2017 is the UN's 'International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development'. It’s an awkward title, but it has spurred an important conversation; there’s a lot more to be done to protect the countries and habitats that we love. Selective Asia’s regular writer Suzie, who grew up in a tourist destination (albeit not one quite as exciting as Asia) explores what it means to be a ‘good tourist’.
I’d hear these profound words muttered from the driving seat by my dad (under his breath, of course) at the holidaymakers who ambled - heedless of the traffic they obstructed - along the narrow lanes of our hometown, a popular tourist destination in sunny southern England.
Some might dismiss such grumbling as ingratitude. Visitors = income, right? But there are other local industries, and tourism is by no means a guaranteed cure for poverty. And if done carelessly, it can bring downsides along with whatever you might earn by flogging ice-cream and dinosaur fossils all summer. ‘DFLs’* can be condescending, thoughtless and destructive, and are not always gratefully received.
We can all recall bad tourism stories - sandy shorelines uglified by highrise hotels, special sites so overcrowded that nobody can see them, or drunken Brits swimming in your reservoir / falling in your canals / being inappropriately naked near your family.
Or those tourists who destroyed miles of your much-loved and beautiful SSSI landscape, because they didn’t think about what might happen when they dropped a burning cigarette butt into summer-dry vegetation.
Only I remember that one? Huh. There are issues that you only learn about by living in a tourist destination, or by working in the travel industry. For example, when local authorities give permission for new hotels to be built or converted, they do actually account for capacity management - i.e., can the local infrastructure handle the extra people that this development will bring? But they have less influence over the number of people arriving on cruise boats, say, or staying in holiday homes, or via peer-to-peer arrangements such as Air BnB. If a destination gets popular, lots of people see a chance to cash in, and overcrowding can quickly result.
Other issues are specific to particular locations - Cuba, for example, where a sudden tourist boom lead to restaurants buying up all the food, leaving little for locals to eat - or the recent emergence in Cambodia of orphanages whose ‘orphans’ have been left there by parents, who hope that some benevolent Westerner might adopt them and give them a better life. There are also countries whose government policies are far from ideal, or where shocking stories have recently emerged, raising the question of whether or not they should be visited at all.
Growing up in tourist destination made me wary of becoming a ‘bloody tourist’ myself. Much as I love to explore fresh landscapes, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being unwelcome - of making life unpleasant for my hosts, being part of a demand that ruins a beautiful place, or unwittingly giving income to cruel people.
But I do love to explore fresh landscapes, and I’m certain that doing so makes me better equipped to avoid being a cruel person myself. In this era of defensive thinking, the chance for open exchange seems ever more invaluable.
Abandoning tourism on ethical grounds is not very forward-thinking, anyway, as doing so will reduce the demand for tourism done right, leaving only demand from people who don’t think about how their actions might affect their hosts.
Obviously I’m expected to say this - I’m writing on behalf of a company with a keen focus on responsible travel. Perhaps some background will help: having started my career in the investor relations industry, I escaped during the 2007 financial crisis feeling very disillusioned by business, banking & marketing, due to what I’d seen behind the scenes. Selective Asia’s CEO Nick - one of my earliest freelance clients - provided the healing experience of seeing a business owner put substantial money where his mouth is in terms of doing right by people. My subsequent years of writing for his company have exposed me to many examples of considerate and responsible tourism.
Good tourism is designed to benefit communities, allow self-sustenance, bring useful work experience, and generate income for medicine, education, and clean water, in places where such things are still hard to come by, especially in rural areas.
(In Cambodia as of 2015, for example, the WHO reports that only 70% of the population had access to an improved water source - 'improved' means, roughly, that nobody is going to the toilet in the drinking water).
Good hotel developers are building or converting low-rise, thoughtfully designed properties which blend into the environment and make minimal demands on local resources. Conscientious entrepreneurs are working with local communities to make sure that new enterprise can be sustained by locals, for locals.
When asked to provide some standout examples of responsible tourism initiatives in Asia, the SA team pointed to places like Sri Lanka's Mud House, which Louise describes as 'committed to the principles of responsible, community-based tourism. The project creates as much local employment and benefit as possible and, through retaining largely traditional processes, remains deliberately labour intensive'.
Another oft-mentioned place is Cambodia's Song Saa, whose owners 'did a huge amount of work to ensure they made minimal impact on the sealife and coral reef'. Gemma said that 'as well as an eco-friendly policy behind the resort, and many local people being employed, they have set up the Song Saa Foundation, which feeds funds back into the local community and conservation projects'. Gemma used to work for the Six Senses group, whom she says are another example of a company whose 'ethics remain hugely focused on responsible, environmentally-friendly tourism', despite being a growing hotel brand.
Karl pointed to Kelimutu Lodge, part of the EcoLodges Indonesia group, who have a deep commitment to conserving the region's biodiversity, and put 70% of profits back into the company's eco-tourism development programmes. (For a longer list of examples, please get in touch).
Here are just nine key ways to be a good tourist. For more, visit Selective Asia’s responsible tourism guidelines page.
Accept that you are a tourist. You can call yourself a traveller, a visitor, a backpacker, a global citizen - you can pursue immersive authentic experiences in your unusual destination of choice - but you’re still a tourist.
Accept that being a tourist is fine. There’s sheer childlike joy in discovering new things and smells and scenery, and not yet understanding what’s going on around you - that’s the whole point of travel. But - whoever you are - you are contributing to demand for accommodation, food and water. You are stepping into the daily lives and lanes of the people whose country you visit. Deny it, and you risk being oblivious to your impact on those around you.
Treat the locals with respect. You’re in their home, and their landscape. What’s more, if you behave with respect, you’re far more likely to be treated respectfully in return. You might feel awkward about your linguistic skills, but even a smile and some eye-contact will make your travel experience infinitely better than keeping yourself in a bubble. All Selective Asia clients are given a travel pack with language, local etiquette and other social tips to help you get started, and have experienced local guides on hand to help you interact successfully and respectfully with the people you meet.
Choose locally owned, sustainably run accommodation wherever possible. We find this helps to avoid funding regimes you might disapprove of, be they juntas or consortiums. It also gives you a more immersive experience of the destination.
Look past ‘paradise’. There are a great many genuinely idyllic places in Asia, but a lot of tourist industry photos are taken when there are no people around. Visit a place to see what it’s really like - don’t support the mythology that holidays are about elevating yourself beyond everyone else.
Poverty is not a tourist attraction. It’s not quaint, or charming, or a simple life that we should yearn to return to - it’s a high risk of waterborne disease, teenage pregnancy, death in childbirth, lack of medicine, and poor education, all contributing to each other.
Children aren’t a tourist attraction. Imagine if tourists visiting Britain turned up at a children’s home to ‘view’ the kids, or invited unattended schoolkids for a meal at a restaurant? It’s painful to see or hear of children in poverty, but there are well-established, carefully regulated NGOs in place which invest in long-term ways to lift kids out of poverty for life. The best way you can help is by supporting them. Selective Asia can advise you of suitable organisations in your destination.
Travel during shoulder season. It can be a blessed relief when the tourists disappear over low season, but that’s largely because they’re often densely crowded into high season. It’s better when the numbers were spread more evenly throughout the year. Try travelling at shoulder season (ie just either side of peak). You’ll still get some good weather - in fact, a bit of rain often brings lusher countryside.
Make sure conservation projects are for real. Is the orang-utan orphanage a genuine conservation organisation, or just a petting zoo in disguise? Is the elephant sanctuary really looking after the elephants, or making them give rides to visitors? Selective Asia will only work with wildlife projects and elephant sanctuaries that genuinely have animal welfare at the core of their operation, and have created an approved list of elephant projects that they will recommend to clients. They do not sell visits to tiger sanctuaries, and only work with accredited wildlife conservation projects.
* DFLs = ‘Down From Londons’, a derogatory term used along the English south coast