Train in Goa, India. JK.
Tourism with Conscience: an Opportunity for Protection and Sustainability

Leisure travel can be an opportunity for conservation and development or a process of cultural commodification and degradation.


By Breixo Martíns & Gabriel Álvarez

More and more people are looking for a different and authentic experience in their vacations. Little by little we are leaving behind that model of mass tourism and we are venturing to less explored places and better preserved cultures. But many times, when looking for an alternative experience, it is inevitable not to fall into an internal contradiction. A contradiction between the desire to get to know non-touristified cultures and territories and the fear of ending up being part of a tourism system that is detrimental to them.

To resolve this dilemma, the first question we could ask ourselves is whether tourism really always has a negative effect on places and peoples. Or if, on the contrary, it is an indispensable source of income, especially in natural areas or societies with few resources. In the case of nature tourism, where is the line between enjoyment, authenticity and conservation?

After years of research, most experts agree that the arrival of tourists to traditional societies alters to a greater or lesser extent their culture, traditions and way of seeing the world. This process is aggravated by the tourism models of the major international tour operators, who create stereotyped images of each destination. Often, local populations modify their traditions (dances, handicrafts, stories…) by selecting or transforming those elements that are most successful with tourists. In other words, the culture that sells the most is selected and modified, the rest simply becomes history in museums.

“ Most experts agree that the arrival of tourists in traditional societies alters to a greater or lesser extent their culture, traditions and way of seeing the world.”

On other occasions, it can go to the extreme of transforming entire ethnic groups into mere human attractions in conditions of semi-slavery. A well-known example is the Padaung women in northern Thailand, known as giraffe women. These women of Tibeto-Burman origin are forced to pose for the enjoyment of thousands of visitors guided by unscrupulous tourism professionals from other ethnic groups. In this case, inter-ethnic racism also plays an essential role that we cannot ignore if we want to understand the realities of the places we visit.

Examples for optimism

Although facts like these are frequent, we can also find examples for optimism. In Panama’s traditional societies, large international travel agencies and guidebooks have created totally distorted images, but, almost as a critical and reflexive reaction, they are beginning to promote respectful, sustainable and especially genuine tourism models.

Another outstanding example is taking place in the Andean communities around Cuzco in Peru. Tourism is not only bringing economic development, but the interest of visitors in the traditional dress of the Quechua communities is producing a movement of recovery and local pride in using their traditional dress, something that was being forgotten. We are therefore talking about sustainability, but also about identity and authenticity.

Quechua women proudly wear their traditional costumes in the city of Cuzco, Peru. DEB DOWD

With regard to nature tourism, a first impulse leads us to prioritize the preservation and protection of natural areas before sufficiently analyzing the relationships between these areas and local peoples and societies. This is often a mistake that only causes more damage than the pure lack of protection measures, something that has been happening for quite some time in different regions of Africa.

Recently, in a territory close to the Serengeti Park in Tanzania, there has been an attempt by the government to evict the Maasai people from their land for the creation of animal conservation parks. This is an example of the impact on a people and a territory that have been living in a human-nature balance for generations. The same has happened with other African peoples such as the Borana, the Okiek or the Batwa pygmies in the forests of East Africa.

“ More and more projects are involving the local population, often indigenous people, as part of truly sustainable tourism.”

Maasai tribal woman greeting a visitor with a warm handshake. Maji Moto, Kenya. TJJ

Although nature conservation is a positive thing, to develop successful and sustainable models, both the economic and environmental aspects must be taken into account, but always respecting and involving the local population. To achieve this, we must understand the complex relationships that exist in each territory. More and more projects include these people, many of whom are indigenous, so that they can be part of a truly sustainable tourism.

It is also necessary to understand that, even if a place is mainly green and lush, this territory is almost certainly the result of a profound human transformation developed over centuries. In Europe there are almost no natural spaces but forest plantations or, at best, old productive plantations abandoned to the forces of nature. Around the world, with the exception of patches of virgin forest and hot or cold deserts, much of the land area we see is the result of human transformation.

As an example, we can reflect on the protection of the first wilderness areas in Europe. In those processes, protected areas were declared “natural” zones, preventing local societies from continuing to develop their traditional activities. However, it was these same human activities developed over generations that shaped the very natural landscape we see today as green and pristine. In practice, this did nothing more than destroy centuries of local traditions and, at the same time, degrade those spaces that our modern eyes see as the epitome of unspoiled nature when, in reality, they are human productions.

Interior of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda. TJJ

What to do on a personal level?

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), global tourism accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a high percentage of these are due to aviation. In addition to this, there are many other environmental, economic and social impacts that can be changed by our decisions.

Some things we can do even before we leave home. For example, we can inform ourselves about the social reality of the country we are going to visit. Without this knowledge we are at risk of being part of the problematic gear of neocolonialism, cultural appropriation or even the exploitation of communities for economic purposes.

Another action that can make a difference during trip planning is to inform ourselves about the type of lodging and activities we are going to hire: is the lodging managed by local people? Am I going to do activities that respect the environment or the conditions of the animals? For example, in the animal sanctuaries in Thailand, in the most important city in the north, Chiang Mai, there are more than 70 centers to visit. In many of them, elephants are forced to be part of exhibits and are even mistreated. An effective selection of tourist activities is a good practice to reduce the negative impact of our stay.

Once at our destination, there are a multitude of small decisions that, in addition to fostering more ethical and equitable tourism, can greatly enhance the experience. Consciously choosing the products we consume is one of them. Local products are always the best choice, as we ensure that we reduce transportation impacts and that communities can benefit directly.

Other ideas revolve around respecting natural spaces and biodiversity, asking questions instead of looking for information on our smartphone, trying to get involved in local life to better understand the reality of the place, paying a fair price for the products we buy…

“ If we want to travel and do it in a sustainable way, we must carry out a work of information search and subsequent critical reflection.”

Being a conscious and committed tourist is not easy. Being eco in social networks is not enough to help the planet or the societies of the world. If we want to travel and do it in a sustainable way, we must carry out a search for information and a subsequent critical reflection. With a little effort we can turn this activity into the best opportunity to learn, share and progress together as a great human family.

This article has been published in the section of PLANETA FUTURO of the International newspaper of the spanish speaking world: EL PAÍS