Live Well, Do Good

Third World Tourism Should Benefit Hosts, Environment

Brandon Sun, September 6, 2011 - Zack Gross

More and more Canadians are taking winter holidays in addition to their summer ones.

From December through March, increasing numbers of “snowbirds” escape our wintry climes for Mexican and Caribbean beaches, African safaris, teeming Asian markets and more. Whereas Europe was once THE destination, now it is often just where we change planes to go much further across or around the planet.

Unfortunately, when we enjoy ourselves as tourists, we don’t necessarily benefit the people who host us. 

Our only knowledge of them is often as maids, bartenders, servers, luggage-carriers and more negatively, as sex workers, including children. Our understanding of them is often based on what we see in chain hotels, bars, tourist markets and resorts, not in their family lives at home. 

Their cultures become trivialized as something quaint that can be bought and brought home. Their environment is covered with our footprint – tire tracks, jet fuel, garbage, and liquor bottles. And yet, many of us complain afterward that our hosts just don’t have what it takes to get ahead in this world (they are uneducated, disorganized, lazy, and so on) – as if we don’t contribute to this by making them part of the service culture.

Some national governments, the United Nations and many community organizations have in recent years been creating models for both ecotourism and pro-poor tourism.

The idea is to do less harm to the environment by regulating visitor impact, to create craft industries where Western consumers can buy directly from a fair trade system, to bring tourists into contact with communities rather than just commercial housing, to create an appreciation of local culture and to have the money that comes in from tourism stay in the country and community to benefit people rather than going into the bank accounts of the rich or multinational corporations.

There are some inspiring examples of do-no-harm-and-maybe-some-good tourism. In East Africa, the Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA) welcomes visitors to stay in upscale huts in local rural villages and check out nearby national parks that contain interesting flora, fauna and development projects. Manitoba groups have supported UCOTA with funds to develop organic gardening of natural dye plants to decorate their handmade grass baskets.

The group also produces a range of crafts, musical instruments and handmade paper products like cards and albums for both local sale and export.

In Botswana, Southern Africa, Wilderness Safaris has earned itself a reputation as their second national government for its responsible tourism activities, not only committing to protecting the natural environment, but also to setting up programs for the communities they work in and around.

They have established educational, job creation and community service programs, including a camping experience for local African children where they learn about nutrition, HIV/AIDS, life skills and arts and crafts. Ironically, local people seldom go on safaris or take vacations, due to poverty, just as children who work on cocoa and sugar plantations in Africa never get to eat chocolate.    

Wilderness Safaris has also been at the forefront of wildlife protection, relocating depleted herds of rhino in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi and fighting the poachers who decimate the animals for their ivory.

In 2009, almost 500 poachers were apprehended, and many traps and snares were taken down. Similar groups operate throughout East and Southern Africa, trying to lessen the negative impact of commercial tourism by taking environmental conservation, poverty alleviation and cultural appreciation into account.    

The Economic & Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) says it best:  How can tourism “unlock opportunities for the poor”?  This might include training in the tourism industry for young people, but with a fair wage and advancement prospects. Another aspect would be use of local farms and small businesses in supplying food, crafts, guiding services, transportation and other products and services to tourists to stimulate the local economy.

Bringing the poor not only “out of poverty” but, as Canadian journalist John Stackhouse described it, “into something more comfortable” also means strengthening a whole country and making its citizens more a part of the national fabric.

While existing tourist areas are being made pro-poor, areas that have not had tourism are being brought on line to create greater wealth. In areas of India, Thailand and Vietnam, for instance, responsible tourism “industries” are being nurtured.

Towns that are known locally for historical significance and beautiful architecture, or are home to scenic mountains or archeological digs, or particular art forms, are establishing themselves as tourism sites. In these cases, challenges still remain to find the development financing necessary and to keep the tourism ecological and pro-poor. As well, tourism by itself cannot sustain a development plan.

When we plan out our next vacation outside our borders, it will make a difference to the planet and its people if we look into responsible tourist options. But, it will also make a difference to us. We are in a sorry state if we enjoy the paternalistic relationships, the garbage creation and the on-going poverty that highlight mainstream tourism.

It’s time for a change!

* * *

Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 40 international development organizations active in the province.

See also:

"Small World" Column (Brandon Sun) by Zack Gross

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