Saturday 27 February 2016

Eco-Tourism and Ethical/Responsible Travel – An Essential Combination

What is it about traveling that brings out the best in some and the worst in others? I'm not entirely sure but I've observed that the happiest, most relaxed of my guests (whether at the hotel or on a cruise ship) are those who come with the desire to immerse themselves in the experience. In most cases, these are the very same guests who have done research about our surroundings and our culture so that they are not surprised and they understand our basic customs and even our economies, just as we (the hosts if you will) have studied theirs. The result is mutual respect and the willingness and ability to learn from one another, enhancing everyone's time and experience. This, combined with a commitment to the environment and conservation, is central to the concept known as "ethical travel."

Anais Nin is credited with saying, “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” Responsible travelers not only seek, but touch, others in a conscious and special way. They leave behind a special footprint, not one that harms or impacts the environment, but one that leaves a lasting and positive impression on those around them.

Our world is changing. People are becoming increasingly aware of the need to preserve our planet’s assets. At home, recycling is often mandatory and has become automatic to many people. We turn off water and lights, unplug unused appliances and buy fuel efficient cars. Many of us buy from only vendors and manufacturers who have taken a positive approach to preserving and conserving the environment.

But, what about when we travel? Do we take these same considerations into account? For those who have an awareness of the environment and are part of the new wave of conscientious travelers the answer is a resounding "Yes."

There are various organizations that now specialize in travel for those people who are ecologically aware and committed to preserving our world both ecologically and culturally. The essence of conscientious eco-travel is traveling to a natural area, integrating into the local culture, conserving the environment, and improving the welfare of the local population. I’ve written before about the principles of ecotourism and my personal commitment to the environment. Read my article about Ecotourism at

Hand-in-hand with ecotourism goes ethical responsible travel. Because ecotourists, as an essential part of their experience, want to integrate the customs and people of the host country into their plans, they have to know how to deal with the people whose lands and homes they are visiting. Dealing with them consciously, fairly and with equanimity is what makes an ethical traveler distinctive.

Here are a few suggested guidelines for responsible travel – you will easily see how they integrate perfectly with ecotourism principles.

Research about the mores, taboos, cultural expectations and economic realities before you go.  Often, before traveling, we buy travel books or read on line about the sites we will see and activities we will do. Less often do we take the time to learn about the culture into which we are about to integrate. Travelers who learn before they arrive rather than as they go, have an enhanced visit. They will have some insight into the natives with whom they come in contact, have a basis of topics about which to communicate and, most of all, bridge, understand, anticipate and accept cultural and economic differences.

Learn a little of the local language.  While you don't need to be a linguist to make an impression when you are in a new culture, knowing a little of the language goes a long way toward engendering good will and breaking barriers.  On our Galapagos cruise ships and at my hotel, we have guests from around the world. While I speak English fluently, the crew does not (though they make a concerted effort to listen and learn). It means so much to them when a non-Spanish speaking guest tries a little Spanish or, better yet, admits their limitations and asks for help. It’s always appreciated if you can say “hello” “please” and “thank you” in the local language of any country you visit.  In the same vein, it's a good idea, when you are expressing an opinion, to make clear that this is your opinion, based on your personal experiences, rather than stating your viewpoint as an absolute truth. That way, your viewpoint has less likelihood of being viewed by locals as critical of their own. 

Learn about the local economy and spend your money to help build it.  If you have a choice between purchases made from a local shop or a large, commercial one, go for the local one, even if it's slightly more expensive. It might be a little more difficult to communicate with a local shop owner if you don’t know the language, but it’s more rewarding to buy something that is indigenous and unique. Besides, in my experience, it’s more fun, just as easy, and a lot more interesting to stay at a local boutique hotel or bed and breakfast than to spend the night at a chain hotel or inn. Similarly, eating in local establishments provides you with a unique experience to socialize and to learn about the culture you are visiting. These are ways you promote the economy of the places you visit.

If you are inclined to give gifts to locals, then find out the customs and what is needed. I have had many people stay at the hotel and be so moved by the adorable children that they see in town that they want to shower them with gifts or money. For example, on Santa Cruz Island there is an adorable little girl at the fish market who loves to have her picture taken. So, a guest may take her picture and then give her a dollar. This is a sweet and wonderful gesture, but it would be much better to ask the parent before either taking the picture or giving the little girl a gift. Put yourself in their position and you will know what to do instinctively. And, if you should want to leave a larger impression or gift, find out what the schools are hospitals really need and how they will distribute and use your gift. Then you will be doing a real service to the community.

Don't be surprised if you are given a higher price just because you’re a visitor.  Many economies are reliant on tourism. Go to these places aware that they both need and intend to make money from tourists; your visit is supporting the local economy.  You might think of it this way: in most cases, you’ve already invested a substantial amount of money on your trip, often because you are more advantaged than the local people that you meet or who are your servers or shop keepers. So what if you spend a little more money for a train, an entrance fee or lunch? The same goes for tipping. Those few extra dollars are not going to mean a thing to you in the long run, but they mean a great deal for those less advantaged than you are and who rely on tourists for their annual income. On the other hand, if tipping is not part of the culture, as in Spain, then you don’t need to tip. The spending works both ways. It's not an overstatement to say that ethical travelers are generous and grateful for their ability to help.

Supporting the local economy doesn't mean that you can't bargain. By all means, if bargaining is expected, enjoy yourself and have fun. Just don’t overdo it. You know you’re getting a good buy, but leave the shop keeper with dignity.  Going home and bragging about how cheap the hand-made leather purse or scarf was isn’t going to make you feel as good as knowing you left someone in a foreign land a little more comfortable and happy.

If there are local mores or taboos, learn them and respect them. Before you go, learn something about local customs. Here are a few examples: In India, don’t offer to shake the hand of a person of the opposite sex or touch or receive anything with your left hand; don’t discuss religion or drink or smoke in public; In Thailand, don’t pat a child on the head; in Germany, don’t be late, eat with your fingers or discuss sports (the last will make you seem uneducated); never refuse a cup of coffee in Fiji; in Morocco don’t take a photo of a monkey without paying! In Japan slurp your soup as a sign of enjoyment. In short, wherever you go, it's important to respect the differences of others, just as you would expect of them in your native country.

Expect the Unexpected.  One thing that I tell each and every one of my guests is to expect the unexpected and face each day with a sense of humor and equanimity. It may be that you really want to get into a museum but it’s closed for an obscure holiday. Maybe there is a hurricane coming. Maybe the boat’s engine conks out or the hotel is out of your favorite pastries. Maybe you don’t get to see the whales on your whale watching expedition. These things happen,  leaving you with a story to tell, but hopefully not with a negative reaction. Why stress over a situation when you have no control anyway?

When you travel, you want a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  One way to achieve this objective is by minimizing environmental impact and supporting local economies. So, have a wonderful time, knowing that your adventure has enhanced not only your life, but also the lives of the people you encounter along the way. 

Think of these words of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: “Peculiar travel situations are dancing lessons from God.” Go with the flow, and give free rein to your sense of adventure!" Enjoy!

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