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Inclusion Matters When We Travel

Travel is one of the great joys of my life, and I am lucky enough to be able to travel internationally frequently, for work, for pleasure, and sometimes for both. Experiencing people, cultures, and environments different from our own can be life-changing, and I encourage others to take those opportunities when they can. Over the holiday season, I visited my family in Singapore, and decided to take my seven-year-old to various parts of Thailand while we were in the region.


I'm thinking about inclusive travel explicitly, particularly as this was the first trip I had to articulate and explain the fact that people live, eat and worship differently in different countries, to my seven-year-old. I explained why it's respectful to keep our voices down (something that doesn't come naturally to my American son) and learn to appreciate others' customs. And that the effort to adapt and learn was worth it over ignorance. (He agreed!)

Ruchika at the Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, Thailand.

Ruchika is an Indian, brown-skinned woman with short brown hair,

wearing an orange dress, red sandals and sunglasses.

In the three different cities I visited, I saw beautiful elephant keepsakes everywhere for sale. They’re the national animal of Thailand, and since elephants are also meaningful to my own spiritual tradition, I was excited to bring some home as gifts and souvenirs.


We were visiting Chiang Mai, when I came upon a store filled with gorgeous, colorful elephant statues. The fancy box around these keepsakes shared that proceeds went to elephant conservation. I was thinking of buying some, but I hesitated. My work in equity, inclusion, and justice has taught me to ensure that the decisions I make center the voices and interests of communities most negatively impacted by tourism when I travel.


And so, I wanted to make sure I was buying responsibly. I passed on making a purchase at that moment, hoping I’d find another opportunity to purchase some equally beautiful elephants. When I got back to the hotel and connected to the Wi-Fi, I looked up the organization that was selling these keepsakes, citing partnerships with huge hotel and lifestyle brands. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that all the founders were European people; not one person listed on the team identified as Thai. The organization did donate a percentage of proceeds to elephant conservation, as advertised, but I just couldn't look past the fact that no one who was actually Thai was involved in leadership.


To be clear: I support elephant conservation fully and enthusiastically. But the discovery about who owned the enterprise brought me some discomfort, and it sparked some reflection on my part. Although international travel can be so exploitative, is there a way to be responsible to those native to the country we are visiting? How do we show respect to a culture that may be different from our own? How can we ensure that our presence is beneficial, not detrimental?

Five elephants walking in a line in the river surrounding

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Invest in the local economy, intentionally


Tourism is extremely complicated. It can be beneficial economically, but that only works when travelers spend their money intentionally. As our society becomes more global, wealthy foreign investors are often encroaching on local economies, seeking to make money from afar, or as expats. If we want to make tourism mutually beneficial, we have to ask ourselves who our money is going to. Are we putting money back into the community, or are we making someone 10,000 miles away richer?


Ensuring that you’re spending responsibly is easier than it sounds, it just takes a little legwork - and intentionality.


For example, I was able to find the owners of the elephant keepsakes organization in under 10 minutes with a simple Google search. When I saw that no Thai people were part of the leadership team, I decided not to spend my money there.

You can repeat that process anywhere you seek to invest your money. We visited Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center run by esteemed Thai elephant rights activist, Saengduean Lek Chailert, the day after I encountered the shop with keepsakes. We had an absolutely incredible experience while contributing to elephant conservation, but we did it in a way that benefited those who call Thailand their home.

While many elephant “sanctuaries” in the area claim to benefit elephants, our wonderful guide at ENP told us anywhere that allows tourists to touch, feed, bathe and/or ride elephants does inflict some level of cruelty on these beautiful creatures, to make them compliant. ENP was the only place that only allowed visitors to observe elephants from afar. I also found beautiful elephant keepsakes made by the Thai staff who work there, and bought my elephant souvenirs from there instead of the fancy, European-owned enterprise I encountered the day before.


One of my "golden rules" of travel is to maximize choices that benefit local people wherever I go. (Side note: has a fantastic list of local businesses in many North American cities so you can spend your money…well, intentionally. I’ve relied on Intentionalist listings when making coffee, dining and other spending choices in Seattle and when traveling domestically).

On international travel, this can be as simple as getting your coffee from a local vendor instead of the Starbucks, or buying from a small local shop instead of a big-name department store. A discussion for another day is how in some white, European countries, local, handmade goods are considered artisanal luxury, while the same tradition in formerly-colonized countries and/or engaged in by artisans of color are considered "less than." Here's an article on World Economic Forum about this.


Some travelers are intimidated by small local businesses, especially when they don’t speak the language, but I've learned that the cost of letting my fear of not knowing how to communicate has robbed me of spectacular experiences. The best interactions I’ve had while traveling happened because I went off the beaten path, literally. Restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels run by those native to the area are among the most gracious people I’ve ever met. I also try to prioritize staying in locally-owned hotels when possible.

Passing by a Temple (Wat) in Bangkok, Thailand at sunset.

Respect above all else


The old proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is excellent advice for anyone seeking to be a more responsible and ethical traveler. I really try to notice–really notice by keeping my mouth shut and observing keenly-so I can attempt to best follow the customs of the place I'm visiting. You’re a guest in another's home, and it’s crucial to learn and respect the local customs and cultures of your destination.


Before you book your trip, take time to research local and national traditions, and follow them. Dress codes, especially in sacred or religious sites, are common all over the world, from Italy to the Maldives to Thailand. Breaking these rules is offensive, and in some countries, could result in hefty fines. Watch out for dress codes elsewhere as well. At the Parthenon, for instance, high heels are banned to avoid damaging the structure. Restrictions on certain foods - like alcohol, beef, or pork - are also common for religious or cultural reasons. Here's where self-awareness is key: if you feel that you will complain about or openly defy cultural norms, opt for a different destination. If, for example, if you prefer to consume alcohol to enjoy a vacation, it's deeply unfair to go to a country where alcohol is scarcely available and complain about it. Make a different choice. Sadly, I've encountered a number of western tourists who complain incessantly to me about dress codes, alcohol bans and/or other traditions. This is the very definition of a traveler that's not inclusive.


If you do arrive unprepared or unintentionally cause offense, the best remedy is an apology and changed behavior. Don’t push back: Listen without defensiveness, apologize sincerely, learn and adapt.

Further Resources


A little research goes a long way, so make sure you’re fully prepared before jetting off on vacation. Here are a few resources to get you started.



Travel is good for us individually and–engaged in responsibly–good for the global community, helping us to become more open, empathetic, tolerant, curious people. It can be beneficial for both the traveler and those whose home is being visited, as long as we remember to be respectable, inclusive and intentionally responsible guests.



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