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Commitment to Sustainable Tourism

Most of my travels are off-the-beaten-track destinations where the effect of mass tourism has not yet destroyed the local way of life. However, when I return to some of these places several years later, I’m often shocked by the effects of irresponsible tourism – caused by tourists, local retailers, and developers. (Click link above to see photos).

elephant riding ThailandMost of my travels are off-the-beaten-track destinations where the effect of mass tourism has not yet destroyed the local way of life. However, when I return to some of these places several years later, I’m often shocked by the effects of irresponsible tourism – caused by tourists, local retailers, and developers.

One of these places is Myanmar which just recently opened up for “mass tourism” and as we are seeing an increase in the number of tourist arrivals, we as travellers, and tour operators must consider the possible impact of these new arrivals on local communities. It raises the importance of creating and maintaining sustainable tourism to the benefit of everybody involved.

What we understand with “sustainable tourism”.

Let’s agree with the definition by the World Commission on Environment and Development that sustainable tourism means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,”. The World Tourism Organisation goes a step further to explain it as the “management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.”

Sustainable tourism should benefit everyone involved and not just one-half of the equation. Therefore, tourism should not be a one-way street, but everyone involved in tourism, directly or indirectly, should benefit from it in – one way or another.

We often hear the words “eco-friendly” and “eco-tourism”. Not only has this term been abused and over-used due to the marketing power behind the term “eco”, but the term is also mainly focused on the environment and its protection for the next tourist behind us. We fully support the notion that our commitment to sustainable tourism also includes current and future needs of the local community, their culture and traditions, way of life, economic welfare and their personal development.

The “three-pillars” approach

Let us support the “three pillars” of sustainable tourism, namely Environmental Sustainability, Economic Sustainability, and Socio-Cultural Sustainability.

Everything we do will have an important role in any, or all, of these three pillars. We have choices on how to spend our tourist money, where to spend it, and to make sure our money is used to support the three pillars of sustainable tourism. It’s all about making wise and informed choices to bring about positive changes to the places we travel.

Here are a few initiatives which we as travellers should support to create and maintain sustainable tourism wherever we go.  Please think about each item and how the choices we make can have an effect on the local people:

A) Environmental Sustainability
The objective here is to protect the environment. Think about “green tourism” and “eco-friendly” tourism.

  • When snorkelling or scuba diving, don’t touch or step on the corals or unnecessarily stir up sediment as it damages the reef’s fragile ecosystem.
  • When hiking, stay on the marked trails to avoid harming the native fauna and flora.
  • When hiking, bring along a small reusable bag and pick up any trash we spot along our hike. If nobody picks up the trash, then let us hikers pick it up and stop passing the bucket to someone behind us.
  • When doing grocery shopping, be an example to the shoppers around us and bring along a reusable bag for our purchases. Plastic bags are so harmful to the environment and should be phased out.
  • Travel with small group tour operators as they tend to have less of an environmental impact.
  • Insist on visiting wild animals in their natural habitat or in well-managed animal sanctuaries rather than visiting animal parks where tamed wild animals are used for tourist entertainment such as playing football in front of a paying crowd. Never go on elephant rides. Never!
  • Avoid any wildlife tours that promise close encounters or hands-on encounters with animals. Choose tour operators that don’t disturb wildlife. This means: Do not ride on elephants, do not get in the enclosures of tigers to walk and pat them.
  • Never feed wildlife for any reason. Feeding wild animals make them habituated to, and reliant, on humans and may lead to attacks and likely the subsequent putting down of the animal.
  • Keep a respectful distance from wildlife. If you are close enough to attract a wild animal’s attention then it means you are way too close.
  • Don’t buy anything made from endangered plants or animals, and that includes buying anything made of unsustainable hardwood forests and ancient artefacts.
  • Do not buy souvenir photos from anyone exploiting wildlife such as performing bears or elephants. Never have your photo taken by someone with a performing monkey or snake or any wild animal. Never support anyone using these animals as a means of income.

When you come across domestic animals such as dogs, pigs, goats, cows, anything, that are obviously being abused or neglected, don’t just turn a blind eye. Try to make a positive change by reporting it to your tour guide and ask him to talk to the owner. Contact the local animal welfare office or the village chief.

B) Economic Sustainability
The objective is to make wise decisions about how our tourist money is spent to ensure its benefits are spread across local communities rather than to only benefit large hotel chains or even out-of-country suppliers.

  • Try to spread the economic benefits of your travel money as much as possible. Avoid staying only in one place, spending all your money in one resort, participating only in pre-organised tours, and paying for everything before reaching the destination country. Doing this means that much of our economic benefits go into the pockets of just a few beneficiaries. Stay at different types of accommodations, eat at local restaurants rather than at expensive hotels.
  • When selecting accommodation, show preference to local hotels and guesthouses rather than international hotel chains which take profits out of the country with little economic benefits to the local community. This includes avoiding “all-inclusive” packages with foreign-owned chain hotels. Spend your money locally with locally owned accommodation and local restaurants.
  • Get off the beaten tracks and away from tourist crowds to help to spread the economic benefit of tourism to places that get less than the tourist hotspots.
  • Show preference to locally produced products that support the local communities. Whether you buy food, clothing, souvenirs, or arts and crafts – buy locally produced products rather than imports.
  • Support indigenous artisans and try to buy directly from these artists to help them support their families and it helps to preserve their culture.
  • Carefully select tour operators who give back to the local communities, who hire local guides and take a leading role in preserving the area’s natural resources and cultural heritage.
  • Give more than you take from the local communities you visit and take photos of. This can include signing up for volunteer work, sharing your culture, sharing your tourist money, and just sharing your good heart and respectful behaviour.

C) Socio-Cultural Sustainability
Tourism can have a profound impact on local culture and lifestyles. The objective is to leave only positive influences on the local people with little, or no change, to their way of life.

  • Don’t support any businesses who solely cater to tourists (in particular foreign tourists) as over time such businesses will take over the retail landscape of the local community and have a significant impact on the local community.
  • Support local artists and do not buy from vendors who peddle tacky souvenirs made in foreign countries.
  • Support restaurants who prepare local cuisines rather than those who offer foreign food that some tourists may prefer.
  • Be open minded and foster a more engaging travel experience by respecting the local cultures and traditions regardless of how different they may be from what you are used to. Embrace our differences so you encourage others to hold on to what makes them unique.
  • Before you arrive, do a little research on the local customs and traditions so that you can talk and behave appropriately. It also helps to learn a few local phrases so you can show your interest in the local language.
  • Be very discreet when taking photos of people. If you are taking a close-up portrait, politely ask for permission before taking a photo.
  • Have no boundaries to immerse yourself in the local cultures. Part of the travel experience is getting an opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and experience different foods, different music, and different cultures. Never openly show disapproval.

None of the above is difficult to comply with and we know most travellers will have no issues with following these objectives during their travels. The choices we make can have a significant impact on the local people today, tomorrow, and in the long term. Let’s make smart choices and protect the local people and the environment while leaving a positive impact on everything and everybody were come across directly or indirectly.

We acknowledge the following sources and encourage further reading: