“I’m leaving Utila tomorrow” I said plainly to Juan, “it’s been a pleasure knowing you.”
“Good, get out of here, you’re one of the good ones,” he replied as we shook hands for the last time and parted ways.
I’d spent a few evenings with Juan playing pool and breaking bread. I found the man and his life interesting, his perspective on his home island of Utila Honduras however, just made me sad. He felt like the heart had been ripped out, laid on a platter, and served to the tourists.
It wasn’t the first, nor the last time I’d hear lamenting by a local over what had once been a paradise.
The discussion was brought up recently in an etramping.com article questioning if the name backpacker has taken on a new connotation, a rather negative one. While I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in the article, I found it echoed some of the things I was feeling throughout my own adventures. It has become more and more clear the longer I travel and the more places I see that there is good tourism and bad tourism.
I’ve actually taken a point of asking locals quite frequently if they felt that tourism in their area had done harm or been of benefit, and what they think the future holds. This article is a collection of some of the feelings that have been shared with me as well as my observations.
I can’t deny that I’ve occasionally been part of the problem I’ll describe, particularly on my first trip in Asia, but I do my best now to do good rather than bad where it’s possible.
It’s often talked about how tourism in some countries can contribute significant dollars to a small economy and help to bring people out of poverty. It is true, I’ve met families who’s farms and lives are made better by tourism dollars, they’re healthier, and their children are better educated than they’d have been otherwise.
Volunteering at various organizations has shown me how tourism dollars can be taken in and distributed to care for the needy and educate them when they have no one who would help them otherwise.
I’ve been told by Guatemalans that they feel their country has been improved by the simple presence of tourists as the government is a little less likely to treat its people as disposable lest the international light be shone on it.
Travelling south from Guatemala through Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica it’s become clear that the more an area is regarded as a tourist destination the more likely it is to be free of trash. The cleaning crews in the downtown core of Xela, Guatemala and the stark difference between the country roads in Costa Rica and countries further north reinforce this idea. Much of the developing world is where Canada and the USA were 60 years ago with respect to trash and recycling, but it’s getting better.
An indigenous Kuna woman of the San Blas islands in Panama actually told me she prefers foreign visitors to the island because they respect the environment and clean up after themselves where the Panamanians don’t.
On much of the Pacific coast of Central America there are projects to buy turtle eggs from poachers, protect them, and then release them into the wild. These projects serve to increase populations of endangered animals as well as ensuring the poachers can still feed their families like they had before.
There is also something less tangible, but also very important; the scores of language schools located throughout Latin America and the popularity of fluentin3months.com prove that many a traveller has a desire to learn local languages. They don’t expect everyone to just speak their language (often English) but rather make an attempt to fit in, to get to know locals, and to understand the culture. They want to respect the culture, not try to change it.
The article on etramping.com I mentioned earlier was arguing that the average backpacker should be labeled a “drinkpacker” or some other similar name. That heading out to explore the world can sometimes mean how much more often and cheaply one can get wasted. Vang Vieng in Laos is notorious in the backpacker community for being a place to get your drug and drink on, but the community went from sleepy town to millions in revenue in about ten years and now stands for little else than serving tourists.
Children growing up in rural communities and even adults can be influenced by what they see travellers do. They come to assume that how you talk, dress, drink, party, and treat the world is what is done in your home country too, and why would they assume anything different if that’s all they ever see.
In Utila where I met Juan, the town square had been sold out to provide space for one of many dive companies and what had once been a quiet peaceful island was inundated by partying dive tourists. Where once had been only bicycles and a single community truck, were now quads and motorcycles due to the demand of tourists and drug running money. You could tell that the quantity of inexperienced divers had done massive damage to the south side reef when you compared it to the vibrancy on the north.
On the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua one traveller I met expressed distress over a boat tour where the caymans were dragged out of the water to be seen and photographed. In Malaysia a friend was asked if he wanted to see an Orangatang and in response to a “yes” the guide headed off to go shoot one until protests called him back.
Staying at big name resorts and eating at foreign owned chains does much less to support the local economy than staying in little family run hotels and frequenting local restaurants.
I’ve encountered numerous other examples, but at its heart, bad tourism lacks respect for the culture, the people, and the environment. It seeks homogenization and destruction at the price of entertainment.
What To Do About It
- I’m not going to say you shouldn’t get wasted. Part of any trip or vacation can be letting loose in paradise, but consider where you’re doing it and perhaps how often.
- Consider where you are travelling, often you can find alternatives to the guidebook hot spots with just a little extra effort. These spots are often less busy and cheaper, not to mention it takes environmental and other pressures off other places.
- Support local businesses or organizations that do ‘good’ for the community and the environment.
- An easy way to tell the difference between a good place and a bad are do the locals go there too?
- Learn the language, try to learn about the culture and don’t just expect everyone to speak English for you.
- Set an example whatever that might mean, for wherever you are.
- Give back, volunteer, teach English or your native toung (yes this is different than expecting people to speak your language).
You aren’t solely responsible for all that happens in the places you visit, but you can make a difference.
*Names have been changed*