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How to Travel Ethically in China

How to Travel Ethically in China

Written by Candice SongUpdated Feb. 1, 2023
Miao people in Guizhou ProvinceMiao people in Guizhou Province

China is a great and grand country with extreme divides in all aspects, especially culturally, economically, environmentally, and politically. And as tourism continues to grow at an exponential rate, it is important for every traveler to consider the impact they leave behind, and ensure that it is a positive one. While in China, we encourage everyone to travel ethically and with sensitivity to the local culture and people, and here are our tips for doing so.

Know where you are.

It is important to understand the context in which you step into as a traveler. Having some background of your destination will allow you to not only connect with residents, but will also be manifested as a sign of respect.

Therefore, before you arrive in China, it is recommended to have study up and have at least a basic understanding of what the country is all about. Read about the nation’s incredible history, influences, traditions, customs, people, politics, economy, and where it stands now in today’s world.

Having a basic understanding of your destination will help you better acclimate to the cultural landscape upon arrival, and residents you come across will really appreciate interacting with an educated traveler. Some reading or viewing would help:

As well, aim to learn a few key phrases in Mandarin (and Cantonese, if heading to the southern Canton region such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen) to greet and thank local people. Just a few words can go a long way in bridging cultural gaps and forming new connections.

Respect local customs, traditions, and values.

Yao people in Longji Terraced Fields, GuilinYao people in Longji Terraced Fields, Guilin

As goes for traveling anywhere in the world, it is important to acknowledge and respect local customs, traditions, and values. Even if you may disagree with some ideas or ways of behavior, think twice about criticizing and consider what may be accepted and ingrained norms in China.

For example, Chinese are used to speaking loudly in inside spaces, staring at foreigners, asking direct personal questions, maneuvering aggressively in lines or crowds, and more. However, more than likely, people do not mean any harm or offense, and it is simply that beliefs or behaviors may be different from what you are used to at home.

Feel free to share your own customs and traditions, but do not be too pushy on insisting on them. And at the end of the day, travel is all about learning new perspectives and ways of life!

Be respectful of individuals.

Yao people in Longji Terraced Fields, GuilinYao people in Longji Terraced Fields, Guilin

Photography is a major part of any trip — especially picturesque China! — and you will certainly be enchanted by the endless variety of unforgettable landscapes and details of local life. To travel ethically, be aware of respecting residents’ space and privacy by first asking if you may have permission to take a photo of them.

Additionally in rural areas, it is important to try to preserve the local cultures so do not insist on ideas or behaviors that may be uncomfortable for residents. Some of these include crude humor and overly critical opinions on Chinese politics, and public displays of affection and wasting food at meals.

Consume consciously.

Traveling can lead to as much conspicuous consumption as you want. One of the most important ways to be ethical while traveling in China is to be aware of what you are buying. There are countless variations of great works of art to be seen and purchased, but historically some of these have been created at the expense of rare and exotic animals.

Avoid Endangered Animal Products

For example, avoid engaging or benefiting anything using elephant ivory; skins or organs from tigers, rhinoceroses, or leopards; or items made of panda, sea turtles, sharks, Tibetan antelopes, and more.

Many Chinese believe that these ingredients are more beautiful or, in the case of Chinese medicine, more potent and effective than synthetic or more common resources. Not only is it incredibly unethical to purchase and use these products, it is also illegal in almost any capacity including consumption and exportation.

Mind Your Environmental Footprint

Although you may want to indulge on your vacation, it is important to mind your footprint on the environment and social levels as you explore China. Keep your use of resources such as water, electricity, and general waste to a minimum by being aware of your consumption and aim for alternatives.

For example, take only as long of a shower as you need, avoid baths, turn off the lights whenever you leave a room, use reusable bags rather than plastic bags while shopping, and avoiding foods or meals which come with unnecessary or excessive packaging.

Choose Locally-Sensitive Tour Providers

When consuming experiences, we recommend only using organizations and companies with fair practices. China Highlights, for example, is a company that is adamantly focused on working with Chinese businesses and individuals such as local guides. Purchasing products made with fair labor, and visiting nature reserves, animal sanctuaries, and events arranged by local organizations or charities are all great ways to preserve the environment and the dignity of individuals when you are on your China trip.

Haggle fairly.

When shopping in Chinese markets or shops, it is well known that haggling is part of the overall experience! However, be sure to approach haggling in a friendly manner and with respect to an understanding of Chinese economics.

That is, what may ultimately be a small RMB difference to you may be significant for the vendor. It is thus helpful to have an idea of the realistic price of a product or service ahead of time, and to also decide on the maximum price you would be willing to pay even after haggling.

Also, some vendors and shops may practice a no-bargaining policy.

Keep it local.

Rice in the bambooRice in the bamboo, a typical food of Yao people

In a country with such economic extremes, it is important to be conscious of where your travel expenses go. By spending on products and services that are made and delivered locally or otherwise within China, you better ensure that gains stay with residents and not international companies.

Lean towards purchasing local products rather than imported equivalents. Local economies benefit immensely from the money you spend at local restaurants, shops and boutiques, hotels, markets and supermarkets, transportation, guide and other customer services, entertainment artists and venues, and more. China Highlights tackles this issue by working closely with local restaurants, businesses, and give back to community groups.

And while internationally printed guidebooks may be a good place to start your research and give you basic knowledge of China, once you are on the ground, we encourage the use of local guides who have the best detailed insights about their home to offer visitors.

Supporting the country and its people in these ways are one of the most direct ways you can give back on your trip to China.

Why You Should Travel with China Highlights

China Highlights believes in responsible, conscious, and ethical travel within China. We work with the top expert local guides, go to authentic Chinese restaurants, and partner with Chinese-owned businesses as ways of giving back directly to local economies. We pay our vendors and operators fairly and uphold the highest levels of integrity and quality between all parties.

Also, we believe in being ethical with our travelers. Your itineraries are completely transparent with all information provided such as flight details, guide names, clear destination routes, and never take you to a place to make a sale or earn commission. And in the case that you are unsatisfied after your trip, we work closely with you to fix any problems to the best of our abilities to ensure that you only have the best China experience possible.

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