Eco lodges and sustainable resorts are popping up around the world and while these developments are hopeful, it is important to remember that sustainability encompasses both the natural and cultural aspects of a place.
Over the past years I have visited over 15 countries, studied three languages and taken courses to learn about tourism and culture. Obviously, I love to travel. Traveling has forced me to learn more about myself than I ever could have hoped for or anticipated. These experiences have also allowed me to see and understand new and exciting things but somewhere amidst these foreign countries, I became acutely aware of some of the complications that come with tourism. The tourism industry can either help or harm a culture and its environment and sometimes the opportunities for broadening our worlds and minds come at the expense of others. Sustainability is a popular buzzword in many industries and the tourism industry is no exception. Eco lodges and sustainable resorts are popping up around the world and while these developments are hopeful, it is important to remember that sustainability encompasses both the natural and cultural aspects of a place.
I entered my early journeys with arguments that tourism could bolster the local economy of vacation destinations and help with development in these places. Recently traveling in New Zealand, my family and I embarked on a backpacking trip on the Hump Ridge Track, a community based project in Southern Fiordland. This trail, or “track” in New Zealand, was built by the local community of Tuatapere to save the town’s failing economy. As explained by the track’s website, the Hump Ridge Track strives to support local businesses, promote the history of the area and uphold strong proactive approaches to the natural conservation of the area.
Unfortunately, not all tourist organizations have cultural and natural sustainability as their primary motive. Many resorts in popular vacation destinations feed the wallets of foreign owners and investors while those who live next door are occasionally offered only the lowest paying jobs. Even more disconcertingly, some organizations with claims of helping local communities or providing educational experiences actually cause more harm than good when the effects of bringing hoards tourists into the area aren’t thoroughly researched.
Over the past year, I have had ongoing internal battles with attempts to balance my love for travel with a nagging feeling that tourism is a harmful practice. Many of my experiences spotlighted the horrible displacement, poverty and social segregation that tourism can unintentionally exacerbate. My studies have also led to my disenchantment with many seemingly helpful organizations that in reality do close to nothing (at best) for the very communities they claim to aid. As someone who hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible, this insight has caused me to genuinely question my own ethics and values over the past year. I certainly do not want to participate in something that is in the end more harmful than good.
I still love to travel. At the same time, I think that if tourism is to be a helpful industry, it has to be filled with responsible and educated tourists. It has taken me time and periods of cynicism to return to my hopeful outlook on tourism, but I will continue to embrace this optimistic view when entering the new year. It is not tourism itself that is harmful but the way some approach it. For 2014 (and beyond) I resolve to continue my quest to become a responsible tourist. While there are many complications that accompany various forms of tourism, I will start by educating myself about my destinations and how the travel organizations I use impact others.