Did you know that over 27% of the earth’s reefs are gone— and not coming back? I haven’t even made it to the Great Barrier Reef! Being green while traveling is of the upmost importance, but, like a late-night infomercial, WAIT THERE’S MORE.
Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer, gives you insurmountable joy, becomes your anti-drug. If we think we’re going to keep having these surreal adventures, we’re going to have to take sustainable travel seriously. To be sustainable, we have to be able to explore without damaging the local culture, altering livelihoods, fueling inhumane markets, or destroying natural beauty.
There’s been a lot of negative comments regarding the state of Bali, a popular tourist destination. It is true that trash lines the beaches. It is true that no one seems to pick up after themselves.
But is it really fair to get every single thing you can out of a destination, and then claim it’s “not worth visiting”? I think not.
Would it be so terrible to do a beach clean-up in Bali? My home-town (St. Petersburg, FL) holds them all the time- it’s the only way it would stay clean. There is something inherently wrong with exploiting something then abandoning it, especially a priceless community.
But even more urgent than cleaning up our messes, we have to be more cautious of the demands we make. There is no way around it, tourism has led to an influx of fake orphanages and more orphans. If travelers hadn’t consistently requested orphanages to “help” (but mostly gawk) at impoverished children in foreign lands, they would not be on the rise.
I’ve mentioned once or twice that I’m a certified Green Globe Auditor. With U.N. beginnings, Green Globe has been providing sustainable travel certifications for complying tourism companies and their suppliers for 15 years. When a company desires a way to showcase their contribution to the community, we have to go in and evaluate on a 180 point scale. Starting with how the property was obtained, the amount of local employees, and women or minorities in management positions, the evaluation begins tame enough. However, if they continue passing inspection points, I have to ensure the property is sustainable economically, ecologically, and ethically.
One of the things we are to investigate is the likelihood of human trafficking (sex slaves) at the property.
Are there any young girls hanging around? Who stays more than a few nights? What is the relationship between that teen and the group of men she’s with? It never hurts to visit to local police station for information. What do I do if I have a hunch? What happens if I stumble upon something illegal that could put me in danger with local gangs? It’s part of the job.
That’s why active consumerism matters.
Especially places like Thailand, Amsterdam, or Brazil, it really is a matter of life and death for the most vulnerable populations. When I say vulnerable, please do not confuse with “weak.” These communities were thriving prior to Western intervention and can utilize the global market today, just as fully-developed countries do. The very act of financially supporting hotels who turn a blind eye to child raping and kidnapping helps these criminals continue their activities.
Last year, in Chiang Mai, I was eating tom yom across the street from a massage parlor. Two girls, probably between 15 and 25 years old, were sitting on the porch. We watched each other for a few minutes, until a white man, at least 60 years old, walks up and sits down with them. I see the girls tense up, and then put on their game faces. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I kept staring. One girl started writing on a piece of paper and handed it to the man. He shook his head, wrote something, and passed it back. While this was going on, my travel buddy suggested that they might just be deciding on a massage price. But all the prices were already posted outside for all to see. It just didn’t seem right. They passed the paper maybe three more times and then went upstairs. The girl who was left behind stared at me with a hollow look in her eyes that I will never forget.
This is heavy shit, but it’s real life. We can’t use a vacation or holiday as an excuse to ignore human rights atrocities.
One way we can add to the active consumer process is through bringing business to locally-owned accommodation, which can provide 3 times as much income for the local economy as a chain company.
This is essential in locations like Haiti, where over 70% of the country lives in poverty. AirBnB is generally an excellent, simple choice for attempting to stay locally. VRBO, Homeaway, and Tripping are alternative booking options when AirBnB is overbooked. You can also try house sitting or WOOFing, depending on how much outdoor activity you enjoy.
Remember the whole human trafficking thing? You can actually help support hotels that fight it by booking through TripAdvisors Green Leaders program or find one through Green Globe here.
Another reason why actively researching your accommodation matters- many properties are obtained unethically and illegally, and then block off ocean access for locals. One of the rights of humans is access to the sea for navigation and food. However, private property signs are popping up in places like Hawaii and Jamaica, where the people still live off of the land when possible. Jamaicans fought for 5 years to regain access to the popular local spot, Winnifrid Beach. I wonder how many other voiceless communities have lost their rights to foreign hotel developers.
Overall, being aware is the most important step to becoming an ethical traveler.
This isn’t a prescription, this is an active conversation that EVERYONE can add to. There are probably some wonderful things you already do without even realizing it, like packing your own shampoo or bringing a reusable water bottle. Every little bit truly helps. Let’s continue staying locally, learning from other’s mistakes, and being active in our consumerism. We got the power.