The Importance of Sustainable Tourism

The Importance of Sustainable Tourism

Prayers at Boudhanath Stupa - Kathmandu, Nepal

Prayers at Boudhanath Stupa – Kathmandu, Nepal

Tourism can preserve and tourism can destroy. It can bring enormous advantages for local communities in terms of development and employment, but it can also lead to exploitation and loss of culture. Sustainable tourism seeks to maximise the benefits of tourism, whilst minimising the detriments.

When travelling I have made mistakes with regards to what is listed below, and it is possible I will do so again in the future. It is difficult to travel without an unblemished record, but at least be mindful of your actions and the consequences. Follow these simple suggestions and you will engage in a form of tourism that will be mutually beneficial for both you and the local people in the places that you are privileged to visit.

Use Local When Possible

As far as possible eat in locally owned restaurants, stay in locally owned accommodation, shop in locally owned retail outlets, and use locally based tour operators. This way it ensures that money stays within the local community instead of being syphoned off elsewhere.  Wherever you stay, eat, or tour with, check if they work to improve the community by paying their staff a fair wage and supporting initiatives to improve the lives of local people.

I love staying in luxurious star international hotels and resorts too and sometimes I want this extra level of luxury. However, it is not always possible to stay local – for example the only accommodation that provides the level of service you require may all be foreign owned. If you are staying in such a hotel that is foreign owned, I attempt to contribute to the local community by eating and shopping in external establishments, and using externally based tourism services. Also remember that luxury hotels and resorts can be locally owned, so you don’t need to compromise on luxury if you want to choose this option.

Show Respect At All Times

Respect comes in many forms, but the most obvious is to respect the culture, people and traditions of a place. Just because a village, town or city engages in practices and beliefs that are not the same as yours does not make it an inferior practice – it is just different. You may not agree with these practices and beliefs, but you need to respect them.

It is vital to respect dress codes when travelling. Exposing skin in many sections of the world is considered offensive, so observe what the local men and women are wearing and dress appropriately. Even though the temperature may be hot, it is not an excuse to walk around in shorts and t-shirt if the locals are covered from neck to foot.  If local women are wearing the face covering (burqa), it is acceptable for foreign female tourists to wear the head covering (hijab) instead.

Be especially aware of religious sensitivities. Males wearing hats in Western churches is deemed unacceptable, whilst in Ethiopian Orthodox churches, women should cover their heads and in important Sikh areas, all people should cover their heads. Removing shoes is standard in mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples but these rules vary greatly, so take advice from the locals. Certain important religious times require a greater degree of awareness, perhaps the most obvious is not eating or drinking in public during Ramadan in predominately Islamic countries – in some countries eating or drinking in public during Ramadan is illegal, whereas in other places it is socially unacceptable.

Alcohol is not widely consumed in a number of cultures, so do not try to replicate what may be considered acceptable alcohol consumption of your culture in a foreign land where such behaviour is considered inappropriate. Observe and talk to others if in doubt.

Embrace the Differences

Too many times I see places sacrifice their own culture to pander to the demands of tourists. Yes, it is good to have comforts when you travel, but why always eat in an internationally owned restaurant chain instead of eating local food in a locally owned restaurant? When people demand all the comforts of home – including types of food, entertainment and the like, you are diminishing the local culture. When taken to the extreme, certain tourism hotspots can become foreign enclaves that bear almost no relation to the rest of the country. This is a terrible situation and denies you the experience to explore and experience a foreign culture, and denies local people their own culture. The responsibility for this also lies with local business owners who sacrifice their culture for short term financial gain, but in the long term this is always a detriment. When travelling, don’t regularly demand or seek things that are foreign to the culture that you are visiting. Shun the similarities and embrace the differences.

Don’t Support Exploitation

A child approaches you in the street to sell you trinkets. Seems innocuous enough, but consider the following: Would this child be in school if they were not selling souvenirs? Would be this child be undertaking manual work on the family farm if they were not selling souvenirs? Would this child be playing with their friends if they were not selling souvenirs?  Who will receive the money you give – is it a family member or the head of a gang? Each situation must be judged independently, but it is important to consider these aspects before handing over your money.

Certain forms of tourism lend themselves more strongly to exploitation – such as orphanage tourism, where in many places, the children there are not orphans but are coerced or forced there for the financial benefit of unscrupulous operators. Adults can be exploited too, such as porters on mountains trekking – so undertake some research and ask questions before committing yourself to a specific service. These are just two examples of an issue that has far wider implications.

Be Respectful With Photography

In a number of societies, it is considered impolite and even offensive to photograph without consent.  Some cultures even believe that capturing their image will bring them bad luck.  My photographic rule is to always ask first if attempting an individual portrait or very small group (3 or 4) portrait.  Photographing a street scene is far less likely to cause offence to a person who is one amongst hundreds than shoving a camera close to their face and snapping away. You are most likely to feel uncomfortable if a stranger photographed you without your consent, thus the same applies when you are behind the viewfinder; it often makes others feel uncomfortable – so ask first.

Beware Of Voluntourism

Voluntourism (shortened from ‘volunteer tourism’) is a trend where people from usually Western countries head to third world countries to provide services for a period of time – this is usually work involved with children, animals or conservation. The more experience I have in travelling to different places where voluntourism occurs, the more I am against this practice. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, most of the money that is given to tour operators who offer voluntourism options does not go to the community. Look at the cost of living in the place you want to go and then look at the price you will pay – and it is obvious that there is a massive discrepancy – we could even be looking at 10 times the cost of living if not more. Where is that money going? An answer can be found by looking where these tour operators are based – someone in Europe perhaps? Given the high cost of wages, office rental and other operating expenses in Europe when compared to Zambia (for example), it should be obvious that a large portion of your money will go to supporting offices in foreign countries. Why not choose a voluntourism option based in the community instead where that money you are paying goes entirely into the local community.

Tied in with money is the issue of exploitation – and this particularly applies to children. Some of the worst examples of this occur in supposed orphanages. Investigative journalists have reported that in places such as Cambodia and Uganda, children are been removed from their families and placed in these orphanages to attract big money from foreigners who want to make an difference by participating in voluntourism. At best, these families are promised a very modest financial sum for the children to be taken to the orphanage. Journalists who have dug deeper into the running of these orphanages have found a large number of children have parents, uncles and aunts who they can live with – they are not orphans at all. So where does the money paid to these orphanages go? They are taken by the owners of the orphanage whilst conditions for these children barely improve – it is one of the world’s biggest travel scams.

A big issue I have with voluntourism is that when you undertake volunteer opportunities in third world countries you are taking away work opportunities from local people. Local people almost always have the skills to undertake a multitude of tasks, but what they lack are the opportunities. If you decide to volunteer in a place, you are denying an opportunity to someone who has the skills and who would like to work to earn money for themselves and their family. Almost every volunteering job you do will take away a job from a local person. The only times this does not apply is if you bring in a set of advanced skills that could not be found in the local community (this could be medical, scientific or other technology). However, the vast majority of voluntourism does not cater to these high level skills.  Furthermore, the amount of money someone will pay for a week of voluntourism could employ at least one local person to do the same job for a year. If you really want to help a community, where is your money better spent?

Another major issue I have with voluntourism is that it perpetuates the myth that people of colour need help from white people. It is a paternalistic approach that is sadly common amongst a number of NGOs. Look through all of the voluntourism options that a company offers – how many of these occur in non-white countries? Most likely it  is the overwhelming majority. I’ve been based in Kenya for more than 3 years and have spent another 12 months in different parts of the continent. When I talk with local people, the almost unanimous opinion given to me is that Africans don’t want white people to view their continent as an NGO wasteland. The belief that white volunteers from Europe, North America and Australia come to Africa to ‘save’ local people is largely viewed with disdain. What people of Africa want is not saving, but understanding. This goes further when I’ve heard (and on numerous occasions) from Kenyans that ‘The people who benefit from charities are the people who work for them, and not the local people they are trying to help.’ Listen to what these local voices are saying, do not rely on the voluntourism operator to provide this information – they have a financial interest in you booking with them.

It is possible to find genuine volunteer tourism opportunities – but these are hard to source. If you do want to undertake work in this area, let the following three questions be your guide:

  • Is the money you are paying for this volunteer opportunity reasonable when compared to the cost of living within that local community?
  • Is the volunteer organisation driven by local community support and wholly based within the local community or in neighbouring communities?
  • Are the volunteering options being offered specialised tasks that members of the local community are unable to provide?

If the answer to all these three questions is ‘yes’, then you are likely to have found yourself a volunteer opportunity that deserves your support. If the answer to any of these questions (particularly the last two) is ‘no’ – look elsewhere.

Read more: How To Improve The Travel Experience