Who draws the line between “corporate travel” and “leisure travel”?
(My answer: The travel industry.)
Is this a good thing or a bad thing for travelers? Why?
One great part of travel is the thrill you get from the random and deliciously quirky places you find yourself. Just a few weeks ago I was thrilled to find myself sleeping on an 8×10 square foot floor with 2 other people on a tiny fishing island in the Yellow Sea. Why? Because it’s an 8×10 foot floor on a tiny island in the Yellow Sea.
For those travelers who are willing to spend a little more, there are some really unique hotels across Europe that would be quite a thrill to experience. Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden definitely provides a unique lodging experience. Guests can sleep on an ice block lined with reindeer skin in rooms made entirely of ice and snow. In Ottensheim, Austria, travelers can sleep in rooms built into immense drainpipes at Das Park Hotel. Why not stay 10 meters above ground in the tree house hotel Baumhaus in Germany? (advertised as child-friendly)
For an extensive list of accommodations like these, check out this website.
Last week, the online travel search engine Travelocity announced that a new partnership with EC3 Global has enabled them to display more green hotels in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
As green/eco awareness increases, so too does the need for ethical travelers to be able to find those businesses that adhere to morals and business practices that they believe in. Travelocity reported that “green hotel bookings in the first quarter [of 2010] were 65 percent higher than their non-green counterparts.”
Of course, one of the problems is that “green” can be a somewhat arbitrary designation that is often self-applied, and used simply as a marketing tool. This is where EC3 Global comes in. Their ‘EarthCheck‘ service provides a trusted validation mechanism for determining whether a business follows through on claims of sustainable business practices.
A section of Travelocity’s website is devoted entirely to green travel and promoting “voluntourism” by awarding eight $5k grants per year. Travel for Good provides a green hotel directory, as well as offering hybrid cars and carbon offsets.
This morning I read about a hotel that’s under construction. There’s an art museum going up around the corner, and the hotel is designed to complement it by displaying contemporary art in the rooms and common areas. Construction is partly financed by a local nonprofit focused on downtown revitalization. The husband-and-wife operators are excited — Steve Wilson, the husband, says, “We have a totally embracing experience where [people] walk into the hotel and they’re in the middle of an art gallery.”
Sounds cool, right?
Here are some more details: The hotel will have 120 rooms, going for roughly $190 per night. The husband-and-wife team are building this hotel (and two others) as extensions of their 21c Museum Hotel brand, which started in Louisville, Kentucky. The other two hotels are going up in Austin and Cincinnati; this hotel will be in Bentonville, Arkansas. Along with 21c and the local nonprofit, the third financier/owner will be the Walton family, founders of Wal-Mart. You can bet that most of the rooms will be booked by business travelers visiting Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters.
Still want to go?
I do. The late-night hotel bar conversations will be bizarre, with a chance of cute account exec from Atlanta. There’s the thrill of renting your own personal art gallery. You can be a voyeur to the flip side of People of Wal-Mart (and no, I’m not linking). Plus, Wal-Mart’s my guilty pleasure (sad but true).
But then there are the ethics and ideals that argue against such a splurge. Reconciling the $190 with my usual spending habits. The one-place-at-a-time trade-off: It’s Bentonville or a dream destination du jour. The rat-guilt of funneling my hard-saved travel dollars into the pockets of the Wal-Mart clan.
So this brings us to the main question (and thanks for hanging in there):
How many people use travel as an opportunity to get closer to their ideals — ideals that might get pushed in the direction of the back burner during normal “at home” making-a-living time — and, after having lived nearer to these ideals for as long as possible, can return to the grind with minimal psychological/ethical turmoil?
And how many people use travel as a pressure-release opportunity to indulge their vices? After having lived their ideal good-clean-hardworking-responsible-familyfriendly lifestyle for the bulk of the year, how many people hit the road and swill booze, smoke cigars, sunburn their bellies, roll dice, and all-around blow off steam in the name of sanity maintenance?
It’s hard to always travel one way or the other, although sometimes round these parts there’s a feeling that we should. If you catch yourself where you think you don’t belong, go easy on yourself. It’s probably just some sort of balancing act.
Photo by superbomba via Flickr.
Semi-related: Family travel: Holiday makers versus travelers
Hostels are nothing new to vagabonders. Not only do they tend to be significantly cheaper than hotels, homestays, and guest houses, but by their very nature, they offer a communal experience that can be a blessing when in a strange new place. Who among us hasn’t sat in common rooms with travelers from all over, trading stories and getting the scoop on the best local hole in the wall restaurant or bar with the cheapest beer?
But how do you find the right hostel in Bangladesh, Botswana, or Belize? Tripadvisor has some. Hostelworld.com and Hostels.com are both owned by Web Reservations International, and tend to only have affiliate hostels listed (24k and 31k respectively). A smaller UK-based site, Hostelbookers.com has 17k. However, the largest source for hostel information is hostelz.com, boasting almost 39k listings in 8,200 cities.
Started in 2002 by backpackers, for backpackers, they try to be comprehensive and unbiased, giving as much information about a given hostel as possible, including contact information, pictures, and reviews. In addition to their extensive database, they pride themselves on their “brutally honest ratings and reviews” by both anyone who wants to review a given hostel, and by a team of paid reviewers. Unlike reports of some other sites, they do not censor negative reviews.
In addition to the hostels themselves, another unique feature of hostelz is that they provide a simple forum for users to comment on destinations themselves. They can be as simple as “Hogsback is magical,” or more specific tips such as, “Do carry a swimsuit in Goa — it’s impossible to get a decent one in Indian stores.“
When you’re researching a trip, it’s not always easy to determine whether your tour operator or hotel cares about sustainable travel. And when you’re paying a middleman instead of giving your money straight to a business in your destination, you may not know how much of that money goes to the local communities.
Some tour operators know an area after traveling there for years, but if anyone knows an area or destination best, it’s the folks who live there. When I’m interested in taking a tour—even just for a short period of time—I usually try to find locally sourced groups first.
A U.K.-based website, PureTravel, partners with local experts and enthusiasts in locations throughout the world—so you know where your dollars are going. And booking direct can help you save money. In addition to organized tours, the company also lists hotels, lodges, villas and ranches for folks who would rather figure out what to do once they’re on site.
Some countries have more information listed than others, so it’s clear that the company is working to build its contacts, but it’s definitely worth a look. Because I recognize some of PureTravel’s partners and I appreciate the company’s goals about responsible tourism, I’m adding it to my travel bookmarks.
Do any of you have great sustainable travel resources? Share them in the comments section!
When spending months abroad, it’s important to remain flexible in considering lodging options. While hostels are a fairly typical way to stay someplace cheaply, and get the advantage of meeting fellow travelers, sometimes it might be nice to have a place of your own.
One alternative to hotels are sites like HomeAway which are vacation rentals by owner. Many of them offer weekly or monthly rates. For example, Casa De Imaginacion in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico can be rented for $30/day for a month. The site represents owners worldwide who are willing to rent their second homes. There are over 188,000 homes listed, and the distribution highlights their vacation focus; 51% in Europe, 40% in the US, 3% in the Caribbean. However, all the continents (except Antarctica) are represented. For example, take this bungalow on the Island of Samar in the Philippines, that can be rented for the same price.
Vacation rentals have a lot of advantages over hotels. For one thing, you get to deal with the owner directly, which is more personal. A good owner can be a great first contact in a new location, one who will point you towards points of interest, and tell you what to watch out for. Their homes tend to have character, there are often locals that are available for help, and the price tends to be cheaper for the same or better quality of lodging that you would get at a hotel.
A similar site owned by the same company, is VRBO.com. There is a significant overlap between the listings, as might be expected, but they are not exactly similar so it is a good idea to check both sites.
As always, some places cost more than $30/night, but it’s nice to dream. For 60€, I certainly wouldn’t mind spending the night in the Zen House, located in the medina of Marrakech with an open roof and an atrium housing 20 birds, despite the oddity of being a zen house in an Arabic city.
I read with interest a recent study by the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce, which rated the behavior of tourists from all the world’s industrialized countries. Consistently ranking last in the study — bottoming out in categories ranging from airline etiquette to podiatric hygiene — were travelers from Great Britain. “This settles it,” a TATTC spokesperson was quoted as saying. “The British are the worst tourists in the world.”
Actually, I’m just kidding. There is no such thing as the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce. I made it up just now, because I know that people like to obsess over international rankings, and I’ve been looking for a chance to poke fun at the British.
Mind you, I don’t really think the British are bad tourists. To the contrary, I’ve usually found travelers from the U.K. to be friendly, well read, and quite prolific in their wanderings. You can find Brits in all corners of the world, from Valparaiso to Vladivostok, and they most always make good travel companions.
The problem I have with the British, however, is that — to a bigger extent than other travelers I’ve met — they seem to be obsessed with stereotypes of national character.
I used to think that British travelers were just disproportionately gung-ho about bashing Americans (apparently, we’re noisy, over-religious, and we’re supposed to use a “u” when we spell “color”). Over time, however, I’ve discovered that Brits also hold strong preconceptions about nearly every nationality in the travel milieu, from the Swiss (officious and dull), to the Japanese (unimaginative and over-polite), to the Argentines (narcissistic and sex-obsessed).
In fact, were I to base my perceptions entirely on the basis of Britannic generalizations, I could very well conclude that the world’s worst tourists are roughly categorized as follows:
Before I go any further here, I will admit three things. First, I realize the circular logic inherent in making generalizations about the generalizations of British travelers (and I apologize if you happen to be one of those Brits who isn’t a nationalistic busybody). Second, I realize that half the readers who’ve stumbled across my column this week have skipped straight from the headline to the above list, and are now typing angry things in the comments section below (especially if they happen to be American, French, German, Israeli, or Canadian). And, third, I’ll concede that the British fixation with national character reveals an impressive knack for world geography (in contrast to us Americans, who associate “Vienna” less with a European city than with canned snack sausages).
Were I a more meticulous analyst, I might posit that this British tendency is the cultural residue of Victorian-era self-superiority (vivid examples of which can be found in most any 19th century British travel guidebook, one of which described Valencian Spaniards as “perfidious, vindictive, sullen, mistrustful, fickle, treacherous, smooth, empty of all good, snarling and biting like hyenas, and smiling as they murder”). Since I’m no scholar, however, I’ll just point out that the British affinity for stereotyping their fellow wanderers is a mostly harmless amplification of what all travelers do from time to time.
The problem here is that assessing your travel companions by nationality is rarely an earnest inquiry so much as it is a dull parlor game — an empty exercise in rhetorical one-upmanship. The worst travelers in the world are, after all, the rude, small-minded ones — and rude, small-minded travelers can hail from any nation.
Moreover, most hostel-lounge arguments about which countries export good or bad travelers fail to take in the local perspective. A few years ago, a survey conducted by international tourist offices found that the oft-disparaged Germans and Americans were rated most favorably by host communities around the world. This rating didn’t hinge on cultural or aesthetic opinions, but the simple fact that Germans and Americans spend money more generously than their tourist counterparts. Economic benefit, it would appear, was more important to local hosts than the common traveler obsessions with fashion, geopolitics, and collective behaviors in tacky backpacker nightclubs.
My point, then, is a simple one: The next time you find yourself in a heated argument over which nation produces the best or worst tourists, this is probably an indicator that you’ve been spending too much time yapping in hostel lounges and not enough time outside having engaged adventures.
And that, in its own way, means you’re a bad tourist.
1) Study up on the local culture.
Get to know something about a place before you go there. Read novels and travel books about the region, and study guidebooks to learn about customs, manners, and cultural norms. Learn a few phrases of the language (such as greetings, thank yous, numbers, and food terms). Keep in mind that culture expresses itself at an instinctive level — not an intellectual level — and that different standards of time, courtesy, and personal service may apply in far-off lands.
2) Listen, and ask questions.
On the road, make it a habit to talk less and listen more. Travel is hardly the time to extol the virtues (or shortcomings) your home country; instead be curious about how people think in the place you’re visiting. Ask follow-up questions. Seek to maintain open-mindedness, which is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.
3) Avoid arguing politics.
Avoid political proselytizing, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you think you represent. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. If you really are liberal and enlightened (or conservative and informed) you will stop yammering about politics and learn something about the culture you’re visiting.
4) Avoid traveling in large groups.
If your sorority or church group or wiccan pilates club decides to travel to Paris or Quito or Bangkok as an eight-some, do everyone a favor and split into groups of two. This will make you less noisy, less self-enclosed, more approachable, and more open to what’s going on around you. If nobody wants to split off from the group with you, tackle the day solo. I guarantee that you will have more memorable adventures on your own than with a big group of travelers.
5) Give respect and you get respect.
Having rigid stereotypes about individuals you haven’t taken the time to know is silly in all contexts. As a representative of your own country, the best way to win respect is to show respect to everyone you meet. Odds are, your hosts will return the favor.