Editor’s note: Unpacked columns appear in every print issue and monthly online, where they tackle some of travel’s biggest, thorniest questions.
I used to travel to destinations solely because I could, not necessarily taking the time to learn about a place I visited. As an American, visas were easy to attain—or not needed at all. I often couldn’t give you a straight answer about why I was there: I’d seen something on Instagram; I was bored; I’d gotten a cheap flight or hotel deal. My travels at the time were based mostly on aesthetics— Instagrammable Airbnbs in Kuala Lumpur overlooking the iconic KL Tower in the skyline, trying to get the perfect angle on top of South Africa’s nearly 3,600-foot Table Mountain, even if it meant nearly falling to my death. At the time, I didn’t see myself contributing to a problem because I didn’t stay long enough to become one.
But a trip to Old San Juan in 2019 was the beginning of redefining what being a traveler meant to me. Before I traveled there, I’d heard excellent things about how travelers can get lost in the area’s Old World charm. I hoped to be more off the grid than on my usual travels, and this trip was a way to unwind from a few stressful months in New York City.
Buildings in the Old San Juan area, a small neighborhood spanning just seven blocks, date back to the mid-16th century. I spent days wandering along cobblestone streets and stuffing my face full of mofongo—a dish with fried plantains as its base. One day, I walked into the Catedral de San Juan Bautista.
It is an active church, and I wanted to be mindful of the few congregants scattered around the church, their heads bowed in supplication. I don’t profess to be particularly religious—I’m an “Easter and Christmas Christian”—but I felt pulled to sit in silence alongside them. In that moment, with heads bowed around me and the muted sounds of prayers passing through lips, I realized that travel could be far more tranquil than I’d ever allowed it to be. And that if I just slowed down, I would be able to see and experience a destination for what it was, rather than a stop on vacation.
The realization was a marked difference from how I approached previous trips, where I always seemed to be in a rush to post, a hurry to snap, a desire to be seen. I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing a destination that draws travelers as just that—and not as part of the community it belongs to.
Back out on the sunny street, I noticed the juxtaposition: signs throughout Old San Juan reminding travelers to “please don’t touch!” paintings and sculptures in shops or to respect the residents and infrastructure. It struck me as sad that we even needed to be reminded that this was someone’s home. After all, a place where people live and work is far more than a commodity for our own experiences.
Since then, I’ve tried to practice being more thoughtful in my travels. I’ve sought to better connect with a place and its people—not by artifacts or landmarks—but through conversations and learning about its past and present. For me, that’s connecting with locals on tours and through Airbnb Experiences for an unfiltered history lesson or taking my shoes off before entering someone’s home, even if they didn’t specifically ask.
Being a respectful and responsible traveler comes down to trying my best to listen and learn. With more knowledge comes more empathy and understanding; these elements help me better understand where (and how) I can best support the destination while I’m there.
As U.S. leisure travelers, we often hear about how the countries we visit, many in the developing world, “need our money” and “need the tourism and the dollars.” There’s some truth to the well-intentioned but misinformed statement—and it’s especially true during the coronavirus pandemic. According to a December 2020 report by the International Monetary Fund, tourism-dependent economies were among those economically harmed the most by COVID-19. Countries particularly reliant on tourism are, in many ways, “locked into their economic destinies,” the IMF wrote at the time.
But just because destinations might need our dollars doesn’t give us a right to travel without consideration. We need to be mindful that, with every decision we make, we are guests in someone’s home. And like any good guest, that means remembering basic things like cleaning up after yourself, showing gratitude, and leaving things as we found them—if not better.