A response to “Is the Tourist Footprint Ever a Good One?” by Jayme Otto.
By Kate Webb. Director, The Responsible Safari Company in Malawi, Africa
I read Jayme’s article to our small team here in Malawi and, before long, phones rang unanswered, emails were put aside, and we all let ourselves heatedly debate issues her column brought up and questions she asked. This is not an unusual scene in our office! As an emerging sustainable travel company working in Malawi, we are constantly questioning the global perspectives of responsible travel, the ecotourism industry, and our own company’s practices. We believe we have a responsibility to our visitors and Malawi to offer sustainable travel experiences. When asked if I would like to respond to some of the important issues Jayme’s article raised, I jumped at the chance to join the debate.
Rebelling from working within the ‘mass-tourism’ industry, we came to Africa very idealistic about what we wanted to achieve. Shouldering out backpacks and grand ideas, we worked in an ‘eco-lodge’ spent time with ‘eco-tourists’ and felt very proud to be living such an ‘ecofriendly’ lifestyle in rural Kenya. The terminology certainly suggests a utopia of travel ideals, the ideal solution to those bad tourism footprints, but—as Jayme suggests—it is far from perfect, and we are all still ‘tourists’ at the end of the day.
However, if we take away all the jargon, remove the large fluffy ‘green’ terminology, and extend ourselves away from separating ‘good’ from ‘bad’ tourism, then is there something in the middle that has potential. We believe there is a spark that, if harnessed correctly, can lead to economic development alongside the protection of cultures and landscapes; we believe tourism does have a place within the development and conservation field.
Furthermore, I think there are a huge number of ‘tourists/travelers/adventure seekers’ who want to be part of it, and I think they will be the ones perhaps to follow in Jayme’s footsteps. They will be the ones who will research before they depart, accept advice from local operators, learn a few words of the local language, and sample local food. They will not be the ones simply buying T-shirts to prove they have visited. In contrast, the T-shirt wearers will forever be lapping up the sun and sipping cocktails not far from their large package hotel a few hours’ plane ride from home. To me, the joy of living in this existential society is that we all want very different things, and, in terms of tourism, I think this is perhaps where the answer might just lie.
In Jayme’s article, she wishes she hadn’t visited Nahla Awwad’s small community and suggests some of the deeply exploitative sides often caused by mass tourism and uncontrolled large-scale development of an area. It sometimes seems very ironic to me that people in the responsible tourism industry are selling some of the most stunning ‘tourist free’ areas of the world and steering these hidden gems toward becoming just the opposite! I have struggled with this conundrum while living and working in a beautiful ‘un spolit’ country with tourism in its infancy; however, I have realized that the number of tourists trekking across it is out of my control, and other untouched parts of the world are certainly not mine to cultivate or protect from future development.
People will come seeking the unfound areas, and the stunning rural villages high in mountains of Malawi will change, just as Nahla’s village will develop. Is it our decision to say this change should be in a way that keeps the area looking beautiful, keeps the villagers in their immaculately built mud huts, holds thousands of people in the cycle of poverty so the odd ‘adventurer’ can pass through and wonder at this ‘un- westernised’ community?
Recently, we were approached by a large travel company that wanted to send a number of large groups to Malawi. Initially, we did not apply to run the trips; it was mass tourism, horrendous—no way we would get involved. But then, we took our idealistic hats off and realized these trips were going to come to Malawi anyway. They would just be run by another operator with a different itinerary and a different experience. So, we applied and got the contract. Now travelers are coming, and their itinerary is packed with stops at various sustainably operated community ecotourism initiatives. They are given extensive pre-travel packs to read up on the history, culture and places they will visit. Plus, 1.5% of each tour goes to a small environmental project in Northern Malawi.
My point: It is not our job or our right to stop tourists, to say where people can or cannot travel; they will come anyway. Perhaps, we should be concentrating on how they travel once they are here, what positive affect they can have, and how tourism-generated income can have a lasting sustainable effect on some of the world’s poorest communities. I am not meaning to suggest that Nahla should put all her hopes in tourism, leave her teaching job, and see her village flourish under the dreams of large hotels and an influx of tourists, but I am suggesting that tourism does have the ability and the potential to be an avenue for sustainable development, an avenue that is separate from the handouts of aid dependency, an opportunity for economic and social development. But, it cannot stand alone; it needs to be modeled specifically for each country and each district, controlled by the government, advised by the tourism industry, and fulfilled hand-in-hand with each community.
When studying for my Masters in International Development and Education, our tutor told us in my first seminar that we were the future of development. It was our job to ensure we did not repeat mistakes and learn from those who came before us. Jayme’s article points out mistakes that governments, the tourism industry, and travelers themselves have made in the past, but I believe this does not have to be the future. Just recently, the United Nations World Tourism Organization announced that tourism has been identified by more than half of the world’s poorest countries as an effective means to take part in the global economy and reduce poverty.
Is it perhaps time to give us future travelers a chance? Is it not time to look forward and hope we learn from the devastation caused by mass tourism, the communities struggling to conserve their cultures, the last trees standing among large hotels and tarmac roads? It seems enormously positive that we are now asking questions before we travel, that we want to be involved in these debates, that we consider what effect we are having before we travel to remote areas. It should be seen as positive that we live in an age where we have created terminology like ‘traveling green’ and that companies like mine are being set up within fragile countries to steer tourism down the right route so communities benefit and become involved in this wave of tourism. Our company flourishes because these questions are being asked and travelers are demanding more answers.
It’s true; not everyone is benefiting and ‘eco-touism models’ are far from perfect, but there is discussion, a sharing of best practices, and more involvement from communities. We do truly need you ‘wanderlusts’ to keep traveling. We need you to support the Nahla’s of this world, buy honey from our bee keepers, provide stories around the campfire of rural villages, and keep telling people about your favorite hidden spots so well-managed tourism can truly benefit some of the world’s poorest people. And I promise, as a local tour operator, I will continue to advise local communities on the best tourism practices. I will continue teaching local Malawians how to handle the increase of tourism, and I will continue to ensure my visitors protect the culture and respect the land they trek across.