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Is there a right way to spend money when traveling?

NYT: The idea of “responsible tourism” has taken hold in recent years, largely in the guise of eco-travel, in which environmental factors become central. But one stumbles into many other ethical issues when traveling.
/ Source: The New York Times

I’ve long considered myself a relatively generous person.

Here in Atlanta, I carry around McDonald’s gift cards for encounters with homeless men and women, build Habitat for Humanity houses and donate 3 to 5 percent of our family’s annual income to charity. In short, I’m logical about my giving on United States soil.

But when I travel to developing countries, all that logic disappears. The expanded power of a dollar, combined with what seems like infinite need, creates so many situations in which no answer seems appropriate. I find myself feeling like either a deep-pocketed patsy or a skinflint.

In Palmyra, Syria, I once refused to buy a $4 T-shirt from a child hawker, prompting his outraged query: “Why are Americans so cheap?” On the other end of the spectrum, at a roadside stand in rural India, I handed a man with a trained monkey the equivalent of $10, a ridiculous amount that would support his family (and the chimp) for days. And in Accra, Ghana, I was bargaining for a mask and thought the shopkeeper would burst into tears because I had no more cedis (he accepted my final offer of every bill I had).

Each situation left me wondering: did I do the right thing? Is there a “right” way to spend, tip and give money when traveling?

The idea of “responsible tourism” has taken hold in recent years, largely in the guise of eco-travel, in which environmental factors become central. But one stumbles into many other ethical issues when traveling. One of the most unavoidable — especially when in the developing world — is how to help. Some groups are making this easier, notes Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel in Washington. Many tour operators and hotels help travelers work with charities that improve life in local communities, connecting them with orphanages, farms or schools.

Other companies focus more on education and raising funds. Lindblad Expeditions, for example, which operates cruises to eco-sensitive destinations, has raised over $6.3 million for environmental partners like Galápagos National Park by soliciting passengers during trips (and offering credits for future travel). And a British nonprofit,, allows users to donate money to nonprofit organizations in the areas they have visited.

But what if you travel on your own? Are there ways to make your spending matter? How much should we tip the bellhop? How aggressively to bargain? When to give to panhandlers?

Repeatedly confounded by these questions, my wife, Joan, and I started to compile an informal rule book for what we call “econ-travel.” Rules are breakable, of course — and many of these have been — but by having them, I find myself less caught up in the decision-by-decision anguish of what to do.

1. Fix a daily or weekly budget. You may not be able to avoid feeling like a patsy or a skinflint, but a budget of how much to spend, tip or give will create a structure for your own sanity. The goal is to walk that tricky line between helping and having every encounter turn into a negotiation. You’ll never make everyone happy, but at least you’ll have a framework.

2. Overbuy gifts for yourself and others. This is our favorite method of economic development. It helps fuel employment (the most dignified form of money transfer) and it has the residual benefit of having something to bring back home. On a trip to India, we bought a gorgeous hand-woven rug in Jaipur, a piece that we were told took more than four months to make. As our guide, Ashok Verma, later told me in Varanasi, India: “Crafts are the best thing to buy; they have people’s dreams woven into them.”

3. Don’t bargain down price, bargain up quantity. Joan wanted to buy a set of colored stamps with bindi (Indian forehead dots) for her students (she teaches seventh grade). One hundred rupees, the vendor said. No, too expensive, she replied, following cultural norms of bargaining. The negotiation was on. Finally, Joan bought three sets for that same 100 rupees (about $2). The man got his price, she got more stamps. Ms. Honey urges travelers to stop bargaining before they are the only winner. “Let people earn a real wage,” she cautions.

4. Try to be more than a consumer. Local citizens “may be economically poor but they are often culturally rich,” says Harold Goodwin, professor of Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in England. So, engage in their culture by getting off the large bus and taking an interest in how they make their living. It’s O.K. to take photos of individuals who capture your interest — but only if you ask first and pay if requested, he adds. The rule is simple, Mr. Goodwin says: “Treat them as you would like to be treated.”

5. Let others earn a living by helping. In American airports and hotels I never get help with my luggage; wheeled bags roll, don’t they? But overseas, I’ve learned to relax and let someone else carry my suitcase. It’s a rational way for local residents to feed their families, and certain people have turned luggage-carrying into an art: when we were leaving the Varanasi train station, a man offered to carry our bags, then stacked both my and Joan’s roller suitcases on his head for our 200-yard walk.

6. Don’t give to panhandlers. Handouts send a multitude of wrong messages about dependency and the value of work. Plus, handouts encourage more begging, often by children (an awful alternative to school). Long-term change never starts with a quarter or even $10 stuck into someone else’s palm. Still, even Ms. Honey concedes she breaks down sometimes. “I tend to give to women and children because they are the most vulnerable.”

7. Instead, buy stuff on the street. The hawker’s life is a tough one, always a fight against weather, traffic and crime. So if you want to help, buy more than you usually might. Granted, I acted counter to this by not buying that T-shirt from the boy in Palmyra, but, as I think about it now, what would it have harmed if I had? Since then, I’ve purchased boiled eggs, bagged water, toys, even a novel. (I politely said no on the kitchen strainer.) Why not bolster that small-business spirit?

8. Sample local food. Tourists in the developing world often eat at a limited number of hotels or restaurants deemed safe by guidebooks. There’s logic to that, especially where food-borne illness is concerned. But you’d be missing out on part of the reason you travel in the first place.

“Buy food and beverages from local producers, taste the locally produced foods and enjoy this as part of your holiday experience,” Mr. Goodwin says. For instance, you haven’t really tasted a banana if you’ve never had one grown for immediate consumption (compared with ones modified for export and sold blemish-free in United States supermarkets). Peels help keep the fruit safe, as does boiling in the case of a cup of local tea. The winners are the farmers, who often are at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

This story, "Is there a right way to spend money when traveling?," originally appeared in the New York Times.