It’s no secret: people of different color are treated differently when traveling. And while some bloggers focus on traveling while black or traveling as a minority or LGBT travel, the only time white people talk about traveling while white is to complain.
I’ll admit it, I may be a bit of a hypocrite here. I’ve bitched many times about how tiresome it is to pay over-inflated tourist prices at UNESCO sites or how every street jockey assumes that you want to buy drugs solely because of your pale skin. But no one ever talks about all the ways white travelers have it good.
Presenting the good, the bad and the ugly truths about traveling while white:
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Visas & Immigration
The Good What’s a visa? As a white traveler, the doors to most every country on earth are wide open to us. We just have to buy a plane ticket, arrive and say, “Hi, I’m here.” Pretty sweet, you have to admit.
The Bad Sometimes we get detained by immigration officials on our way out of less fortunate countries. Officials who may have a legitimate reason to hate our government/military/nation, or may just have a stick up their ass for any one of a hundred reasons. I’ve been detained at border crossings, thoroughly searched and taken into questioning at airports more times than I can count. Whether it’s because of the number of stamps or the countries those stamps are from, we constantly have to explain things like “why did you spend more than one year in Muslim countries?” Because we have the ability to go anywhere, we often get questioned as to why we went there. And unfortunately customs and immigration are not as found of the phrase “Because I can” as your friends are.
The Ugly The western world shapes politics and politics dictate visa policies. If you are a long-term traveler, at some point you most likely will be denied entry to a country solely because of something stupid one of your politicians did or said. Or because this nation is fighting with that nation and you just so happen to have their stamp already in your passport from a trip several years ago. This puts us in an awkward situation. Which side do we take? Do we offer fake compassion or feign ignorance?
Inflated Prices & All Things Money-Related
The Good As a white traveler, people just assume that you have money — this even extends to immigration offices. Ever been asked to provide bank documents or proof of income? Yeah, that’s what I thought. NEVER! Ever tried traveling with someone of a different color, or someone from a third world nation? The forms and questions never stop. You cannot begin to grasp what a privilege it is to travel white until you go through the process of trying to get your Filipino girlfriend an American tourist visa, or go through the hassle of trying to find a hotel room in a Muslim country because you are traveling with an unwed female.
The Bad Because I am traveling while white, people just assume that I have more money than those of a darker skin. Even when they are clearly dressed better and don’t reek of whiskey and/or weed. Apparently there have been too many rich white douchebag characters on TV and movies (and probably traveling as well) that this image has become accepted. Kind of like those 70-year-old men in Asia with wives who are barely 20. You don’t agree with it, but you see it so often, you just sort of come to accept it as a necessary evil.
The Ugly This one isn’t exclusive to white people. Depending upon where you are traveling, all foreigners regardless of color pay inflated prices. Whether it be for rickshaw rides in India or street food in Vietnam, not being from around town means you will pay more. Where white people have it worse is locals just assume all white people are rich. We’re not. They just assume our bank accounts limitless. They’re not. Sure, he may have a fancy watch on, but it was a gift from a relative. That iPad and laptop he carries around? Well they are for work, because even though you think he’s on vacation, in reality he is still hard at work. Oh wait, look, he’s staying in a $10 hostel. Would he be doing that if he could afford a $100 a night hotel room?
My Indonesian friend visited Kathmandu and when shopping for trekking pants was consistently quoted around 2,000 NPR ($20 USD) shop after shop. He eventually haggled it down to 1,400 and purchased them. I went to these same shops and prices for me started at 4,000 NPR — double what they quoted him. I tried haggling it down to 3,000 but they wouldn’t go for it, not one single shop. They were happier watching a white man walk out that door with his money than accepting twice the price of what a brown-skinned person paid just a few hours earlier.
Where I Draw The Line I’ve long since come to accept inflated fees for foreigners at UNESCO sites. After all, the maintenance and preservation has to be funded somehow. Foreign tourists make up the largest percentage of visitors, pay no locals taxes, and sometimes even stand the opportunity to profit from their visit (possibly in the form of selling photos). But I draw the line at sites with western entry prices and then a local price that applies not only to citizens of said country, but other nearby and neighboring countries as well. Those foreigners are still tourists yet just because their skin color matches the locals, they suffer no prejudice. And that right there is the definition of racism.
Safety & Security
The Good Immigration just waves you in, no questions asked. Ever taken a bus trip in Central America or Southeast Asia? At rest stops they kick all the locals off so that the driver can lock it and keep the bags safe. But if you’re white, they’ll let you stay in the bus and sleep because they automatically know you won’t steal anything.
Security at malls and on the metro and in hotels and even at border crossings just wave you through, whereas that local behind you gets the full treatment: x-ray the backpack, metal detector, full body pat-down — even extra questioning at certain places, such as expensive hotels or border inspections. On the flip side, this does make smuggling for white people much easier — as long as we’re not smuggling anything home, but rather to some other non-white country.
The Bad As a white person traveling in a non-white country, you are never technically 100% safe. There is always some local eyeing you and thinking “that rich bastard” even if they aren’t voicing it, or acting on those thoughts. Often we fail to remember that even this modest DSLR we have is worth more money then they will earn in an entire year. Then when you see that guy walking around with two DSLRs around his neck and one in his hand (I saw it again just yesterday) you start to realize why pickpockets and local criminals target white travelers over all others — particularly those who appear to be from one of the richer “white” countries.
Being halfway smart and using common sense will help avoid this, you’ll never truly not be a target. Hell, after 7 years as a nomad I was just robbed for my first time ever on the road — and it was in Nepal no less, one of the friendliest countries in the world!
The Ugly Because you are white, you’re right. At least in many countries. Ever get into an altercation with a local and have the local police show up? Unless they are in on the extortion, they are always on the side of tourists. After being hit on repeatedly by a drunken, gay, off-duty police officer in the Philippines, things got so heated the bartender called the police — and they took the drunk cop to jail. He tried to run too but was so drunk, he didn’t get far. Was quite entertaining too. However it gets even better: I sent a hooker (not mine, although I feel that I shouldn’t even have to say that) down to the police station to file the report for me while I stayed at the bar enjoying my beer. Welcome to Southeast Asia.
Where I Draw The Line It’s one thing to assume the foreigner is right. It’s another thing to arrest locals without just cause. Unfortunately around the world there are countries where local authorities have no problems arresting and even beating local citizens just based off something a white traveler says, rather than any actual proof or independent witness corroboration. Other times they will just lock up all the locals involved until the whole affair is sorted, as was the case after I was robbed in Nepal. They locked up my two Nepali friends, the same two who had initially called the police officer over.