Responsible tourism in the USA

For all of the USA's ‘issues’, when you travel there you will be overwhelmed by the amount of active groups out there lobbying for change. They have a world renowned and exemplary history of activism, conservation and civil rights. So don’t judge a book by its cover - or an entire country by a few politicians. For all the things that you might consider wrong with the USA, you may be sure there is an organisation out there campaigning tirelessly to resolve it. With a lot of committed volunteers working round the clock to support it, and donors digging deep to finance it. That is as much a part of the US makeup as some of the other aspects we are sometimes quick to judge.

People & culture in the USA

American gun culture

It is hard not to be shocked as you drive through remote American desert towns and see gun shops, supermarkets with gun counters, and indeed gun fairs. Guns have long been part of the culture in the USA, emanating from the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which says that every American citizen has a right to keep and bear arms. Guns for hunting purposes are a different issue, but gun violence is a vast issue now too as we know too well from the regular news coverage of tragic events, caused by free and easy access to guns by anyone and everyone. Just to put it into perspective, four year old school children are now being given safety training to hide under desks and ‘act dead’ in some parts of the USA, so that they are prepared in the event of a gun attack.

Gun violence and access to arms is a complex issue in the USA but with gun violence deaths exceeding any other country of its size and wealth, the resolve to do something about it is growing in intensity. While others countries might look at the incredible rate of tragedies in the USA every year and despair, we need to appreciate that this is one of the most bitterly divisive issues in the country and in all likelihood it will, sadly, be years before it’s fixed. Until then, understand that there are many people across the United States that are standing up to be counted in the fight against gun violence.

What you can do
Apart from supporting the work of organisations like Amnesty International USA, which is insightful in highlighting the importance of fixing human rights abuses domestically as well as internationally, don’t be afraid to engage with Americans on your travels about such issues.
Richard Hanson, Managing Director of our leading US vacation supplier, Trek America:
“Don’t go to areas you’ve been advised not to because you’re too cool for school. The US has guns.”
Natalie Morawietz, co-founder of our supplier Infinite Adventures:
"One thing that annoys me is that Europeans come here and are quick to complain about Americans. The guns, the food, the obesity etc. But I try to tell people that America has a different culture and so like, other countries on your travels, you need to try and embrace that, talk to people and hear their arguments. You don’t have to agree with them, but you don’t have to be rude about it. Just give them a chance and hear their points of view, as you can learn something too."
We associate tribal culture more with Africa or Asia, but indigenous tribes of the USA play an important role in tourism too. The most politically correct terms for indigenous Indian people are Native American, American Indian or the full tribal name, such as Ute Indian. In addition, there are Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians many of whom are keen to engage in tourism and have their stories told. You can go into large shopping malls and find Native American jewellery, but the proceeds from these are not going to go directly to the communities. Rather incongruously, many casinos are now run by Native Americans, so this is a big earner. If you want to spend your money with these communities, but in a more ethical way, seek out their reservations, take a guided hike with someone from the local tribe if that is on offer, or take part in an educational workshop on site.

What you can do
Look into the people behind the place, the legacy behind the landscapes. Read up before you go, and find out if there is some way in which you can contribute to the indigenous cultures of the regions you are visiting, particularly around the national parks. In the past, many tribes were moved on from these lands, and allocated reservations nearby. The national parks will be on the tourist trail, but the reservations are often just as spectacular if you can manage to gain a guided tour by local guides. Some of our favourites are Ganondagan in New York State, Havasupai near the Grand Canyon and the Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Mesa Verde National Park. Colorado. Two superb books to take on your travels are: I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People by Steven Hirst, and American Indians and the National Parks by Robert H Keller and Michael F Turek.

Responsible tourism tips

Food waste is a huge issue in the USA and even though the health issues with overeating are well known, don’t be surprised to find portions that are twice the size of those you might get elsewhere in the world. All restaurants will ask you if you want it ‘boxed’ or to ‘take home’ which is how many Americans justify such large quantities. So it is good to be aware of that in advance of ordering a meal. Also, there is a slow, gentle movement against the podgy portions in the USA, with some restaurants more switched on to nutritional needs and swaying towards European style menus of smaller portions. One thing that tourists aren’t always prepared for is the cultural disparity and poverty in America, particularly in the Deep South where local communities are predominantly black and living in dire poverty. And yet, as we become more aware of community-led tourism in many African and Asian countries, for example, there seems to be little breakthrough in these towns which might enable tourism to help break the poverty cycle. Tourism still isn’t even on the radar in some of these communities, even compared with Native American communities many of which are starting to tap into tourism. Which is frustrating from a responsible tourist’s point of view. But let’s watch this space, and make it part of the conversation when you visit so that you can raise awareness in some small way. You must be 21 to drink alcohol in most of the USA and drinking in public is generally illegal. So no picnic pinots, or barbecue beers, unless it is in a privately owned space. It depends on the state, so always ask, but in Colorado, for example, if you are in a car, containers of alcohol which have been opened must be stored in the car’s boot, so your passengers can’t sip on a cider either. Marijuana is now legal in several states including Colorado, Maine and Nevada. If you want to partake, however, be warned. There are lots of conditions. You have to be 21 to buy, possess or consume it and consumption in public is illegal - and generally well enforced - so keep it in private or places that allow it. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so you cannot consume it on any federal land. So if you are found with cannabis in a national park or national forest you are in serious trouble. Whale watching is big business in Alaska, so make sure you seek out a responsible whale watching company if you are hoping to take part in this most exhilarating activity, which benefits local communities hugely. One that adheres to all the conservation must do’s, such as not going too close to whales. You can read more in our Whale watching travel guide. Whaling, i.e. the killing of whales for meat, is still legal in Alaska, carried out by nine different indigenous Alaskan communities, in keeping with cultural traditions. The whaling program is managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and allows the hunt of around 50 bowhead whales a year from a population of about 10,500 in Alaskan waters. They used to also hunt grey whales, but this was disallowed in 1996. Vacationing in the USA will, most likely take you into one of the superb national parks. But ensure to come prepared and don’t underestimate them. This is not just a walk in the park. These are wild areas, and some parts of the national parks are designated official wilderness areas. There is no food and no water in many parts, and so you need to bring everything you need. Never feed the wild animals, including birds. And always read the signs. They are not just there to protect the wildlife and ecosystems, but also to protect you. If you are entering bear country, keep all your food well contained at all times. If you are asked not to leave the trail, then don’t. It might be because of some fragile plant that has taken hundreds of years to grow just a few centimetres, but it might be because there is unstable ground which could result in serious injury. Air conditioning and ice machines are everywhere in the USA. Not only are they carbon criminals, but they also make hotel rooms noisy. Of course it is nice to have air con when temperatures are hitting the heights, but controlling it, or providing eco-friendly aircon, is still resisted. So ask them to turn it off when possible, and say no to ice in already cold drinks.
Richard Hanson, Managing Director of our supplier, Grand American Adventures:
“Never order the ‘large’ in an American restaurant! You won’t be able to finish it. And lots of places are starting to offer alternatives to disposable plastic cutlery now, such as bamboo.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: rayb777] [Gun control: Michael Saechang] [Tribal tourism: Kaibab National Forest]