I’m guilty of this: Glancing at glossy social media posts of cheap hostels in developing parts of the world, getting roped in with photos of young and attractive Westerners with a drink or two. Booking a plane ticket, finding myself in a foreign country conversing only in English, frequenting businesses owned and operated by Westerners—stuck in a weird comfort zone. It happens in Koh Tao, Thailand to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. With locals made up of mostly communities of color, these party towns in developing countries are problematic because of the dynamics that arise. Lower prices for goods and services means that visitors can envelop themselves in a touristy bubble, shielded from the realities of the land they are visiting.
Our privilege is real.
We, The Privileged, drink to cheap prices and a stunning view. We, The Advantaged, take yoga classes and surf lessons from people who come from the same country as us. We, The Comparatively Wealthy, fatten the wallets of the foreigners at the cost of the locals who don’t have enough money to pay their own rising rents. We, The Entitled, make easy money as English teachers while we voraciously bargain with the corner fruit vendors. Of course, no one says anything. Governments, multi-million-dollar resort chains, and night clubs with heavy budgets are the beneficiaries. The marketing material that circulates across the world comes with an ethos of heavy consumerism. Then, a tourist gets robbed (it happened to me)—or worse—and people are shocked.
It makes sense, really. Our privilege is real. And the resentment it generates, especially in a developing country where the income gap between tourists and residents is high, can create a dark alienation. Police presence is heightened to protect the tourists, the inequality grows, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
“Clarissa, why aren’t you drinking?” the shirtless Australian with glossy eyes who was dazed and holding a beer said to me.
I was washing my hands in the outdoor sink at a party hostel in Útila, an idyllic island off the coast of Honduras, when he approached me. We had been in the same car over from Nicaragua and by happenstance ended up in the same hostel on the tiny island. The ocean was just steps away from us, and behind me was a fully stocked bar with beautiful, young Westerners from around the world. Mostly we had been exchanging pleasantries whenever we passed each other. He seemed nice. This time, he was clearly drunk.
“Because I don’t want to,” I said, and shrugged.
I had been in Central America for three months by that point and already had a fair amount to drink with my friends at the volunteer house I was staying at in Nicaragua. It was my week off and after spending three straight months with the same people in a house, I needed some sober reflection time. I booked a car and ferry ticket to Útila because I wanted to scuba dive and spend time in the ocean.
“Lame,” he said. “We’re on holiday!”
You’re on holiday, I thought to myself. This is just my life.
I had been a full-time nomadic writer for nearly a year. I was there to play, sure, but I was also there to write a couple of articles and work. Traveling to remote locations around the world and staying in hostels had become my life. And I found, quickly, that my life was spent in the company of vacationers who were adamant on squeezing the life out of each and every moment. In this world, nightly binge drinking is common and waking up hungover is the norm. The next day is spent on tours and light hikes. The cycle repeats itself, and it’s glorious and appropriate because it’s vacation time for most of these visitors.
But months in, I realized that I myself could not live that life each and every moment. I had to pace myself. I was not on vacation. I was living my life and had to support myself financially through writing. I could not drink and wake up hungover every day. I could not afford daily tours. And so I stopped participating simply because it was taking a toll on my mental health.
I noticed how my local friends—most of them tour guides—were dependent on tourists. Yet, the guides were treated as dispensable.
By simply shifting my lifestyle and making changes like waking up early and going to sleep before midnight, I naturally started spending more time with locals rather than tourists. Quickly, I became hypersensitive to the pitfalls of mostly Western-owned and operated party towns in developing countries. I noticed how my local friends—most of them tour guides—were dependent on tourists. Yet, the guides were treated as dispensable. Few people tipped them, and most people tried to bargain with them. Others refused to interact with them because it was too much trouble and instead opted for foreign-owned hospitality companies.
This creates an odd dynamic, where foreigners are interacting only with foreigners. It’s a party bubble, where the drinks and rent are cheaper because labor costs, compared to home, are nominal.
In Latin America, Útila has a reputation as one of the most inexpensive places to scuba dive. Approximately 85% of its economy is derived directly and indirectly from the dive industry. According to a 2015 study, the influx of Westerners has caused a drug problem—especially heroin and cocaine—with the main demand coming from tourists. “Drug culture and addiction often lead to crime in order to obtain money for the next fix, increasing crime rates is an influential social problem and also an important factor within the tourist industry,” the study states. This is just one example of the major impact that tourism, especially in places that are heavily promoted as party destinations, can have on a developing area.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against a week out heavily partying with friends at a faraway destination. The issue is the social-economic repercussions of these foreign party towns, which reverberate far beyond what the average tourist can see during their two-week vacation. Rent and housing prices increase for locals, who are subsequently pushed out of their homes. Resentment grows. Environmental stress builds at these idyllic locations.
We get to leave at the end of our trip. The locals do not.
Here are some tips for conscious tourists who want to break that cycle:
- Choose your destination carefully
Party towns grow at an unsustainable rate simply because there’s a high demand. People buy up prime real estate and developers swoop in. I’ve realized in my travels that with every major party town, there are a couple of nearby towns with the same views and not as much chaos. Do your research beforehand. Find friends or bloggers who have lived in that country for more than a couple of months.
- Learn the local language
Privilege is being able to go to another country and not be expected to know a word of their language. The best way to close the gap is to know or learn the local language. The Duolingo app is a great place to start. You don’t need to be able to hash out politics or go into deep conversations about philosophy; just being able to exchange basic pleasantries is better than not knowing anything at all. Communication is the most basic sign of respect, and it means something when you go to a different country and don’t expect them to understand your language without you trying to speak theirs.
- Prioritize locally owned businesses
Go for the locally owned hostels and hotels. Book with tour providers that are owned and managed by locals. It’s easy to get sucked into Western marketing because it’s more accessible and comfortable. But as much as possible, direct your vacation money to people who are from the place that you are visiting. Read reviews to get a sense of who is running the company or call to ask beforehand.
- Tip your local guide
And if it’s not possible to find a locally owned company, at the very least, tip your local tour guide. Tipping is not customary in many developing countries, and yet guides earn a minimal wage for their services and are at the mercy of seasonal fluctuations in work. Tipping them directly ensures that the money will go right into their pockets.
- Experience a homestay
One of the best forms of cultural exchange is staying at a local home. Airbnb allows this, and many language programs abroad have accommodation hookups. Homestays can help provide a deeper understanding of the locale, and this is how you can get recommendations for the best hidden gems.
There are some places where it’s harder to break out of the tourist cycle due to the sheer magnitude of the language barrier and logistics—it’s why knowing what you’ll get is one of the reasons why party cities remain so attractive. But you should make the attempt. When in Costa Rica, eat at a mom-and-pop restaurant, not an Italian-owned pasta shop. Go to the local farmers’ market instead of the fancy restaurant that’s on every top 5 list. Have a genuine conversation with the vendors on the beach. Try a salsa night at a local club if you’re in Latin America. The point of traveling is to have different experiences—and that doesn’t mean relying on travel guides to tell you what a good party is.