You’re 22 years old. You were born and raised in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Your father doesn’t work. The war, the one you don’t really remember, left him in shambles. Physically, mentally. You don’t talk about it when tourists ask. Your family does really well in the summer, as does the rest of the city. Cruise ships come in daily, bringing smiling faces and open wallets. But you know better. Every dollar you make, you put half away for savings. Some days it’s so crowded you can’t hardly make it to your waitressing job on time, but no one is complaining. Because when winter rolls around, there is no money. Tourist season is over. But, the sun still rises, the sun still sets. You are still there. You almost forgot what hunger felt like.
Let’s talk about responsible tourism. Oh yeah, shit just got real. As a traveler, you probably hear that you are lucky or privileged to get to see the world. This is true in my lil space on the internet. I’m 100% on board with the fact that someone fought for the freedoms I enjoy. But we can do more than just appreciate the gifts we are given. We can pay it forward AND still enjoy ourselves in the process! Unfortunately, I am not talking about voluntourism (we’ll get into it later), which has distracted from the legitimate way of aiding a community. I’m talking about responsible tourism or consumer activism. This is simply the realization that we all have purchasing power, and if we do not use it for good, it will probably be used for evil. Animals and children are especially likely to be exploited for funds- which is why I was so ecstatic to stumble upon a legitimate elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
Wait, who the hell are you, again? I wish I could say I’m your average diehard vegan or only wear sustainable clothes. My interest in sustainable tourism comes from three amazing professors I had while getting a minor in Travel and Tourism from Florida International University. FIU is one of those institutions that gives a damn and it shows through the types of educators they employ. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed my classes, but figured it might be better if I just spread the knowledge. If you want to know more about my background and current pursuits, feel free to email me! Before we get into all the good stuff, let’s get to some terms that might be a little confusing for a traveler.
The Good: Ecotourism
Instead of wiping out natural flora and replacing with comforts of tourists homes, ecotourism focuses on the natural beauty of a destination. These ventures support the protection of natural habitats and educate visitors on how to enjoy the wildlife respectfully. Ecotourism has been gaining steady ground in the hospitality business for about 30 years. It is especially prevalent is areas with an abundant, diverse wildlife system, like Belize and Costa Rica. In the past few years, ecotourism has spread as the standard in many countries, with new leaders emerging yearly.
Even Better: Agrotourism
Agrotourism involves inviting visitors to an already established farm, vineyard, ranch, etc. to see the effort that goes into the local agricultural system. Why does it matter? Tourism has historically taken a destination and altered it to suit the needs of the visitor, like a McDonalds in Chiang Mai. Argotourism allows the community to continue living as they have for generations AND benefit economically from the influx of visitor. As a traveler, it’s wonderful because you have the opportunity to interact with the nationals of your destination and not only get to peek into a new profession, but try it out as well! One of my favorite travel experiences was participating in agrotourism in Bali via Luwak farms.
The Bad: Voluntourism.
It started innocently enough and has snowballed out of control. For the sake of this short intro to responsible tourism, we will consider voluntourism anything under a year and without a professional assignment (does NOT include teachers with no experience). A good example would be the orphanages in Bali and Cambodia. You can’t ignore the poverty around you, barefoot children begging for some change. You’d be coldhearted right? Unfortunately, Westerns looking to volunteer have created a market for orphans in Cambodia. These children are often coerced from their homes, sold by their parents, or rented for a few hours to rake in cash for the owners of the house. In parts of Africa, tourists are able to visit orphanages, take some pics, and move onto the next safari. Some even let unchecked volunteers play with the children. Could you imagine if a company tried to allow tourists to play with American children? People would legitimately shit themselves.
Check yourself. Are you really looking to create a change, and if so, do you realize the time it takes to sustain positive change? Three years is the minimum time I’ve been told thus far in my studies. Just because you are a native English speaker doesn’t mean you’ll be able to successfully teach a group of thirty Guatemalan children to speak English in a month when you don’t even speak a lick of Spanish. Have a little respect for education and the bonds you create/break with children.
The Ugly: Greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a marketing tactic that companies use, usually in travel, to promote their site as “green” without legitimate claims. This is usually accomplished by displaying flags or stickers with a “certification” that is either expired or an illegitimate company. This extra sucks because those who are actually doing a proper job of protecting the environment from tourism receive little trust in their motives.
One easy way to check this for hotels is via Tripadvisor’s Greenleaders initiative. They team up with legitimate certification schemes, like Green Globe. Green Globe’s International Standard for Sustainable Tourism was the first standard developed by and for the travel & tourism over 20 years ago. Just look for the little leaf in the corner of your tripadvisor page, or visit the leaders right here.
You don’t want me to volunteer, but you don’t want me to be a bitch. What do you want from me?
Let’s look at a lil somethin’ somethin’ called consumer activism.
It’s a lot more fun than it sounds! This is simply the realization that we all have purchasing power, and if we do not use it for good, it will probably be used for evil. Shopping local is one way to use your money for good. Making the effort to ensure your dollar goes to benefit the country you are visiting, not just foreign investors, will reduce developing countries dependency on outside aide and prevent extortion.
Let’s talk accommodation. I’m not against big hotel chains, necessarily. In America, they provide millions of people with jobs (the wage thing is another rant for another time). However, in many places, hotels will import workers instead of using locals. Or they will pay unfair wages in addition to unsteady or irregular hours. Or, they will prevent women from holding managerial positions. While studying sustainable tourism at Florida International University, my professor introduced us to the lovely Green Globe certification. Not only does this certification hold high standards for green behaviors, but also ranks participants based on the amount of locals, including women, that are hired by the hotel. Green Globe certified hotels are also to use fair-trade and locally delivered goods.
But what happens when I travel somewhere that Green Globe has not touched yet? This is where my airbnb love affair began. Not only are you (hopefully) supporting a local family by directly paying them for accommodation, but you are generally given a much more realistic experience of a neighborhood and thus a community. Responsible tourism via consumer activism is like helping the environment- we can all do something if we’re aware. Maybe you’ve heard that hotels throw away hundreds of millions of soaps and shampoo bottles a day. You could vow to only stay at hotels that follow the “clean the world” campaign. Even better, you could only stay at airbnb.
Over the next few months, I’ll go into more detail on how to be a responsible traveler, like standards of ethical photography (oh yeah, it matters). Don’t worry! Being a responsible traveler doesn’t keep you from having any fun. Do you really think I’d promote anything that doesn’t involve loving life? Since I’ve been more aware of how I spend my time and money while traveling, I’ve had much more intimate encounters and experiences. My hope is that through sharing my experiences and knowledge on responsible travel, my readers (I’m talking to you, sweet thing) will have a more genuine exploring experience.