Travellers come home on flights with bags stuffed with souvenirs and heads spinning with memories of beauty and mishaps. But travelling isn’t just about what you take away, it’s also about what you leave behind. Your presence for two weeks in an exotic locale like the Philippines, Zanzibar, or Cartagena can easily contribute to the environmental, social, and financial devastation the international tourism industry is bringing to the developing world. If you take your sunburned head out of the sand, though, your vacation can become a positive force in assuaging global inequalities.
One: Watch what you waste
Your vacation will leave an environmental footprint on your destination for years to come, but you can reduce the impact.
Western travellers on stretches of beach in the developing world guzzle gallons of bottled water because tap water will make them sick. A disturbing number of bottles ultimately end up in the ocean, leaving beaches devastated by sprawling plastic trash that takes 500 years to decompose. Bottles also pose damage to sea animals, who, thrown off by the buoyancy of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, mistake it for food.
Pack your own MSR Miox water purifier to make tap water safe so you can save on bottles, ensuring the sand on that Thai beach you whiled away three weeks on will be still be white five years from now.
Two: Keep it local
When travelling in the developing world, find out who’s running the restaurants you eat in, the tours you take, the buses you ride on, and the hotels you sleep in. Travelling to the developing world can exacerbate global dynamics of oppression. With developing nations severely in debt, glitzy hotels and five-star resorts are often financed by foreign capital. UN research suggested foreign investors are reaping the majority of tourism profits.
NGOs have popped up around the world in response to the extraction of tourist dollars from the developing world, and you should support them. Friends, a Cambodian NGO, runs restaurants for tourists staffed by street kids training as restaurant managers, cooks, and waiters. Profits from the restaurants are pumped directly back to Friends’s programs for street kids that include AIDS awareness, drug prevention, and transitional homes.
In the developing world, where unemployment rates soar, families make their way by performing jobs in the informal economy. Lacking the capital to start a small business, developing world entrepreneurs try to make ends meet by giving tours, taxiing tourists around, and selling wares. While Frommer’s Guide and Lonely Planet advise against it, trusting informal business people will afford you some of your most memorable travel experiences.
Three: Let go of luxury
In the developing world, luxury channels resources to the rich, making them even more scarce for the poor. According to an October 27 Al Jazeera English report, because of the development of tourist golf resorts in Bali, it has become increasingly difficult for inland villagers to secure water for cooking, bathing, and drinking. Village families walk up to three kilometres to get a single bucket of water. Pumping water from the ground up, Balinese resorts use 3,000 litres of water daily to fill pools, ensure tourists can rinse the salt water out of their hair with a high-pressure nozzle, and water golf course grass.
In Chuck Thompson’s book, Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, he admits hating travelling to the Caribbean because of the gross wealth inequalities all-inclusive resorts have introduced to the area. After a resort owner treats himself to an extravagant five-course meal on a man-made island in an in-ground pool, he and his travel companion see the real side of the Dominican Republic when they cross the island. Seeing corrugated huts in road-side villages puts Thompson off the Caribbean. “Pockets of extravagance in the midst of widespread destitution depress me. If you’re selling me luxury, give me luxury, not a reminder that my comfort comes at the expense of someone else’s poverty,” he writes.
Like everything else, travel is political. So get on the side that helps, not the one that gulps.