As a frequent traveler, I find joy in interacting with locals and learning about their lives and cultures. Early on, I realized that many international destinations make a huge profit off of tourism, but the local people I talked with did not reap the benefits. Many of my fellow travelers are unaware of the effects of their their actions and behavior on the people and environment of these destinations, especially their spending behavior.
As travelers, we do not always see the real situation when we travel to exotic locales. Beyond the swanky resorts and colorful dance performances, the local people often do not benefit from our tourist dollars. However, tourism—when done right—has the potential to be a great source of cultural exchange and positive change in the world.
When Tourism Exploits Local Communities
Tourism has a much bigger impact on local people and their land than many travelers may realize. The traditional tourism industry often does a lot of damage to local communities, like increasing local property prices and the cost of goods and services while jobs are often seasonal and wages remain low. Profits from tourism end up going to huge international companies, like hotel chains and tour operators.
Human rights abuses are not uncommon in tourist destinations. Locals are often displaced from their land for big companies to build new hotels and can be banned from certain beaches, parks, or other areas that used to be their home or their farmland. Interaction with Western tourists can also lead to an erosion of traditional cultures and values.
Entire communities are at risk for exploitation when money changes hands from tourists to employers that pay locals below a living wage and offer unreasonable employment conditions. Because of this maltreatment, tourism can be perceived by local people as a new form of colonialism, where money and power is shifted from the local and regional communities and concentrates it in the hands of foreign-owned companies.
The tourist industry as a whole has a long way to go to be socially responsible, but there is huge untapped potential to use tourist dollars to lift up local and indigenous communities together, not bring them down or exploit them.
Fortunately, it is possible to travel without exploiting local workers and cultures, and with minimal environmental impact. Activities from tourism can threaten a region’s natural and cultural resources, like water, beaches and reefs, and heritage sites, because of overuse. It also causes increased pollution from traffic emissions, littering, and increased sewage production.
Not only can we lessen the negative impacts of the tourist industry, we can transform the industry to benefit local communities and make travel a mutually beneficial exchange of cultures, services, and goods.
Tourism has a great potential to bring about positive change in this world. When you make the effort to learn about how people really live in your vacation destination, and spend your money in the right ways, local communities are empowered by more economic freedom, and resources to help fight social and economic injustice in their communities, as well as protect their ancestral lands.
Conscious travel can be spiritually rewarding for both sides because people feel appreciated and valued, you make deep, long-lasting connections. Responsible tourism is about putting people, their livelihoods, and their land first.
Experience a Different Perspective
When you strive for socially responsible travel, you open yourself to the more authentic travel experiences that make travel so rewarding.
As travelers, we crave genuine interaction like meals with local families, bargaining at local markets, and making serendipitous connections with individuals. You have more opportunities to engage with people and see your destination in a different perspective. For example, by staying in a local homestay instead of a chain hotel, you become guests in someone’s house and are treated as such. You are invited to share in their culture, sharing a meal and conversation. By hiring a local guide, you can gain access to insider knowledge about places. We can learn so much more about the world by traveling this way.
Make Conscious Decisions When Traveling
Whether you travel independently or with a tour operator, for 3 weeks or 3 months, you can still make socially responsible decisions. Socially and environmentally responsible travel starts with mindfulness and respect. As travelers, we need to be more conscious of the reality of the lives of people in the vacation destinations around the globe. Make a commitment to respect the local culture. Immerse yourself in the culture and get to know how people really think. Before you leave, you can read books or travel blogs about the local cultures you will be interacting with. Learn a few words of their language. Ask your tour operator or hotel if there are useful gifts that you could pack for your hosts, local people, or schools before you arrive. Traveling with respect will earn you respect and open up the opportunity for dialogue.
Empower Local Communities by Supporting Local Economies
The tourism industry is often the biggest employer in tourist destinations but the money usually doesn’t get distributed evenly in the community. Tourism has great potential to lift up communities in these areas.The best way to help the countries we travel to is to invest in them. By channelling money into local communities, you can help to uplift impoverished and exploited communities in the developing world.
When you buy that hand-embroidered skirt from a local independent artisan, you are promoting self-reliance and economic development within those communities, that can grow exponentially. This economic self reliance helps local and indigenous communities preserve their cultural heritage by allowing them the economic freedom to keep living the way they have lived for hundreds of years, without resorting to exploitative employment.
Buy local produce or eat at locally-owned restaurants instead of buying imported goods. If you are hiring someone for their services, like guides and drivers, pay them a fair wage. Though it may be easy to bargain with locals for lower rates, especially in areas where competition is fierce, do not take advantage of the situation. Just because you can pay them less, doesn’t mean you should.
The same goes for buying souvenirs. Buy souvenirs from local artisan groups that are paid fair living wages for their work. If you would spend $50 on a homemade Etsy item, you can afford to pay a local artisan a similar price for their handicraft. The wealth disparity between Western tourists and locals is large and the exchange rates in developing countries always work in tourists’ favor. Remember that the extra dollar you’re bargaining over is worth much more to your local driver than its worth to you.
Reduce Your Footprint
Minimizing your environmental impact while traveling is also crucial for conscious travelers. Remember to be mindful of the local environment and how it should be respected. Often, the landscape is not just a home for local or indigenous people, it’s sacred and we need to treat it accordingly. Use public transport, or hire a bike or walk when possible. Slow travel is a great way to see things you normally wouldn’t see while reducing pollution and carbon emissions. At your hotel or homestay, use water sparingly. This resource is precious in many destinations, but it is usually the tourists who use much more of it than local people. When shopping, do not buy products made from endangered species, hard woods, or ancient artifacts. Be mindful when doing outdoor activities like camping, trekking, or skiing—our actions might have unintended consequences for the earth.
A very profitable industry has sprung out of ecotourism, but not every company can uphold its claims of being green. Travelers need to be aware of “greenwashing,” where a tour operator or hotel’s marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that their organization’s products, aims, or policies are environmentally friendly. To determine whether you are putting your money in the right hands, you can ask the organization a few important questions:
- Do they have a written policy regarding the environment and local people?
- Can they describe the contribution to conservation or local people that they are most proud of?
- How do they measure their contribution to conservation and local communities?
- How many local people do they employ, what percentage this is of the total, and are any in management positions?
- What percentage of produce and services are sourced from within 25km of the accommodation?
A More Equal Exchange
Being mindful as a traveler can enhance your travel experience as well as create positive changes in local communities. When we strive for mindfulness and respect above all else, our values change and our perception of the world changes—we see a destination through local’s eyes. The tourism industry has great potential to meet the needs of both tourists and local people and their land. By traveling consciously, both parties can come away with the mutual satisfaction that respectful intercultural and economic exchange brings.
Take the Journey of a Lifetime
Pachamama Journeys are purposeful, transformative travel immersions that go well beyond traditional eco-tourism or adventure travel. We journey at the request of our indigenous partners who invite us to visit and learn from their ancient cultures and pristine rainforest so that we may carry their wisdom and message home.
Photo via Visual Hunt