The ugly side of tourism and how you can make the difference

In recent decades the world has seen tourism’s effects, both good and bad, on remote villages, beach destinations, and cities around the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in 2017 there were 1.323 billion international tourists arrivals worldwide, with a growth of 6.8% from 2016. In recent decades the desire for greater good, social and environmental sustainability has entered the mainstream with tourists wanting experiences that are authentic, unique and make a positive impact. However, with a rise in sustainable tourism, organizations and regulations are popping up in hopes to protect the environmental integrity, social justice, and economic development. We have also seen new modes of tourism come into popular public conscious. Terms like: responsible, sustainable, eco, ethical, green, volunteer, etc. have become a trend in travel, creating an enlightened sense of responsibility while abroad.

With international tourism on the rise, continuous strain and foreign influence are being thrust upon fragile habitats and indigenous cultures. Public conscious has seen a rise in awareness of the impacts of mass tourism as it relates to global warming, ethnocentrism and mass tourism. As a result, public disapproval and open discussions have lead to a shift in the way we travel.

Greater access to the internet has given young travelers access to the world at their fingertips. Travel blogs and social media accounts have become younger generations TripAdvisor. The classic vacation destinations are no longer doing the trick. This new generation of travelers wants to explore off the beaten path where Instagram pictures are plenty and the US dollar stretches further. As a result, gems like Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, and Coral Island, Australia have seen a massive rise in foreign visitors and are being overdeveloped. Environmental and social pollution are on the rise due to unsustainable tourism practices, begging the question of what it means to be a responsible traveler.

Ethnocentrism has also played a role in the way we experience countries different from our own, possibly playing a destructive role in how we approach creating and running organizations to help those “in need”.

Although created with good intentions and many creating positive changes in the communities they serve, are some organizations pushing their own values and priorities onto vulnerable groups? Giving resources, money or services that are not sustainable, helpful or even wanted? For a minority group in oppressive conditions, ethnocentrism enables the group to create and sustain an identity over extended periods of time. The downside of ethnocentrism is that it causes people from one ethnic group to look down on those who are from other ethnic groups. Simplified, ethnocentrism is when a visitor judges a destination based on a comparison to their own origin.

Part of the rise of tourism consciousness and ethical travel is being mindful of not only the communities´ culture, history, and circumstances, but also the ecosystem and the surrounding environment. However, travel companies around the world see new opportunity and are taking advantage of people’s willingness to spend more for the prospect of environmental protection. Being “green” has become the expectation from visitors who want to know their hotel stay or dining experience will have little impact on the surrounding environment.  

Nomadic Matt, a well known and respected travel writer explains that “eco-tourism is about not damaging the environment and providing education, [whereas] sustainable tourism is about living and growing with the environment and the local cultures”.

As a responsible traveler, it’s important to be aware of the negative effects of tourism, however, it’s also valuable to recognize the positive. Communities are able to generate larger incomes, artisans have access to a more diverse economy and local residents have the opportunity to improve the perspective of the wider population. 

At Maya Traditions, we see the value in empowering women, communities, and families. In ensuring they are paid a fair wage for their time and work, providing programs to give artisan partners’ children continued education and giving the communities resources through health education, medicinal gardens, and workshops. Each of Maya Traditions’ programs strives to meet values of responsible, sustainable, ethical travel.

With all the pollution, artisan craft plagiarism, corrupt corporations, and inequality in pay, how can we make the difference? The good news is that we can take part in positive change because the continued success of the tourism industry depends on the health of the destination.

You have the power to make a positive impact on the travel industry, destinations, environment, indigenous cultures, and the local economy. Take the below tips into consideration when planning your next adventure.

  1. Pack light. It’s not always necessary to purchase the latest in travel gear. Don’t buy new items for a trip just for consumerism’s sake.
  2. Research. Ask the bigger questions when  booking a room or local tour. What steps has the property taken to be “green”, is the tour operator local or from a larger cooperation? How much does the company charge? In these scenarios, less isn’t always worth it. If a tour company charges a bit more than others, it’s more likely they are paying their operators and partners a fair wage.
  3. Live as the locals do. Eat at local restaurants, stay at locally run B&Bs, buy directly from the farmer, artisan, family-run grocery store etc. All these best practices help to ensure that the money stays within the local community.
  4. Buy Fair Trade. Purchase items that are ethically produced rather than the $3 trinkets made abroad. Chat with the artisan or store owner and ask how it was crafted. Often times you’ll get a good story and know you are contributing to a local families quality of life.
  5. Be curious. Immerse yourself in the local culture. Visit the markets and small restaurants. Food is a great way to connect with others and learn more about the people and history. In all of the locations I have experienced, meeting and spending time with the locals has been the most valuable and memorable experience.
  6. Contribute your time to a greater good. Do some research. Just because an organization pops up at the top of your Google search doesn’t mean they are reputable or sustainable. Larger corporations can pay to have their name at the top while smaller nonprofits may not have the budget to compete. Be objective.
  7. Ask the larger questions. After the volunteer experience is over, what happens to the project, is it sustainable, is it of value to the locals, will you have taken a potentially well-paid job away from the locals? If the NGO makes a claim, is there evidence?
  8. Do you really want to visit that crocodile farm? Consider the well-being of the animal over the Instagram photo opportunities. The alligator you take a photo of (from a distance) may end up as a purse on the market.
  9. Show respect. Ask fellow travelers or Google what the do’s and don’ts are. Is it appropriate to shake hands, eat with only the right hand, or cover your shoulders? Make an effort to familiarize yourself with local customs, how to say help, please, thank you. As difficult and uncomfortable as it may be, there will be giggles and appreciation in return for you fumbling a few words.
  10. Just say no to straws. Minimize your waste by traveling prepared with your own reusable bag or backpack, carry a reusable water bottle, say no to plastic bags and straws and practice the 3 R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle.

It’s up to us to hold those in power responsible to follow through with promises of a more fair tourism industry that respects all genders and races, empowers others to sustain positive change, supports environmental protection, aims to keep tourism dollars in local communities and ensures that tour operators, artisans, restaurateurs, and shop owners receive fair pay for time worked. So at the end of the day, the question is: how do you make the difference?

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