TRAVELLING FOOTPRINTS

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We have been travelling for 3 months now and I am struggling with the impact that tourism has on the very countries we are visiting. There is much good that arrives with the masses of tourists, but there is also much stress on the local culture, infrastructure and environment. The phenomenal changes, positive and negative, that tourism brings, to both developed and developing countries, need to be recognized. With tourism on the rise, we really need to consider how we travel and where we spend our money. It makes a difference to the lives of many who call our travel destinations home.

The number of international travellers has doubled since 1996. From 563 million to 1.24 billion in 2016. According to World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and contributes to the global economy by $7.6 trillion US dollars. Creating 292 million jobs world wide. These numbers are expected to grow with the increasing middle class of developing nations.

We have just spent three weeks in Thailand. A country that welcomed 29 million tourists in 2016. An incredible amount of people for any country to absorb. They have grown and changed in many ways with the continued demands that tourism has brought over the last 2 decades. So many visit Thailand for it warm sandy beaches, history, culture and delicious cuisine. The Thais have embraced the tourists with smiles and humour. There is not much that can irritate or upset these friendly and courteous people.

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My experience and the choices I have made during the past 3 months has given me much to reflect on. It is a complex topic where each community has varying needs. Regardless, tourism plays a large role in air, water, noise and land pollution with increasing demands on infrastructure and natural resources. Tourism can impact communities by exploiting the culture, environment and the people. A dark side that few fail to recognize. Or it can influence positive sustainable growth by educating, employing and lifting families out of poverty.

How does tourism affect the very culture we have gone to immerse ourselves in? Is there such a thing a sustainable tourism? Can tourism benefit communities, being socially and environmentally responsible?

My thoughts and observations can be applied anywhere in the world. However, developing nations do have more sensitive needs. Thailand is geographically small but diverse with a population of 69 million. A country that has Porsches speeding past tuk tuks and mansions beside one room shacks.

Since tourism really started to flourish, Thailand has made some incredible improvements. By no means are these a direct result from the travel and tourism industry, but it has had a great influence.

The government, with the help of foreign investors, is investing in infrastructure; rail, highway, air, sea and telecommunications. The Ministry of Health has mandated that by 2030 there will be safe and affordable drinking water, as well as appropriate waste management, for all.

In the early 2000s the government pushed for the Universal Coverage Scheme, with the goal of providing health care for all. There are many private clinics and hospitals which some argue leaves gapping holes in the public system. Regardless, this is an incredible accomplishment for a developing country. Since UCS was created there has been tremendous improvements with infant mortality rates and fewer families living in poverty. Many were previously spending much of their income on health insurance.

Thailand’s education system has also made tremendous improvements in the last 2 decades. Thailands literacy rate is now 96%. There remains inequality to access of quality education depending on where you live and your families income. Charity organizations are working to bridge this gap.

Tourism also puts incredible demands on resources, water and otherwise. Creates further pollution of air, land, noise and water. It can exploit traditional cultures and the land they depend on. When millions of foreigners are also contributing to the pollution, sustainability becomes even more of a challenge. Developing nations do not have the benefit of having existing infrastructure. Foreign investment and charity organizations are needed to assist the governments on all levels to improve and meet the needs of the communities.

Large hotels and resorts have destroyed traditional habitat and create an ever increasing demand on water resources. Many large hotels and resorts are foreign owned and disregard the needs of the community.  There can be a high leakage rate, meaning very little of the profits remain within the local community, much of it leaving the country. There are however, new efforts for green initiatives and a focus on sustainability in the hotel industry. It’s a matter of doing the research. We need to start holding businesses accountable for their environmental and socio-economic impact.

Travel and tourism does provide (directly and indirectly) 15.1% of  Thailands total employment (5,739,000 jobs). There are fewer Thais living in poverty than there was 2 decades ago. The unemployment rate is presently 0.75%.

Some of the travel and tourism jobs exploit and create unfair living and working conditions. Human rights with sexual exploitation and labour intensive industries remains a grave concern. On the brighter side, we also met some very happy and cheerful individuals who were working in tourism, creating opportunities that they may otherwise not have. There are sustainable small business cropping up in unlikely place. What you are paid and what your living conditions are depends on who your employer is.

As tourists, we play a role in mitigating the impact to the countries that we visit. It really comes down to how we choose to spend our money. It is the same concept as at home. In order to protect the local culture, the environment and minimize pollution, we have to keep it local.

Stay in accommodation that is locally owned. Many of the smaller hotels/ hostels employs local staff. Homestays and AirB&Bs remain a better choice that most of the large chain hotels and resorts. The higher end hotels will more than likely be foreign owned with a high rate of foreign leakage.

To help mitigate exploitation do your research. If there is a consistency of rude or unhappy staff in reviews, this usually is a reflection on how they are treated. Most businesses, large and small, have reviews. When you read more than the first few you will see a pattern appear.

When you spend your money at McDonalds, Hard Rock Cafe, or the like, a very small portion your money is remaining in local hands. There are far tastier options for local cuisine at family owned restaurants and street markets. There are small businesses that have been backed by NGOs or foreign individuals that are socially responsible and provide education and employment to the locals.

Steer away from large tour organizations, as most are foreign owned. There are many options of local tours, which provide employment for the community and they are less likely to exploit the culture.

I realize that some foreign investment is needed to encourage sustainable growth. Choose businesses, local or otherwise, that care about the people and environment.

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The best Thai massages we had and they were empowering women who had met unfortunate circumstances earlier in their lives.

I realize that it is difficult to make educated decisions at times, especially in developing countries. One really never knows what experience they are going to have until they are on the adventure. More and more information is out there if you are willing to do the research. However, even then fake reviews and stolen photographs on websites can give you a false impression of what you are really paying for. We have gotten into the habit of booking only one night in advance. Once we have actually laid eyes on the place and met the staff, it is then we choose to continue our stay or move on and find another place to lay our heads. Try to book with the business themselves. Sites such a booking.com take a chunk of profit.

Sometimes you will still be disappointed, and other times pleasantly surprised.

We chose a small family run elephant sanctuary to visit these gentle giants. I went into this with hesitation, struggling with the ethics and morals. I shared this hesitation with my kids. I made sure there was no elephant riding on this tour, as this is where I drew a definite line. Elephant anything in Thailand is a complex issue. The remaining elephants in Thailand would starve without the tourism industry. It is expensive to care for an elephant and the tourist industry provides the income to do so.

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I understood that these majestic creatures were rescued from Myanmar in less than desirable working conditions. These animals can not be left to the wild due to their dependency on humans and there is no habitat to sustain them. They would trample the valuable agricultural farmland and be destroyed themselves very quickly. Now they are cared for in an elephant sanctuary with just enough property to roam a little bit and a small river to bath in.

I knew there was a 10 month old. Prior to the tour I took this families word that the mother was rescued from the logging industry in Myanmar. However, on arrival we were told another female was 7 months pregnant. The father was at this sanctuary as well. I was confused and angry. I asked them why are they breeding them? The answer, “how do we stop them?” I was angry at myself for being blinded. Where did these elephants really come from? Were they truly rescued? I believe so, but with doubt.  I will never know. I should have never contributed to a place that housed young elephants. Regardless, he was with his mother. Not separated like so many other establishments. Although I am disappointed, they were treated with more respect than they would have found elsewhere. I do believe the family is truly trying within the boundaries of income and culture. They need these elephants for income. It still remained difficult to not feel these wonderful beasts should be anywhere else than in the wild.
The reality is that elephants have been part of the SE Asian culture for centuries. Who am I to say any different when we have been using horses for centuries ourselves? We have animals locked up in zoos (and breed them) and keep others for meat in horrendous conditions. These elephants are not chained, there is no riding, no evidence of torture tools and the animals are not trained to do tricks. The mahouts (essentially an elephant’s keeper) seemed happy. Other elephants and their mahouts are are not so lucky in the tourism industry.

The guide knows my sadness, we spoke of it. He commented, “these elephants have been a way of life for us for centuries. Where would they go? They have no where else.” Elephants were originally used as labour, mostly in the logging industry. When this was banned by the government in 1989, the Thais had to find another way to meet the demands of caring for the thousands of elephants that were not wild. Tourism met this need with riding adventures. Through the decades, as more spoke out against the cruelty imposed on the elephants and their mahouts, businesses started to implement a more ethical approach in the way of elephant sanctuaries.

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With a heavy heart I must sadly admit, the joy on my children’s faces as they washed this majestic animal, brought a smile to my own face. The baby elephant will most likely be there doing the same thing day after day, long enough for my grandchildren to meet him. I was part of the sad cycle. Are these elephant sanctuaries ethical? Is this sustainable tourism? It is a complex issue and one that will be debated for years to come. Personally, I will not visit another. I also have great regrets for not doing more ethical elephant research. I may have chose differently or not gone at all.

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We also went on a guided tour into the mountains and jungle of Northern Thailand. I chose this company because they are a small and locally owned. They employ local guides and 10% of their profits go to the communities we visit. This was the best three days in Thailand. We left with memories that will last a life time. It was here where freshly paved roads and electricity were now just connecting the remote mountain villages. That elderly still dressed in traditional attire. The children walked mountain trails to and from school. Where the homes varied of bamboo bungalows to wooden mansions. Toyota trucks parked outside both. Where families still herded their water buffalo in every night. Where blue piping snaked everywhere connecting everyone to the water sources of streams and rivers. Many of the villagers did commute everyday into the district town for work, where life is just the same as anywhere. These villages are a place where the wisdom of old meets the dreams of tomorrow.

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Fresh pavement to connect the mountain villages, making for much safer travel.

Our guide always invited conversation. He was genuine, honest and curious. He has chosen to stay in his village rather than move to the cities like so many others. He supplements his families income of farming with guiding. He also said with a smile of acceptance, “I will never travel like you do. But that is OK. I am happy.” He was sincere when he spoke, accepting the way things are with pride and gratitude.
I feel honoured that my family and I were able to glimpse such a different way of life. Did we exploit them just with the act of being there? I feel we had no more of an influence than the smartphones they were carrying or the TV’s in the homes that could afford it. We were always greeted with smiles and given fruit from their trees.

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All meals were cooked over a fire and often came wrapped in banana leaves

Their culture is changing. Just as the rest of the world is morphing into something that we cannot even begin to comprehend. There is a tidal wave of change that no place on earth will be immune to. It will hit everybody. Media is now almost at every bodies fingertips. No matter nationality or income. The iPhone is only 11 years old, the same age as my youngest. Now even remote villagers who have no electricity are connected with these little pocket computers. Good or bad? That’s for another post.

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Walking amoung the rice fields

One of my favourite things about travelling is meeting people from around the world. Emmersing myself in the deep solve the world kind of conversations with locals and other travellers. It broadens your mind and bridges the gap of ignorance. In the diversity there are solutions.

We all are inhabitants on this spinning planet. We all are responsible for keeping Mother Earth healthy. It is crucial that those of us who are more fortunate educate ourselves and make wise choices to mitigate our footprint. Then we must educate and provide the means, empowering the less fortunate to make wise decisions as well. We cannot expect those living in anguishing poverty to care about their footprint when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

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Shea holding his bright future

I realize that travelling has its impacts. I am far from perfect when it comes to consumption. I know I can do more, by doing less. I will continue to educate myself and my children. I will make an effort to minimize my footprint. I expect better from myself. So as I continue my travels into Cambodia, I am even more conscious of where I spend my money. I want my money to benefit the local community. Supporting healthy change for the citizens and their environment. I will stay and eat at locally owned establishments. I will choose tours that are locally owned. That do not exploit but rather support the community. Every time I drink from a plastic bottle, which is daily due to health risks, my heart sinks a little more. But positive change is happening. There is a movement beginning here in Seim Riep to use refillable water bottles and establishments are providing safe water to do so. There are establishments for travellers that are morally and ethically sustainable while providing much needed opportunities for locals. Things such as these will only continue to grow. If we choose to support them.

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“In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision” Dalai Lama

Maybe I should have stayed home and made no impact? But then these communities would suffer if everyone chose to say home. Tourism is now a life line for many. The travel and tourism industry, no matter in developed or developing nations, will do their best to provide what we ask for. So if we make conscious decisions, they will listen.

Sustainable tourism? Balancing economic growth with protection of culture and environment while considering human and animal rights. We have to all work together to find this balance. Foreign investment, via business or tourist dollar, should benefit local communities, while  protecting cultures and environments. Support the people and their environment with the choices we make. Empower the community with initiatives that employ and educate them, engaging them in the conversation and decision making. We all need to stop and consider our footprint at home and abroad. Internationally, we need to learn from one another. Our mistakes and successes. We need to embrace our differences, learn from them and then make the world a healthier and happier place to live for all. Working together for a cleaner earth for generations to come.

For more information check out the blog on altruistic travelling.

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TAKE ONLY MEMORIES

LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS

Chief Si’ahl

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