sullivan, it turned out, had leased the building to a startup called the Vinyasa Homes Project. Towers soon discovered that Vinyasa had listed her building on Airbnb, advertising it as a ‘co-creative house.’ The listing made it sound almost like a commune. ‘You want to join a community of like-minded peers who are doing inspirational things?’ it read. ‘This is the place for you.’ Unlike in the communes of yesteryear, however, each bed is going for more than $1,500 a month — and these are bunk beds in shared rooms. That means each apartment could now be bringing in $10,000 a month in rent.”

Towers eventually was forced out of her apartment, and took the buyout. She can’t afford a new rental in the city, so she’s housesitting until she figures something out.

This is a problem everywhere, though: in Barcelona, in Berlin, in New York, in New Orleans. It’s particularly tragic in the Big Easy, as it’s forcing out the last long-term residents who held on in neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

It’s the worst for cities with tight housing markets and a heavy flow of tourists. Remember the New York City mayoral candidate whose platform was “the rent is too damn high”? It may have gotten that high in part because of services like Airbnb — it’s way easier to wait for someone who will pay $2 grand a month for an apartment when you can rent the apartment out for exorbitant prices to travelers in the short term.

You could argue that Airbnb isn’t responsible for the misuse of its service. But they aggressively fight any measure that would put the onus of responsibility on them. When San Francisco tried to pass a measure that would restrict the number of nights a year a unit could be used for short-term rentals, Airbnb spent $8 million fighting against it. When San Francisco tried to pass a rule that would force Airbnb to ensure its hosts were up-to-code, they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to local political campaigns.

Some cities have fought back effectively. Barcelona has seen a population drop in its historic neighborhoods thanks in large part to its tourism industry, and as a result, have started slapping Airbnb with fines for offering apartments that weren’t registered with the city, and Berlin and Paris and even New York have been fighting back as well. But this is a problem that’s far from solved.

3. It’s not totally Airbnb’s fault.

In Airbnb’s defense, there’s no good business reason they would voluntarily take responsibility for policing their users. It’s not a charity, and it would be very expensive for them to check up on every single host. It would be a guaranteed way to decrease profits, which, incidentally isn’t legal — companies are required by to take actions that benefit their shareholders.

But this is why we have regulation. Airbnb isn’t tasked with doing what’s best for the local communities: our governments are. So this is a problem that’s fixed not by Airbnb being benevolent, but with good policies and effective enforcement. Which means it’s a battle that needs to be had on a city-by-city and country-by-country basis.

The problem is that we simply don’t know how serious the problem is yet — there’s been a little bit of research, but it’s far from conclusive, and has possibly been biased against services like Airbnb. There’s no reason to think that good policies couldn’t help solve the problems that Airbnb and its “sharing economy” counterparts cause. But more work needs to be done.

So what can we as travelers do?

Let’s be up front: staying at an Airbnb is a cooler experience than staying at a hotel. I have a friend who stayed in a goddamn castle in Italy. I know people who have stayed in treehouses in Oregon and igloos in Norway. In the Netherlands, you can stay in an honest-to-god windmill. And it’s cool that we’re giving regular people this platform to make some extra money, host out-of-town guests, and maybe try something new. So I won’t say “don’t ever stay at an Airbnb or a VRBO.” This is the future, and the solution to its problems will be through systemic change, not through any single individual’s actions. But it’s also time to call bullshit:

There is no such thing as the sharing economy. It’s just called the economy, and it’s been around for millennia.

Are you trading goods and services for cash? Yeah — that’s the economy. You’re just doing it in a different place. Airbnb and Uber haven’t reinvented the economy, they’ve just used the internet to create a new space in which economic transactions can happen.

So with that in mind, here are a couple of things you can to be a part of the solution:

1. Support fair regulation of Airbnb & VRBO in your hometown.

If your town has a lot of tourists, try to be supportive of government attempts to regulate businesses like Airbnb and VRBO. The companies will do shitty ad campaigns about how your city is turning it’s back on money and innovation, but that’s just a scare tactic. Anyone who has lived in a tourist town knows that, even if the economy is dependent on tourist dollars, what’s good for the tourists isn’t always good for the locals. Try and push your local governments to strike a balance between making money and supporting the local community. Get involved. Get organized. This is pretty much always the best solution to anything.

2. Try to avoid the shitty Airbnb hosts.

You can take steps to avoid giving money to the douchebags who are misusing the service. Think of it as another thing you want to research, along with “safety,” “service,” and “cleanliness.” In short, you want to seek out spots that the current owners actually live in.

Becky Caudill over at Casa Caudill has some great tips for spotting the shitty hosts using the platform itself. Here’s what she suggests looking for when you’re checking out the photos of the location provided by the host:

  • Seek out properties that are decorated like you or your friends would decorate your own homes.
  • Look for plants (not just fresh flowers).
  • Check out the art. Is everything from Ikea or another mass market supplier? Or are there original prints or photographs on the wall? On shelves? Is there any artwork at all?
  • Does the kitchen come with basic supplies like salt, pepper, olive oil, etc? People who live somewhere will have these things on hand. (Although maybe not in NYC? It’s my understanding from friends there that people eat out every night and never cook so maybe they don’t need these things?)
  • Do the owners read? Are there books other than travelogues visible in the pics? (And for goodness sake, if you see hundreds of travel brochures that’s a dead giveaway this place is operated solely as a vacation rental property).
  • Stay in real neighborhoods, not tourist areas.

It also helps to delve into the comments a bit. Can you get a sense from the comments as to whether this is actually someone’s home, or is it more of an “operation”? Are there big discrepancies between the reports of the rooms? That could be a sign that there are multiple rooms that are lived in by different people in your building, indicating that this is being done by a landlord, not an owner or a tenant.

And of course, if you end up in one of these “operations” in spite of your best efforts, it’s okay: just go onto Airbnb and mention it in the comments. Helping others identify exploitative hosts is as important as helping them identify bigots or creeps. And that’s what the review process is for.

As always, the name of the game is damage control — try your best to support the local communities you’re visiting. Sometimes you’ll fail. Other times you won’t. And don’t assume that all things that are shiny and new are inherently good.

Writer’s note: This article is a work in progress. The story’s changing constantly, and so much new stuff is coming out that it basically took 2 months to write, at which point I was like, “Fuck it, I’m just going to put it up and add to the advice as I come across it.” I even ended up skipping an entire section on racial discrimination within Airbnb’s platform, which is obviously worth discussing. In short — comments and input are welcome, and I will continue to study this issue and report back to you.

Featured Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

When is it okay to wear the local garb?

What are the ethics of dressing appropriately according to the country that you’re visiting? (Whether it’s covering your shoulders or head when entering a mosque or not wearing culturally appropriative accessories or styles — like Native American headdresses or getting dreadlocks in Jamaica.)

Dress Appropriately, People

I reeeeallly tried to put off answering this question, DAP, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think there are sometimes people are a little too quick to pull the cultural appropriation card. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the easy stuff, though.

You should always try to wear the appropriate garb at religious ceremonies.

If you’re going to a local church, mosque, or temple, you should always make yourself aware of and conform to the institution’s dress code. This is simply a sign of respect. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a strict dress code, but I know plenty of people who would’ve been annoyed if a newcomer came in wearing a t-shirt and short shorts. I personally would’ve enjoyed it, young heathen that I was, because I liked watching people in our Parish squirm, but there’s a big difference between rebelling from the outside and rebelling from the inside.

Unless you’re trying to make an open display of disrespect for some political reason1, conform to the local dress code (and check out my article on the ethics of being a feminist and wearing head coverings).

Okay, now into the harder stuff.

When am I being culturally appropriative?

There are times when wearing the local garb is culturally appropriative, which is a tricky concept that can be confused with cultural exchange.

The best breakdown of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation I’ve read is by Jarune Uwujaren over at Everyday Feminism. If you want to better understand the issue, give that a read. In short though, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts an element of another culture. This in itself sounds harmless — and it often is — but it gets tricky when the culture doing the borrowing dominates the culture being borrowed from, because you as the borrower might not understand the full history and implications of the thing you’re borrowing.

The Native American headdress provides a good example: in Native American Plains cultures, headdresses can’t be worn by just anyone. You could equate it to holding a qualified position like Doctor or military General: it’s something that must be earned.

The thing to remember is that the culture you are visiting may have been oppressed by a western culture, and they may have a long, painful history behind them. In the case of the Plains nations, it’s a history of brutal repression, cultural destruction, and genocide. For you to come in, play with their sacred symbols without having any knowledge of their meaning, and then toss them aside as you would any other costume, could be reasonably seen as insensitive.

Most cases aren’t this cut-and-dry, though, and a lot of what makes up modern Western culture could be considered cultural appropriation, from “ethnic” foods, to world music, to spiritual practices. Western culture brutally dominated India for centuries, for example. Is practicing yoga culturally appropriative? The short answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice itRather than refusing to ever participate in cultural appropriation (Goodbye, Taco Tuesday! Goodbye Stir Fryday!) you can simply educate yourself on the roots of the things you’re appropriating, and show them some amount of respect. You are already in a position of privilege. You can’t escape that. It’s okay. Just be willing to accept criticism and to listen and learn.

Just be respectful.

When I was in India, I went to a Hindu religious celebration with some of my classmates. We were invited to wear traditional garb, and the women had bindis put on their heads and were given henna tattoos. We ate with our hands, and we watched a ceremonial dance.

There was nothing wrong with this, because we were invited to participate by the Indian families that were hosting us. And that’s perhaps the main lesson I want to impart here: don’t let a fear of cultural appropriation keep you from cultural exchange. Participate in whatever you’re invited to participate in, and try and learn about it.

Culture can’t easily be siloed, and what feels like personal expression to you might feel like a misappropriation to someone else. My suggestion is to express yourself however you wish2, but be respectful, sensitive, and curious when borrowing from other cultures. If someone calls you out for cultural appropriation, don’t get defensive — talk to them. Try to learn what they mean. And then continue from there.

“Shut that kid up!”: How should you treat traveling parents?

Last week, I took a fourteen-hour train down to Charleston for the weekend. About five minutes after I took my seat, a woman sat in the seat across from me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lay a portable seat on the floor as she put her luggage overhead.  From inside the seat, a cute, chubby 6-month-old smiled back at me.

Fuck, I thought. Then, at the next stop, another baby got on.

Fucccccckkkkkk, I thought.

If you’ve traveled, you know why I was pissed: Babies cry. Over a fourteen hour trip, it would be unreasonable to expect the baby not to cry. And for people such as myself, who were hoping that the trip would involve 8 hours or so of sleep, the presence of babies was upsetting. It would mean a slightly less restful sleep, and train sleeps are already not great.

“Who brings a fucking baby on a fourteen hour train trip?” I texted my wife.

This isn’t an unusual sentiment: according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight, 83% of airline passengers think it’s rude to knowingly bring unruly kids onto a plane. It’s the highest ranked item on their poll, ahead of the dreaded seat recline, ahead of waking someone up to get out of your seat, and ahead of being chatty with a seatmate.

People such as myself, the kidless, are not patient with the kidful. It struck me, while I was feeling sorry for myself, that maybe parents — even parents with grumpy kids — have a right to get from Point A to Point B. And that maybe that right superseded my right to travel in total silence.

So I talked to a few traveling moms about what the kidless need to know about the kidful.

Kids aren’t little adults. They’re kids.

My older sister Laura has a 5-year-old named Alejandro, or Ali, as we call him. Laura, like myself is a traveler, and usually travels to El Salvador (the country where she met my brother-in-law, and the country where Ali was born) once a year. This, she says, can be stressful, especially when your kid starts behaving like a kid. If Ali starts acting up, though, many people (read: not parents) will be openly annoyed. Which she says is the first problem:

“People who don’t have kids don’t have much of an understanding of what it’s like. They’ll say ‘Oh when I’m a parent, my kid won’t talk to me that way.’ Your kid will talk to you that way sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent… you can’t expect a kid to behave like an adult.”

And the fact that he’s a kid shouldn’t mean he’s homebound:

“I like to take him places, but he’s going to act different when he’s there because he’s a kid.”

She said, “It’s embarrassing for a parent when your kid throws a tantrum,” and adds that showing sympathy for the parent can mean a lot, because sometimes parenting supersedes the desire to make everyone around her feel at peace:

“Sometimes, I’ll give him a screen. But I don’t necessarily want him to be on a screen the whole time. So having an expectation that they’re going to be zoned out and quiet and behaving isn’t reasonable.”

Chelle King agrees. Chelle travels regularly with her 3-year-old Clara, and has been in a similar situation:

“Clara had an awful, awful flight to Seattle once, partially because of some flight delays. I made the mistake of telling her she was finished watching movies and stood my ground, even as the nightmare swirled around me. I knew that it was going to be miserable for everyone, but I had already stepped in it. She finally passed out and someone in a nearby row bought me a glass of wine. I nearly cried I was so grateful, both for the wine and knowing that there was at least one person on the flight who didn’t think I was Satan.”

She adds:

“As a parent, I try really hard to avoid waking the monster, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

How to treat parents traveling with kids

Cathy Brown is the most badass travel mom I know — she’s a fellow writer over at the Matador Network, and she’s a single mom of three. She travels with her kids a lot (her daughter Stella is already an excellent travel writer herself), and has some advice for how the kidless should treat the kidful:

“I’d say that when it comes to being on a plane or in a restaurant with someone who has a kid in the middle of a meltdown, don’t be so quick to get pissed off. Don’t take it personally, like the parent is just doing WHATEVER they can to ruin your vacation.  That moment sucks for the parent even more than it sucks for you, because they know damn well how annoying their kid is being.  A kind look or some kind words can put the parent at ease, which will ultimately help the kid calm down.”

Laura agrees: “I appreciate when people are thoughtful and sympathetic, and not mean and judgmental.” She also notes that not alplaces are as judgmental about noisy kids as others: people on a bus in El Salvador will generally try to be helpful with a noisy kid, while people in the US are going to be a bit more likely to grumble. So not getting a silent plane ride may be a quintessential “First World Problem.”

This doesn’t mean, she says, that parents are off the hook for disciplining their kids. “If a kid does something rude or in your face, you have a right to expect a parent to say something.”

Chelle says to just be cool1:

“The immediate look from single (especially business) travelers in the security line that says ‘oh, no, look at these assholes with kids’ is a little annoying, but we’re super fast, so it’s also totally unwarranted.”

In short: You aren’t entitled to a family-free flight, and certainly not to a family-free airport.

How to help people with kids

On the flip side of that coin, if you want to try and help or talk to a kid, Laura cautions against crossing any lines inadvertently:

“If you’re engaging a child, it’s respectful to ask a parent before offering anything to the kid.”

This isn’t to say, though, that helping is discouraged. Laura remembers being caught in the airport alone with Ali. She had to carry all the luggage, so she couldn’t carry him, and he started falling to pieces. “Especially when you’re traveling alone, it’s harder, and it’s scarier.” She says she didn’t expect anyone to help that time, but would have been incredibly grateful if help had been offered.

Cathy’s kids are older than Laura’s and Chelle’s, and she says it’s important to recognize the differences in age:

“My kids hate it when they are treated like 2 year olds. A hotel or a restaurant always wants to offer them some gender specific toy or activity that is geared for someone much younger. The intention is good, the offer is nice, but it annoys my teenagers to be treated like babies.  Ask if they prefer the kids menu or the regular menu.  Ask if they prefer the Barbie toothpaste and bubble bath or the regular.”

In short, don’t treat kids like they’re stupid (or toddlers, if they aren’t toddlers), and don’t be totally impatient with parents. A little kindness goes a long way. It’s likely you don’t have a full idea of what’s going on with the parent or with the kid, so instead of being cruel, maybe put in some noise-canceling headphones and deal with it.

Cathy also pushed back on the idea that traveling with kids is terrible:

“Traveling with kids, for me, is awesome.  My kids are my favorite travel partners by far.  They are spontaneous, engaged, and they keep it real.  They are curious, ask questions, and don’t get uptight when things go awry. To  them, everything is just part of the adventure.”

Finally, some advice from a kid.

I’m giving the final word to Cathy’s daughter Stella:

“Stella’s advice was for other people to not make a massive deal about a kid traveling.  Don’t baby them — she can’t stand when people treat her like she’s incapable of finding her gate at the airport, etc.  She says there’s a difference between being helpful and acting like a kid can’t do something just because they happen to be away from home.

“She also says people should always offer up the window seat to a kid if the poor kid seems like he/she really wanted one and didn’t get one.”

Seriously, guys. You aren’t going to use the window as much as a kid would anyway.

Featured photo by Eduardo Merille

How can I be a good traveler?

So obviously the blog is called “Don’t Be a Dick” so it is going to have an avoidance or prevention focus as compared with an approach or promotion focus, but reading about all the things not to do can be overwhelming. Can you write a post focusing on concrete actions we can take to be a good citizen traveler, not just how to avoid being a shitty one?

More than “Not A Dick”

That’s fair, MoNAD. This blog is going to, generally speaking, focus on the “don’t’s” of travel over the “do’s.” This may sound like I’m laying down a lot of prohibitions, but the real reason for it is that there’s actually a pretty low bar to being a good traveler. As long as you’re thoughtful and respectful, you’re basically good to go.

I currently live in a town on the Jersey Shore. Our economy is primarily driven by tourism. Residents of the Shore have a few negative words for our tourist visitors: “Benny’s,” meaning someone from Bayonne Elizabeth, Newark or New York, and “Shoobies,” meaning people who wear their shoes on the beach1 Bennies and Shoobies are the type of people you see on the show Jersey Shore2, and they are terrible. They come into town, they get hammered, they get into fights, they puke on people’s lawns, they leave their garbage everywhere, and they make our favorite bars insufferable for the entire summer. This is a common bumper sticker/piece of graffiti:

It’s almost season again #bgh #localsunite #bennygohome

A photo posted by Shappy_baby (@fuck_urselfie) on

That said, tourism is the primary driver of our local economy, so it’s a love-hate relationship. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who everyone in town is. There’s no clear-cut way of identifying a local vs. a Benny, as long as you’re not wearing shoes on the beach, and as long as you’re not shouting “GYM TAN LAUNDRY!” before projectile vomiting onto a child on the boardwalk.

The truth is, plenty of tourists are delightful. They’re excited to be here, they’re curious about life here, and they don’t leave their cigarette butts on the beach. The overarching rule is really very simple: just don’t be a dick. 

That said, I will try and provide more concrete suggestions. I have one really effective metaphor that I try (and sometimes fail) to apply when I visit places.

Tip 1: Behave like a guest, not like a customer.

My biggest recommendation is to treat your visit like a visit to a friends house, not like a stay at a hotel. At a friends house, you would clean up after yourself, you would try to be quiet at normal sleeping hours, and if you went out partying, you would try your best not to vomit on their belongings. You would also engage with your host. You would talk to her, you’d ask her about herself, and you’d share about yourself. You wouldn’t criticize her way of doing things, you’d only ask about it to try and understand her way better.

Thinking of yourself as a customer when you visit a town, city, or country, creates a whole new dynamic. It creates a mindset where you think of the people living there as your employees, as people whose services you have purchased. You have not. They have their own lives, and those lives don’t revolve around you.

This metaphor goes surprisingly far, and it allows for faux pas and occasional misunderstandings without you having to be too hard on yourself. As long as your interactions are based in mutual respect, you can be forgiven for any mistakes.

Tip 2: Support the local businesses.

This is one of the easiest ways to do more good than harm: skip chain stores and restaurants in favor of local joints; go to B&B’s/AirBnB’s/local hotels instead of Hilton’s or Ramada’s; and stop at local bodegas and shops if you’re looking for a souvenir. Not only will this help the local economy, but it will also add a more distinct personality to your experience.

This is especially important when you go to a resort in a developing nation — resorts are typically owned internationally, and a lot of the money you spend at them doesn’t stay in the country. Even if you do decide to go to an all-inclusive resort owned by an international chain, try and pop out occasionally to spend some time and money in smaller local places.

Tip 3: Do some advance research before going outdoors.

The place you can do the most unintentional harm is in your interactions with the local ecosystem. So if you’re planning a trek, a hike, a swim, or anything of the outdoor variety, just do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure nothing you are doing is bad for the local environment3.

Some other solid outdoor-travel tips:

  • If you’re planning on swimming in the ocean, buy the right sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can disrupt the growth of coral and do serious harm to the local coastal ecosystems. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to safer sunscreens, as well as a list of approved sunscreens.
  • Choose an “ecolodge” that prioritizes sustainability instead of a regular hotel.
  • Follow the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule while trekking.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle.
  • Don’t leave the trail.

The main takeaway here is that being a good traveler is actually pretty intuitive. Just be cool. Don’t be a dick.

Featured photo Cinty Ionescu

Should you recline your seat on the airplane?

One of the more trendy controversies in the travel world is the fight over whether you should recline your seat on an airplane. An article in Slate (which was, in proper Slate fashion, hyperbolically titled “The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization”) decried seat-recliners as “evil,” and went on to say, “People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.” People who recline have also been referred to as “psychopaths,” and one particularly irritating company created something called the “Knee Defender,” a device that you can insert into the seat in front of you which makes it impossible for the person in front of you to lean their chair back. Knee defenders have been known to start fights on airplanes.

I personally find this all to be a little overblown, but as this is a site on ethical travel, I feel the need to address it.

What should I do regarding reclining seats?

Full disclosure: I am 6’3”, 225 lbs, and I have always applied a Golden Rule standard to airline travel. I find flying miserable, and don’t want to make it more miserable for anyone. That said, when the person in front of me reclines, it doesn’t bother me at all. My long legs aren’t more cramped, and I generally don’t feel I was using the four inches or so that I lost near their head. If I do feel cramped, I’ll lean back myself, but mostly, I just accept that life is suffering — especially life on an airplane — and that what really matters is how we respond to that suffering.

Which is why I was surprised to find out that this was a thing. I’m theoretically one of the most wronged people when it comes to reclining seats, but it never bothered me. That’s the difficulty of the Golden Rule: some people have higher standards for what they’d want done unto them than I do1. And this is fair: The polling geniuses over at FiveThirtyEight did a poll on what people think of seat reclining, and they found that 41% of flyers think reclining is rude. The rest don’t mind. Far more people (73%) thought it was rude to wake someone up to go for a walk around the cabin — which, by the way, strikes me as even more justifiable than the recline, as not moving in an airplane can lead to sometimes-deadly deep vein thrombosis. The highest number of people (82%) said it was rude to “knowingly bring unruly children” onto the plane. Which strikes me as most justifiable — what, unruly kids shouldn’t be allowed to move from point A to point B?

This proves, if anything, that people on airplanes are just furious all the time, and are desperately seeking something to hate. So the Golden Rule doesn’t work here, because you don’t know the mind of the person behind you — they may just be a slow-cooking pot of rage.

I think the answer is simple. The nicest thing to do if you want to recline is to simply ask the person behind you if they’d mind. Lean back slowly so you don’t fuck up their laptop or jolt any liquid on their tray into their lap. All of the taller people that I spoke to said they usually don’t mind if someone leans back (tall people have already accepted discomfort on airplanes), with the understanding that they will be leaning back as well. One mother I spoke to, however, says this: “On little planes with sub-two hour travel times, [reclining your seat is] unnecessary and extra cramped. Add a kid in a carseat and it’s just a no-go. My baby carseat wouldn’t allow for the seat in front to recline; the toddler seat does, but barely.” So maybe be cool to traveling moms and don’t lean back.

If you don’t like it when someone in front of you reclines, just ask them politely if they wouldn’t. Some people may refuse. That’s okay. Comfort yourself with the fact that at least they are slightly more comfortable, and that they are just as human as you. And you don’t know what their deal is: they may have back problems. Their discomfort from not reclining may outweigh your discomfort when they do.

I think there’s something we should note here, though:

The seat recliners are not the problem.

Some have rightfully pointed out that this shouldn’t be a passenger-versus-passenger issue, but rather a passenger-versus-airline issue. It’s actually kind of a perfect microcosm for modern America: set up the system so that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for everyone, and when one person tries to make things better for themselves at the expense of someone else (whether it’s through a criminal act or through a selfish vote), a conflict arises not between the participants and the system, but between the participants itself, when at its core, the system is to blame. The airlines could easily provide more seat space, or simply make more comfortable seats.

But it would be too simplistic to say that airlines are evil companies that are trying to distract us from their flaws by making us fight amongst ourselves. Airlines are notoriously difficult to make profitable, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase profits wherever possible2. And adding a few extra seats to every plane makes a big difference.

It’s also worthwhile to note that our discomfort is the environment’s gain: as I noted a few weeks ago in my article on low-carbon emissions travel, the more seats the airlines cram onto planes, the more ways a flight splits its carbon emissions. Fewer flights means less emissions, less emissions means a lower chance of truly horrific climate catastrophe over the next couple hundred years.

All of which is to say that airline discomfort may be a good thing. It gives you an excuse to travel by train. Train seats have lower emissions than airline seats, and they’re also significantly more comfortable — a person who leans back on a train doesn’t invade the space of the passenger behind them at all. Also, you can bring your own food and booze onto Amtrak, which is neat.

My call is this: lean or don’t lean, just be courteous and ask the people around you. If they’re mean to you, just let it slide. Don’t assume they’re evil assholes. Just assume they fucking hate airplanes.

Featured photo by Ronald Sarayudej

Is voluntourism worthwhile?

Is it worth it to volunteer where there isn’t a sustainable social, political, or environmental impact? I think of those stories of Habitat for Humanity where volunteers think they build a house during the day only to have their crappy work torn down and redone later.

Wants To Fix The World

Thank you, so much, WTFTW, for giving my first one-word answer to a question of the week:


Okay, now to go into a bit more detail: The voluntourism impulse is an awesome one. It means that people don’t just want to take from the places they visit, but to give back as well. It’s akin to helping with the dishes when you’ve eaten dinner at a friend’s house. It’s all that’s right about humankind.

Which is why it’s really depressing that it’s usually a waste of time.

The story I believe you’re referring to is from this excellent article by Pippa Biddle, which is worth giving a read. She talks about a voluntourism trip she took in high school to Tanzania, which cost $3000 a pop:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

What Biddle concludes is that the problem wasn’t that a library wasn’t needed, it was that she simply wasn’t the one to do it. This is the case with many voluntourism trips: they exist more to give the volunteers the endorphin rush humans get when doing something nice for someone else than they do to actually help. The presence of unskilled volunteers may, in some cases, actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

But sometimes voluntourism is more insidious. The popularity of supporting Cambodian orphanages among western tourists has actually fueled a market for orphans. There are the reports of voluntourists actually taking jobs from better-qualified locals. And for many locals, voluntourism looks more like an expiation of colonial guilt than a good-hearted act of service. In his book Travel as a Political Act1, travel industry titan Rick Steves points out the name that Salvadorans have for Americans who come to visit and express solidarity, only to return home a few days later feeling self-satisfied: “round-trip revolutionaries.”

Just this week, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, founder of Latina Rebels, made an extremely strong case against voluntourism. Rodriguez was born in poverty in Nicaragua, and vividly remembers the many visiting westerners. She remembers them as good people, but:

They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately. It was the sort of love where they did not get our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling.

She continues:

I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

Those same Beckys did not stand up against Trump’s xenophobic agenda. The Chads stayed silent during that Cinco de Mayo party that their roommates hosted, perpetuating problematic stereotypes about ALL Latinxs. The Beckys know that NAFTA and CAFTA rulings keep kids like me in poverty, but still shop at stores known for using slave labor and sweatshops.

Those Chads and Beckys have never done anything for me.

As a white person from America, this can sound harsh2. But it’s worth noting that, especially in Central and South American countries, our country has played a pretty significant role in supporting horrible, genocidal dictatorships in the name of protecting “American business interests.” These dictatorships have frequently taken the place of legitimate left-leaning democracies.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with this assessment of the history of US colonialism in the western hemisphere or not: it’s a fairly widely-held perception in the rest of the Americas (and in parts of the Middle East as well). And in that view of the world, an American paying thousands of dollars to come down for a weekend so he can build a library, feel good about himself, and then return to his affluence, seems like an inadequate form of repentance.

So… should you participate in voluntourism at all?

My suggestion is a gentle no, with a set of clarifications:

  1.  If you have a set of skills that could be effectively utilized in your destination, absolutely go. Have a medical degree? Join Doctors Without Borders and go do some good. Can you do some consulting work with local NGOs, or provide training that may be desperately needed? Please, go.
  2. “Voluntourism” and “volunteering” are not the same thing. If you’re really committing to a project — and not just rolling a pre-packaged project into a vacation — then what I’m saying doesn’t apply. Looking at you, JETs, TEFLs, and Peace Corpsers.

Personally, I think the better thing to do when going abroad is to simply listen to the stories, the history, and the culture of the people that you’re visiting. You should not assume to have answers to a society’s problems after a weekend visit. You don’t. Instead, listen, read, and learn. If you want to help as efficiently and effectively as possible, donate money to people who are already in place to help, and then work on making your society a better place. A more humane America would help make a more humane world.

Still want to try voluntourism?

If you do want to participate in voluntourism, my Matador colleague Richard Stupart put together an excellent guide to finding the most ethical voluntourism projects possible (and, I should note, there are good projects. It’s not all cynicism and neocolonialism). Feel free to add other good ethical voluntourism resources in the comments.

Should I give to beggars while traveling?

We in the United States — especially those of us who live in cities — are to some extent comfortable with the existence of homelessness and beggars. We see them every day, and we either do our best to consciously ignore them, or we give them a token dollar or two. We may feel sad when we see them, we may feel impotent, we may think of them as drug addicts or as mentally ill, and we may shake a psychic fist at “the system” that allows them to slip through the cracks, but we don’t usually lose much sleep over their existence.

That gets a lot harder when you go abroad. For one thing, while there are certainly plenty of mentally ill and drug-addled beggars in the rest of the world, they find themselves among more people who are transparently not mentally ill or drug-addled. Mothers with children. Young kids. People who are just openly hungry.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this type of poverty. It wiped me out. It was jarring, and it was deeply upsetting. On one occasion, a tiny girl in Chennai came up to me was hugging my leg, begging me for something in a language I couldn’t understand. I assumed she wanted money, so I ignored her. What she wanted, it turned out, was the bottle of clean water in my hand. As we drove away, I saw kids drinking water out of what appeared to be a raw sewage pit. You have trouble thinking of yourself as a good person after an experience like that.

But begging is tricky. So let’s break down the conventional wisdom and look at whether or not you should give to beggars.

Whom are you helping?

It’s worth noting a few things about giving. First, the person that you’re helping most may be you yourself. studies by the National Institute of Health have shown that we experience more pleasure when we give our money away than we do by spending it on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that there may be a selfish motive to altruism. The results of giving money directly away are less unequivocally good for the beggar you are giving money to.

An article in the Atlantic put it this way:

“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.” [their emphasis]

The same article notes that, because beggars make very little money begging (so-called “career panhandlers” can make between $600 and $1500 a month, but it’s worth noting this is still not much money), they are often pressed to spend the money they earn immediately, which means they might not be spending it particularly well. So what will they spend it on? Food, probably. But here’s what you’re most worried about:

Is your money being spent on alcohol or drugs?

It could be. You should be aware that, whenever you give cash to someone in the street, you’re doing it unconditionally. You could be giving a drug addict the money they need to buy the hit that kills them. Or you could be giving them money to spend on booze instead of on their kids.

But this risk is usually overstated. One survey found that 94% of panhandlers use money to buy food, while only 44% of them use the money to buy drugs. HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has found that six out of ten homeless people admit to problems with alcohol or drugs. That number might sound high — and there’s a possibility for respondents to lie on that survey — but it does leave plenty of room for homeless people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems, who may have found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and whom you may be mentally painting as a drug addict regardless.

It’s safe to say, then, that you don’t know the whole backstory of the beggar you’re talking to. You don’t know what their life is like, or what they’ve gone through. But it’s also safe to say that your money may not go very far, and that it may do more harm than good.

But what about while I’m abroad?

It’s worth mentioning that all of the stats I’ve given so far have only been for the United States. It might be tempting to think of our homeless as people who aren’t deserving — this is the land of opportunity, after all — and that the poor abroad maybe have done less to deserve their poverty.

No one deserves poverty, but let’s look a little deeper into that impulse: should you give to, say, kids or mothers who are begging in poorer countries?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason is “organized begging,” which is particularly bad in India, but can be found virtually everywhere, including in Europe. Organized begging is an endeavor usually run by criminal syndicates or local mafias that frequently dips its toes into human trafficking. Thugs kidnap or forcibly recruit kids, send them to touristy or rich places to beg, and then take all of their money. Deformed kids make more money, so the thugs will often physically harm, scar, or even amputate the limbs of the children to elicit more sympathy from the givers. The thugs will also get kids addicted to drugs to keep them from running away, or will starve them to make them more gaunt.

This is what you risk supporting if you give money to child beggars abroad, especially in extremely poor countries1 It’s worth noting that not every beggar will be part of a criminal organization, but you do run the risk of contributing to that criminal organization when you give to beggars. There are definitely better ways of helping.

Should you give money at all?

Giving money to panhandlers, beggars, or the homeless is never a clearcut thing, but your impulse to give is still a good one. Here are some alternatives.

I personally subscribe to a theory of philanthropy called “effective altruism.” It’s a movement led by people like utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer who argue that, if we believe all lives are of equal value, then when we make decisions about giving, the decisions should be geared towards helping as many people as we possibly can. This means that, instead of giving money to say, for example, the Harvard Endowment (which is incredibly rich already and truly doesn’t need your money), you should give money to the most needy, and to the people who you can help most cheaply. 

This means, for example, that if you can easily help 10 people in Kenya, or help one person who lives down the street, you should choose the 10 people in Kenya, because you’re making the same difference with an equal amount of money. It’s like a terrible, real-life trolley problem2. Effective altruism is most effective when it’s targeting the extreme poor.

I wrote yesterday (at the Matador Network) about an excellent effective charity fighting extreme poverty called GiveDirectly. What they’ve found is that one of the best ways of getting people out of poverty is to just give them money directly and unconditionally. People generally have a better idea of how to spend their money than aid organizations that have no insight into their lives. And GiveDirectly is pretty efficient in terms of getting the money you donate to the extreme poor: 85%-91% of your money ends in the hands of donors.

That money that doesn’t end in their hands goes towards the selection process, which confirms that the recipients are indeed needy, that they aren’t scamming the system, and also towards studies examining the after-effects of these direct cash transfers. Begging is a self-selecting game: people who choose to beg will do so for different reasons, and may not actually be the neediest people of all. This more evidence-based approach means you’re more likely to get your giving into the right hands.

So my advice is this:

Don’t give money to beggars.


Give it to a charity that helps the extreme poor.

If GiveDirectly is not your thing, there are plenty of other organizations you can give to, including charities that will actually work to serve the homeless and the extreme poor. To help the poor abroad, check out these organizations:

To fight homelessness and poverty in the US, try some of these organizations:

A final note

As I always need to add at the end of these articles, the most effective solution is a permanent, systemic one. Many Americans are fed up with politics, but the fact remains that the most sustainable solutions are usually political ones. If we have systems in place that don’t perpetuate homelessness and extreme poverty, then we’re going to have a lot less of it. Giving to charities is worthwhile, because it does help people in need. But we should also take the long view and work to end the systems that allow homelessness and extreme poverty to exist. Get involved in the fight against poverty, the fight against economic injustice, the fight against the drug war, and the fight against the gutting of public health institutions, and we may see and end to this in our lifetimes or the in the lives of our children.

Featured Photo: John Christian Fjellestad

How much of the local language should you learn when you travel?

How much of the language of a destination do you think is important to have to not be a dick?

Can’t Afford a Russian Dictionary

That’s a good question, CARD. My instinct is to just apply the Golden Rule here, and say, “Learn as much of the language as you’d like a visitor to your country to learn!” but I don’t think that would result in any sort of universal standard: I personally do not care for a minute if someone comes to our country not knowing a word of the language. It makes life trickier for them, but I’m not offended when I hear someone speaking German or French or Mandarin, and if they ask me for directions in the middle of the street, I have the opportunity to play a game of public charades.

But I know plenty of people who would prefer visitors speak to them in the local tongue.

And while I find that attitude irritating, I can’t say it’s totally unfair. When you enter someone else’s home, you implicitly agree to follow their household rules. This may mean participating in a prayer you personally don’t believe in, or this may mean taking off your shoes when you walk in the door. Language is a similar local norm: if you’re visiting, it’s only fair that you communicate on their terms using their language. Trying to speak the local language is, I think, a sign of deference and respect to the culture you’re visiting, and it’s never bad to make that effort. Again, my personal standard is low here: I think the effort alone is enough of a sign of respect to make you “not a dick.” But we can still go a bit further than that.

The obvious things that you should always learn are “Hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” I think that can work as the lower limit. But I’ve had a number of experiences where that has been insufficient. Now, in the service of lowering your dick quotient, CARD, I shall publicly embarrass myself.

An incredibly embarrassing example

I was traveling with my friends in Paris. We’d taken the chunnel from London the night before, and I’d spent the entire train ride making trips to the commode, as I’d eaten a tainted burrito in London1. When we got to Paris, we settled into our hostel and I set out to find a pharmacist in Montmartre.

I quickly found one, stormed in, and said to the girl behind the counter, “Um, hi! I have… uh…” And then I proceeded to mime my affliction by putting my hands down near my posterior, making wiggly “splatter” motions with my fingers, while making flatulent sounds.

The pharmacist sighed, and said in perfect English, “So you have diarrhea?”

For this reason, I am adding, “Do you speak English?” to the de-dickifying phrases one must learn while traveling.

A less embarrassing example

I’m on the streets of Vienna during the same trip. I’m standing confusedly at the corner of Einbahnstrasse and Einbahnstrasse, trying desperately to find Einbahnstrasse on the map. I’d been walking 30 minutes, had turned dozens of times, and had never left Einbahnstrasse.

“Excuse me,” I said to a friendly-looking old man passing by, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is Herrengasse?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to find it for quite some time, and I can’t.”

“You are on Herrengasse,” he said.

I looked at the street sign above me. “Isn’t this Einbahnstrasse?”

“Einbahnstrasse means one way street,” he said.

It is also worth your time to learn a little bit of the language used to give and receive directions, especially if you think you’ll be putting yourself in a situation where you might get lost and need to ask for help. If you’re going to expect someone to help you, it’s at least courteous to make it easy for them to do so. At the very least, you should be able to coherently tell a cab driver where you’re staying, in case of an emergency.

Other guidelines

Other guidelines are dependent on your personal needs when you go on the trip. Are you vegetarian, or have diet restrictions of some sort? Learn how to say so in the local language. If you follow the “point at something in the hopes it’s good” method on foreign menus, you are very likely to be surprised, at some point, with food you are not okay with eating2. If you have allergies or health issues that could potentially put your life into someone else’s hands during your travels, learn how to explain it so that you don’t put them in a terrible position.

Finally, take some time to learn about etiquette before you show up somewhere new. Most people will be quick to forgive a faux pas but why let it happen in the first place? Learn the proper greetings in the country you’re visiting. Learn when to shake hands and when to bow and when to give a kiss on one cheek or give a kiss on two cheeks (there’s a short, basic guide that here. Learn which hand gestures are offensive (I’ve included a handy infographic on that below).

Failing to fully educate yourself before you go does not make you a dick, and some miscommunication is inevitable (and is usually harmless). But you can find out ahead of time what types of miscommunication are likely to be harmful or awkward, and you can prepare yourself accordingly.


Infographic by

Featured photo: David Goehring

When should I boycott a country?

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE in college, I went on Semester at Sea. It was a 4-month study abroad program that sailed around the world. Shortly after I was accepted into the program, I was sent an email with two pretty big surprises in it: first, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu would be sailing with us for the entire voyage. Second, as a precondition of Tutu joining us, we would now be skipping our planned stop in Burma and would be going to Malaysia instead.

Tutu had insisted on this change because his friend, Burmese leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott to Burma. Tutu had cut his teeth in the South African anti-apartheid movement, which conducted a similar international boycott over the course of several decades. The international solidarity, Tutu claimed, was essential for bringing apartheid to an end.

This led to a huge debate on the ship: a lot of people really wanted to go to Burma, and argued that the cultural exchange was valuable and worthwhile. They also argued that we could visit Burma in a way that wouldn’t be supportive of the oppressive military regime that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were fighting against. We could, they argued, make sure our money would go to the right places.

In the end, we didn’t go to Burma. Several years later, Suu Kyi and her NLD lifted their call for a tourism boycott as the country started to transition towards democracy. But since then, I’ve heard a lot of calls for tourism boycotts to certain countries. It’s a question worth examining: when is it right to boycott a country? When is it wrong? When is it just pointless?

When are boycotts pointless?

During the Bush years, I heard conservative friends and family members say more than once, “I’ll never visit France after how they bailed on us in Iraq.” It was usually uttered by people who were using patriotic fervor as an excuse to skip a country they were never planning on going to in the first place, but sometimes, conservatives who might otherwise have enjoyed a trip to Paris decided that they needed to make a moral stand. No France for them. That’d teach France to bail on America, “and after we did so much for them in World War II.”

The correct response to this type of crap is “ugh,” but lefties and liberals shouldn’t get too smug: I’ve heard plenty of my activist friends suggest they were boycotting a country as well, whether it was of Japan (because of their treatment of dolphins and whales), of Thailand (because of their Tiger Temple), or of Russia (because of the Russian government’s oppression of journalists).

Boycotts can be well-meaning and still be useless. The one case in which they are always useless is in the case of the personal boycott. If you are boycotting a country for moral reasons, that’s just fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re making any sort of difference. Boycotts are an expression of political (and sometimes economic) power. By saying, “I refuse to engage with you,” you are basically saying you don’t think that country is legitimate, and that it does not deserve your support.

The truth is that, unless you are a very high-profile person, a single person boycott of a country is meaningless. It’s just not a large enough expression of power to make a noticeable difference and to affect any change. Had Rosa Parks been the only person to boycott the Montgomery, Alabama bus system, the gesture would have been noble but totally futile. It was when hundreds of people (including high-profile leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.) joined that the boycott really did what it was meant to do. A boycott, to be done effectively, must be done collectively.

When is a travel boycott effective?

I’ve developed three tentative rules to when you should consider a travel boycott.

1. You must have power over whomever you’re boycotting.

You can’t boycott something you don’t have any power over. This is why, for instance, it would be impossible for Americans to arrange a travel boycott of North Korea1: we simply don’t go there enough for the withdrawal of our tourist dollars to make any difference. It’s only countries that we have a healthy relationship that we can effectively boycott.

A boycott is effectively saying is, “You’re not playing by rules that we accept, so we refuse to play with you.” You can’t threaten to walk off when you weren’t playing in the first place.

2. Money isn’t enough: You must have the ear of the media.

The economic results of boycotts are tough to gauge. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS)2 movement against Israel has been going for over 10 years, but hasn’t necessarily resulted any tangible economic loss for Israel3. The boycott of South Africa, on the other hand, is widely considered to have been a success in economic terms.

But ultimately, whether the BDS movement or the cultural boycott of South Africa had any real economic effect isn’t the point. The point is in getting enough media coverage to draw attention to the injustice and, presumably, to shame the perpetrators. As I write, this is happening in North Carolina, where a recent anti-LGBTQ law has resulted in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotting travel to the state on official business, in Paypal pulling jobs from the state economy, and in rocker Bruce Springsteen canceling a NC concert (which, for me personally, is literally the worst punishment I could imagine).

Yes, these moves may cost North Carolina money here and there, but more importantly, they build a political and social momentum behind the movements they support. It was not, in the end, economics that ended apartheid. It was external pressure worldwide (pressure which had to come from the grassroots, as leaders like Ronald Reagan supported apartheid), and volatile internal politics which brought about the end of that regime. Boycotts can be a powerful symbol that raise awareness of an issue and turn public opinion. If they succeed in this regard, whether or not they’re effective economically is beside the point.

3. Boycotts have to have an internal element.

Boycotts have more moral clout when they’re done in solidarity with people from within the place you’re boycotting. In other words, if local people say, “don’t boycott us,” then don’t4. So when the ANC and leaders like Desmond Tutu called for the rest of the world to boycott South Africa, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Aung San Suu Kyi called for tourists to not visit Burma, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Palestinians or liberal Israelis support the BDS movement, it gives the movement legitimacy.

Boycotts that are done entirely externally — as in you and your friends unilaterally deciding to boycott France because reasons — aren’t effective, and can be perceived as bullying, because you’re attempting to impose your morality on another country. If you don’t agree with someone’s morals, it’s usually better to talk to them and try and find common ground than it is to simply shut them out. But if you and your allies within that country are within agreement, and your allies think a boycott’s a good idea, then it may be worth giving a try.

So should I participate in travel boycotts?

The answer to this, I’m sorry to say, is annoyingly ambivalent: Sure. If you want. In some rare cases. Boycotts just too rarely achieve that rare combination of effectiveness and legitimacy to be worthwhile5. Philosopher Peter Singer told of travel boycotts:

“A boycott may be one way of getting some leverage on [political issues] when nothing else seems to work. But I don’t think that there is a general obligation to boycott all countries that are doing something unethical.”

The reason, he said, is because boycotts are only really effective when they’re accompanied by a public campaign. And it’s worth noting that there’s no such thing as a totally ethical country. You should definitely not boycott a country that there’s not already an organized boycott against unless you want to undertake the gigantic effort of organizing the boycott yourself. And in all honesty, there may well be much better ways of pushing your agenda politically than through a boycott: frequently, you may be able to push your government to act instead.

Boycotts really only make sense when they’re an attempt to undermine your government’s action: in South Africa and Israel, the US Government has acted in response to perceived geopolitical interests rather than in response to human rights standards, so those places make sense to organize boycotts around. In North Carolina, Indiana, and other states that have enacted anti-LGBT laws, the boycotts are in response to actions by the government itself. In these cases, participating in boycotts may be the just and right thing to do.

That said, there are totally legitimate arguments for not participating in boycotts, from supporting locals who may be unfairly harmed by a boycott, to simply pursuing other forms of protest and resistance that you believe would be more effective. Paul Simon’s breach of the UN-approved cultural boycott of South Africa during the making of his album Graceland was extremely controversial, but in the end, he used the breach to give an international platform to black South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. While it may not personally have been my choice — and indeed was not the choice of many activist musicians, from Springsteen to Bono to Queen — it is conceivably justifiable.

It’s worth noting, though, that Paul Simon’s breach was at least thought-out and intentional. He didn’t simply ignore the cultural boycott for personal profit: he attempted to make things better for South African musicians. So if there’s a movement that you find yourself aligned with, and they are calling for a travel boycott to a country you want to visit, you certainly may decide to go anyway, but going will only really be justified if you engage in some other political act.

In the end, the only real sin, if you believe something wrong is being done, is silence. If you feel your voice is best heard through a boycott, go for it. If you feel you can speak out in a better way, feel free to do that instead. Just don’t do nothing.

Featured photo: Pierre (Rennes)

How do I balance being a feminist with respecting other cultures?

Q: When visiting a country that has a culture that represses women, how far do you go in respecting their culture when visiting? Covering my head and shoulders seems okay. But I have a friend whose husband called out a waiter in India for asking him what she wanted to order when she was perfectly capable of answering for herself. That seems awesome to me but may have been offensive to them. Where’s the line?

Yes Always to Solidarity with Kickass Women in Eastern & Extremist Nations

That’s a really great question, YASKWEEN. I have opinions, but I am also a dude, and as such, am at risk of mansplaining. So it seems worthwhile to ask a few women who either travel or live in more patriarchal cultures what they think before offering up my own dudepinion.

On cultures that repress women:

When we think of the most oppressive society towards women, we probably think of a country like Saudi Arabia. Sydney Meredith, the travel blogger behind Passports & Prose, currently lives in Saudi Arabia told me she doesn’t love equating “repressing women” with “covering your head and shoulders,” as many Muslim women consider it a personal religious choice to wear the hijab, and not something that’s imposed upon them by men. In regards to wearing it as a traveler, she says:

“I remember visiting historic churches in Spain and France during a trip in high school and the women were asked to cover their shoulders. Do I consider Spain and France ‘repressive?’ No. I was just respecting someone’s wishes.”

She also warns against developing a sense of superiority:

“I mean, aren’t women repressed everywhere? …The US is among only 2 other countries in the world who do not pay pregnant women who take time off from work.  We were only allowed to vote just a 100 years ago.”

On “calling people out”:

Traveler Sarah Lewis says it usually comes down to reading the situation, and points out there may be alternatives to “calling out” someone that are more effective.

“I feel like in that one specific situation, I would try not to be rude about it, especially at first, because the waiter was just doing what he considers to be polite in his particular culture in his line of work. As a server in the US, I’ve seen men order for women, so for some people that type of thing is still traditional, even in less conservative countries. If he addressed a man I was with rather than myself, I would probably just answer the questions and not necessarily “correct” him per se. (Similar to how in Japan, the server always talks to the Asian-looking person. You correct them not by calling them out, but by just responding in Japanese, and eventually they realize they can talk to you.)”

What’s important, then, is trying to gauge intent. She adds:

“However, if he continued or was being obviously rude to me, that would be another thing entirely, and I think that’s where the ‘line’ sort of starts. If a person is doing something that, even in his culture, would be rude (such as catcalling or harassment), that would not be tolerated.”

On the balancing idealism with safety and comfort:

My friend Nandika Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, and she says this regarding the clothes issue:

“The class divide in India often means that urban girls/women from the upper classes will usually dress like any other American twenty year old. However, this is a very small number of people. Most women in India will dress as per their cultural traditions (which are often conservative)… The one rule I’ve always followed is to be 100% comfortable with myself. This also means that in a place where I am likely to get stares if I wear shorts, I will make the functional decision to wear something more conservative so I don’t have to get into arguments with creepy men every 10 steps.”

In regards to the what visitors should do, she adds:

“If someone is just on holiday it probably makes sense to dress close to the way most women in the area are dressed simply to reduce chances of harassment (I know how that sounds). A dress code is only likely to be enforced in religious places. Everywhere else, you are free to dress the way you like. If a woman feels comfortable wearing a dress in an Indian market, then please go ahead and do it. The culture of trying to control women’s behaviour doesn’t need encouragement. Seeing a western woman in different clothing may actually do some good.”

She also noted, “This is India, where you won’t get a death threat for pushing cultural boundaries.” This doesn’t hold true for every country, however, and there are other places where pushing the envelope may be a much more dangerous thing to do. Sarah Lewis adds:

“If something isn’t exactly rude in their culture, but I feel uncomfortable with it, I would probably say something, although again, depending on my level of comfort, I would probably in varying degrees attempt to be sensitive to the culture and not aim to immediately embarrass the person (unless I was really in danger or in a bad situation).”

And, of course, some mansplaining.

Okay, so this isn’t technically mansplaining: I don’t really know what it’s like to travel as a woman, and I won’t pretend to. But I have come across similar situations where something happens in a culture I’m visiting that clashes with my own personal values. A quick story:

When I was working a journalism internship at an English-languge newspaper in China, I really wanted our editors to cover issues like human rights. My bosses had to worry about government censors, so they weren’t really on board with taking editorial advice from an uppity 22-year-old foreigner. I pushed them on it, and all it did was alienate me from my bosses, to the point where I wasn’t being given any work. Towards the end of the internship, I was grabbing drinks with a British journalist who’d worked in China for years. I bitched to him about the Chinese journalists, calling them cowards.

“That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists,” he said. “I’ve found them to be quite brave.”

I asked how. He said, “You’ve been here what, two months? You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”

He went on to tell me how Chinese journalists would frequently undermine government-mandated stories through the subtle use of puns. For example, when the government wanted to show off their expensive new language-teaching program (which was incredible ineffective), the paper’s editors titled the piece, “GOVERNMENT CREATES ARMY OF CUNNING LINGUISTS.” This effective pun-usage has become so pervasive among Chinese dissidents that censors in China have actually banned the use of puns and idioms.

The lesson of that internship for me was that while the causes I was fighting for were just the world over, the tools for fighting for them changed from place to place depending on the context. It’s easy to fall prey to the whole “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” trap, and for a lot of Westerners, becoming confrontational over small or large injustices is our hammer.

Your impulse to resist misogyny is always a good one, YASKWEEN, but you may simply not have the localized knowledge to resist it effectively. Which is fine. It creates an opportunity to learn and listen. The best thing you can do if you want to support feminists in the area you’re visiting is to ask them how you can best support them. Some may say money. Some may say political support from your government. Some may say “call out the waiter when he ignores you to talk to your husband.” Some may say, “definitely don’t call out the waiter.” The response will change based on the place you’re in and even on whom you’re talking to.

That said, respect cuts both ways. If you are trying to treat another culture with respect, you’re allowed to insist they treat you with respect as well.

Writer’s note: could we all  take a second to appreciate how far I came in a single week with my anonymous questioner acronyms? Last week, I dubbed my questioner “TUTBFTS.” This week, I pulled off motherfucking YASKWEEN. At this exponential rate of improvement, I’ll be a billionaire in a goddamn MONTH.


Featured image by David Sorich.