The following general guidelines are standards of behavior we should
expect from everyone. By observing them you will gain the respect of the
local people and help your groups to increase their respect and
understanding of local cultures and peoples.
Experiencing cultural diversity is one of the great joys of traveling, and we need to make sure that these differences are encouraged and respected. At a general level, we need to respect the cultural rules in the areas we travel to. Please make sure in your dealings as guide/leader and in educating your group members that you accept these differences and not try and change them for the benefit of your group's comfort. Forewarn travelers about differences that they may find confronting or misinterpret early in their trip and explain the background to these customs.
Assisting locals in their understanding of western culture
The flip side of cultural understanding when traveling is helping the locals gain a greater insight into western culture, beyond the superficial attractions of money and wealth. As guides and leaders working with western groups you are in a unique position to act as a ‘bridge’ between locals and tourists, assisting each in appreciating and understanding the other.
Help group members recognize that as a westerner in Asia they are in a position of power. They are probably richer than the locals they are meeting, and a world traveler - something many locals they meet can only dream of. When dealing with locals, respect that they may wish to develop economically and have access to material possessions that we take for granted. While this undoubtedly changes the villages and makes it less "authentic" for tourists, it is something that we should respect and understand. Everyone has a right to development and a better standard of living.
You can also help people to understand the negative influences that come from increased material wealth on the family and the community. Assist local people to achieve a balanced view of development.
Asian people generally dress modestly, and as a rule groups and guides/leaders should dress the way the locals do. Dress standards vary from place to place, with the rural areas tending to be more conservative than the cities. Be aware of this, and inform your group of it too.
It is highly offensive to the Asian community for women to wear singlet tops. Not wearing a bra is also offensive and provocative. If women dress inappropriately they may attract more male attention than they really want to! Tight, body-hugging attire is also not acceptable. This is not to say no one can wear shorts, but there will be situations where they are inappropriate, especially for females. Shorts should never be too short, and lycra is best left for the gym.
More formal dress codes apply for religious sites you may visit, and to prevent the wrath of the gods as well as the locals, these should be closely followed. In general one should have covered shoulders and legs, shoes and hats should be removed.
There are no areas of Asia where nude sun bathing or swimming is acceptable, despite what other travelers might be doing. We don't want to sink to the level of other travelers. Bikinis are generally inappropriate but a bikini is all some travelers will have. If this is the case they should be encouraged to swim/bath in a sarong or T-shirt where necessary. If you are staying in a small village you will probably be bathing in a stream, river or waterfall, and women should wash in a sarong or in the mode that the local women use. Men and women may need to bathe in a different area – check what is appropriate.
There are a few general codes of behavior that apply throughout the areas we operate and groups should be informed, and reminded if necessary.
• Crooking the finger to call somebody is considered impolite.
• Showing affection in public is considered quite offensive. Explain that away from the major urban centers it is extremely rare to see couples holding hands, though it is quite common to see friends of the same sex holding hands.
• The head is the symbolic high point in Asia. You should never touch a person on the head.
• It is polite to remove your shoes before entering a house. Look for shoes at the front door as a clue and follow suit.
• Criticism should only be used when put among praise.
• It is inappropriate to express anger in a raised voice. Becoming angry is embarrassing to those with whom you are dealing - they will not be embarrassed for themselves, but for you making a fool of yourself. "Keeping face", that subtle but important quality of personal dignity, is important!
The ideal demeanor for the traveler in Asia is friendly and open and ever ready to answer questions. Where you are going? Are you married? How old you are? Questions that in a western society may be considered personal are considered normal. You need to prepare travelers for this and ask that they remain patient, and also to recognize that the people are just being friendly and curious. Asian people often ask what your religion is. They have a general concern that everyone has a religion, though it doesn't particularly matter which one. Asian people usually have a similar attitude to marriage and children. If someone asks if you are married or have children, and you are not/do not, a good standard response is "not yet". If the group members are feeling uncomfortable with such questions, try to encourage them to be patient or subtly change the subject!
The locals' enthusiasm, curiosity and eagerness to speak English often antagonize travelers. In return the locals often find western attitudes ‘stand offish’ and cold. Different attitudes towards privacy may conflict with the western attitude. Asian people often have an interest in our books, writing or photographs, which the westerner considers ‘private property.’ Concepts of property, private ownership and privacy are very different for the rural Asian, who is accustomed to living and sharing in a close knit community. These need to be explained to travelers so they are prepared and understand that their local hosts are not being ‘nosy’ but politely interested.
Drugs and alcohol
The laws of most Asian countries carry harsh penalties for drug possession or usage. Guides/leaders are not to indulge in opium, dope or other illegal drugs whilst leading trips, and it is not acceptable for group members to do so either.
The use of alcohol needs careful consideration especially in smaller villages and tribal regions. In these areas our 'privileged' status brings with it a responsibility to promote the good in our cultures and not the excesses. Many village people cannot afford to purchase alcohol and so see our sometimes excessive consumption as a sign of affluence and elitism. For some the lure to join and taste alcohol causes them to ignore family responsibilities and spend their income on drink.
In communities where we are offered the ‘local brew’, still keep in mind a level of constraint and if group members are becoming more than a little inebriated it may be time for you to have a subtle word in the local guide or host’s ear about slowing it down or changing activities. Out of control drunken westerners (aside from making fools of themselves) can damage our positive relationships with locals and negatively change the group dynamics. In towns and larger urban centers where there is increased local wealth, our influence has less impact and the use of alcohol has wider acceptance.
Avoid giving western medicines to our Asian hosts. In general they are not to accustomed western medicine and we are not trained to give it. In addition, we don't want dependence on medicines to occur especially when natural and traditional treatments may be just as effective. If a local person approaches you for treatment, encourage them to seek traditional cures or assist them to the local clinic/hospital. You may have a doctor in your group who wishes to treat local people. In this instance please explain the above concerns and encourage the doctor to take these into account when deciding on what assistance should be offered. It may be better to suggest to medics in your group to not reveal their profession as they may quickly gather a queue of patients and be left in a dilemma.
There are exceptions to this rule in the case of emergencies. If a local is seriously injured and in a potentially life threatening situation then they should be given the appropriate first aid treatment which may include medication. However, remain aware of the potential dangers of allergic reactions to drugs and try to get them to medical help as soon as possible.
Sexual relationships and prostitution
Be aware that it is taboo in some communities we visit to conduct an intimate relationship with the locals, and in many countries there are strict laws governing the behavior of unmarried couples. In some communities there are heavy fines for such indiscretions and in other communities it can be punishable by serious injury. Be aware too that the recipient of a foreigner's attentions can have be seriously affected within the local community in terms of their well being, social standing and reputation. Homosexual relationships have gained much wider acceptance in western communities in recent years. Be aware that you may need to remind a group member that this is not the case in some parts of Asia and if a local is found to be engaging in a homosexual relationship, they could be totally outcast or shunned by their families and community or worse.
The prevalence of prostitution is an aspect of many Asian societies. Any group member who shows interest in frequenting brothels needs to be given strong words on the social and economic reasons behind prostitution in Asia. Point out the risks of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. They should also understand that unlike prostitutes in developed countries, many Asian women are not prostitutes of their own free will but in fact are bonded labor. They have been sold to pimps by their families and are imprisoned in brothels. They face ridicule and condemnation by their communities and can never return. Many end up with drug problems and become infected with HIV.
Photography – still and video
Please ensure that group members are aware and sensitive to the impact of photography. Sensitivity is the key. They should always ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Minority groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. They may think they do not look attractive (wearing their work clothes rather than festival clothes), while other groups believe that part of their spirit is taken away if they are photographed. Porters are often unhappy about being photographed.
Encourage travelers to send back copies of photos via you or directly to the people themselves. The locals gain a great buzz from seeing themselves in photos and it encourages a ‘sharing’ rather than ‘taking’ attitude towards photography. Also in many cases the locals could never afford to take photos themselves. You should make every effort to distribute the photos the next time you are in the area. When your group sees you doing this, it is all the more encouraging to them to return photos.
While we welcome travelers to pack their video cameras, there are some places that we request not to film. In some small villages, home stays and remote communities we discourage the use of videos as the local people consider that filming is too intrusive.
Donations and gift giving
This is a difficult issue for many travelers who want to assist the local communities but are unaware of the larger implications. Inform travelers of these issues before visiting tribal communities and advise them of the most helpful methods of giving something back to the region.
If travelers wish to donate to a community, suggest what you know of local charities or development agencies that are operating in the area. If you are visiting communities regularly perhaps check with the local school about what they actually need so you can direct interested groups to purchase appropriate items as donations (i.e. don’t keep donating pens to a school where all the children are required to use pencils).
Travelers may look to you for advice on dealing with beggars. Essentially it’s up to individuals but you may make some suggestions. Suggest to travelers not to give sweets/candies to children who may not have access to good dental care. Advise groups on how the local people treat beggars in their community.
Ways not to give!
Giving money and goods away at random to individuals can result in the local communities acting like beggars. It accentuates an unequal relationship between locals and visitors, with tourists being seen as purely ‘money givers’. It also strips self esteem away from people when they get money for simply being poor rather than having to solve their own issues of poverty through community action. We also need to be careful not to pay for acts of kindness in monetary terms (e.g. paying kids for pointing you in the right direction if you are unsure where you are, or lighting the way down a dark alley with their torches). We do not want to encourage the development of a society that equates every human action as a potential money making scheme.
Avoid feeling that we necessarily have to give ‘material’ things at all. The best giving can sometimes be shared interactions. A smile, a joke, a song, dance, or playing a game. Giving something of your friendship, time and interest to interact with locals can be the best gift of all.
Environmental responsibility and waste minimization
In Asia, the enormous economic growth of the region has been at the cost of the environment. Analysts are only now beginning to recognize the extent of the damage and the true cost to the environment and the welfare of its inhabitants.
Tourism adds to this problem. However, we can minimize our impact on the places we visit by encouraging travelers to practice waste minimization initiatives whilst on holiday.
It is often easier to act responsibly if we can see the fruits of our actions. For example, removing litter from a trail makes it more pleasing to the eye and is something we can enjoy straight away. In contrast, the impact of sewerage and soap in waterways takes a lot longer to be of visible concern and makes us slower to react and improve our environmental practices. We are naturally reactors rather than preventers, yet in environmental terms, reacting is often too late. We should be looking to adopt preventative actions on our trips by adopting practices that are commonly recognized as the three R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Some practical examples of this:
Encourage group members not to use plastic covered or wrapped foods when fresh options are available. The disposal of plastics and styrofoam is a major problem, and the more we can do to reduce its use the better. Take your groups to local markets where little packaging is used, the food is fresh and the money is benefiting the local producers. Suggest travelers always take their own bags when shopping.
- Whenever you are away from towns or cities we must not leave any rubbish we take in with us. Encourage travelers to pick up any rubbish that they see, left behind by other travelers, so that we leave a place cleaner than we found it.
- Make sure support trucks on Tibet trips have sacks (or equivalent) to store excess empty water bottles until they can be properly disposed of.
- In national parks and other protected areas organic waste such as food scraps should not be dispersed or buried there. This practice may introduce exotic seeds and is not the natural diet of the native animals. Take it out with you again.
Bottled water is for sale in much of Asia, but unfortunately there are few facilities for recycling of the bottles. We are actively trying to reduce the ‘consumption’ of plastic bottles by encouraging alternatives. Please do what you can to help implement these and discuss with travelers their options.
- In hotels – asking management to install large water ‘bubbler’ dispensers where you can refill your bottle with purified water for free or for a small fee. This has proved quite successful where the hotel charges less than for bottled water but at a price that enables them to make a higher profit margin.
- In Tibet encourage group members to refill personal water bottles from the boiled water thermoses provided by hotels.
When trekking or in remote areas use the toilet facilities that are provided. If none are established, find a suitable place and inform group members. This should be at least 50m away from water sources and people’s homes. Bury your shit - a small spade/shovel should be purchased and carried for this purpose. Instruct the group that toilet paper should be carried out in a plastic bag for appropriate disposal later, or burnt.
Energy and water conservation
Create awareness amongst your group of being prudent with fuel and water. Pollution, green house gases and other problems of fossil fuel use are escalating as developing countries strive towards modern Western appliances, vehicles and production methods. Clean water supplies are diminishing. Some examples:
- Air-con in hotel rooms. Don’t use unnecessarily or leave on when out of the room. Turn down, to ‘fan only’ or ‘off’ overnight. Better for avoiding sore throats and colds too!
- Air-con vehicles - short journeys are easily managed with windows open.
- A cold shower may be more refreshing than hot in the tropics. Encourage solar systems for hot water heating. Avoid hot showers where the water is being heated with cut timber or other non-sustainable methods e.g. Nepal trek tea houses.
- Encourage alternate sources of fuel for cooking and heating.
- Talk to hotel management about systems – e.g. cleaning lady/person not changing the sheets and towels every day unless requested.
- An empty room does not need light.
On treks use existing tracks and stay on them. This is especially important during the wet season because it is all too easy to create new tracks in order to get a better footing. If people don't adhere to this, the trail will soon become a series of footpaths that turn into erosion gullies. This impacts on the vegetation as branches are reached for as handholds, broken off, and add to the topsoil that has been dislodged to silt up the waterways.
Fires – reduce deforestation by avoiding unnecessary use of scarce firewood. Fuel stoves should be used for cooking on camping trips and we should choose accommodation that uses kerosene, gas or fuel – efficient firewood stoves. Put on warmer clothes rather than stoking a wood fire for warmth.
Soap – On treks when the group is bathing in streams or lakes ask group members to forget about soap for a few days and feast in their beautiful natural body smells! A soap-less bathe will still remove sweat and a nail brush and face washer may help. Conventional body soap and shampoo are degradable but it takes time for them to break down and in the interim they may still be contaminating water quality for people downstream. The bigger problem is actually products like washing powders which contain cleaning agents that will damage the soil and vegetation if not disposed of in a controlled manner. It is difficult saying ‘no soap’ to guests when the locals have their big bags of Omo on the riverbank, but it is important that we don’t add to the problem, as we are visitors and an additional ‘load’ on the eco-system.
When visiting national parks or reserves where groups will be in contact with wildlife, please ensure that they follow the appropriate park regulations that ensure that wildlife is protected. Ask group members to respect this even if they observe that other tourists don't.
Sometimes local people will try and sell protected species to foreigners. Travelers may wish to do this so that they can set the animal free. However please explain that this can sometimes be a money making scam for locals and it is a better policy to refuse to pay money and encourage the local to release the animal. When they realize there is no demand for the animal then the practice may eventually stop.
Shopping and dining - please encourage travelers to refuse to buy any souvenirs, food or products made from local wildlife.