You’ve arrived! Time for an adventure. This post follows on from ‘Ethical Travel Pt 1’ where we discussed tips for planning responsible travel experiences. This subsequent blog looks at how you can make a positive impact whilst in-country, or least aim not to leave a negative trace.
It’s a notable trend of the 21st Century that people want more from their holidays. Adventures are squeezed into a series of annual leave fortnights rather than the traditional gap year/sabbatical escapades. No longer is there a typical ‘traveller’, as people of all ages and backgrounds yearn to see the world away from the sheltered resorts. As more of us want to trot the globe we all have a responsibility to consider the impact of our travel on local communities.
Food is an easy one. We all need to eat and the food industry (both agriculture and hospitality) provides an income for many people across the world. Food is at the heart of most cultures and helps to link visitors to the local soul of a place. “Eat as the locals do”is a common maxim – you’re likely to find the best value and tastiest authentic dishes this way, and if you go one step further and eat where the locals do rather than places set up for tourists, you will get closer to the local culture as well as getting a lot of admiration and smiles in return.
One doesn’t need to communicate in the same language to share the enjoyment of food and locals love to see overseas visitors savouring their cuisine, it gives them a great sense of pride, after all food is at the heart of Asian culture. If you go even further, ‘down tools’ and eat with your fingers (not all Asian countries eat with their fingers so do check first !), you’ll get a few extra brownie points as well as savouring food in a new way that many say makes it taste even better (just ask any two year old ) !
It always amazed me on the many occasions when sharing food with Tina’s family in Sumedang, Indonesia that however carefully I tried to eat with my fingers, mine would be absolutely covered in sauce from top to bottom whilst her family’s remained squeaky clean except for the very ends of the finger tips. Eating politely with your fingers isn’t as easy as you think !
Peruse Trip Advisor if you want to get tips for where to eat but don’t restrict yourself to it. I prefer to hunt with my eyes and nose rather than my keyboard.
We made a big point of avoiding ‘tourist restaurants’ during our travels, preferring instead to seek out local humble eateries. Simple eateries usually end up being the most culinary rewarding. Not only did it make our money go further, open up the senses to the most amazing dishes, but also the excitement and buzz of sitting in a completely unnatural surrounding is to me what defines real travel ! Over a year on the road, none of us including tiny 4 & 5-year-old tummies ever paid the price for ‘going local’.
And finally do some local research to check for things you should avoid. Bird nest soup is popular amongst Chinese communities for example, but swiftlet populations, the nests of which are harvested, are suffering for a range of environmental and social reasons.
Buying souvenirs made by local craftspeople is an excellent way of supporting local traditions and the community as a whole, but do try and make sure you are buying from the artisan who made the item and not from middle men who exploit traditional artisans for their talents.
Better still try and hunt down fair trade organisations in the local area. Luang Prabang in Laos and Chiang Mai, Thailand are two examples of places where one can make ethical fair trade choices. Both have a thriving market scene but not all products being sold are from the artisans themselves, and in fact many originate from China.
We preferred to buy from recognised fair trade organisations in the area. Thai Tribal Crafts in Chiang Mai and Ock Pop Tok and Ma Te Sai in Luang Prabang are all places where you can be assured your purchase goes to support local communities. As we outlined in our first blog post, buying responsibly-made goods is actually a better way of giving back to the community than giving out gifts to locals.
We found such beautiful sustainable products on our travels including recycled plastic coasters from Thailand and adorable upcycled kids sarong aprons from Myanmar. In short, my message would be, seek and support fair trade shops and social enterprises where possible who rely heavily on foreign currency to survive. Finally, do stay vigilant against animal trade; sadly animal skins, turtle shell, rhino horn and coral are still being used to produce souvenirs in Asia.
A major joy of travel is in observing indigenous wildlife. How to enjoy wildlife responsibly however, is quite a tricky matter. Perhaps the best advice is to do your research and trust your gut. Many local tour operators will try and sell you experiences under the guise that they are ethical; my advice would be to take these organisations with a pinch of salt and make a judgement based on your own research.
However much you are pressed for time, the easy access to information we all have these days means that even just an hour dedicated to research on line could be the difference between falling into the trap of an unethical tour which prioritises profit over animals, in favour of one that really makes a difference to wildlife conservation. One great organisation that springs to mind from our travels was Elephant Valley in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand who give the assurance that ‘your trip will not harm the elephants and that your money will go to benefit elephant welfare and conservation efforts.’ While there are many other sanctuaries that give this assurance, Elephant Valley is one of the few that genuinely do put ethics, animal welfare and conservation first.
If a zoo has a poor reputation for treating animals and/or appears purely set up for tourists, then avoid it ! Stay clear of anywhere offering the experience of cuddling a wild animal. Over half of Thailand’s elephants have been described as ‘domesticated’, meaning they have been trained to work with humans and cannot live in the wild. I would personally avoid every zoo and animal experience in Chiang Mai; in particular Tiger Kingdom and Chiang Mai Night Safari being two which are notorious for putting the tourist dollar before animal welfare.
Entertainment & Tours
When it comes to entertainment, respecting local cultures is paramount. As above, avoid shows that exploit animals or people for ‘entertainment’. Instead look for local performances, take in the music and embrace the local culture, remembering you are the guest. A big big ‘avoid’ are the disrespectfully named ‘long neck’ villages to be found in Northern Thailand which exploit the marginalised Karen women of Myanmar for their wonderful neck coils. These places are nothing more than human zoos and exploitative, with all the proceeds going to rich businessmen who take advantage of the terrible predicament of this beautiful ethnic group who live well below the global poverty line.
Indo World Tours in Kerala, Southern India are a fantastic example of how a tour group can ensure both the local community and travellers benefit from the tourist industry. They make a point of creating backward linkages into the grass roots economy of Vaikom, specifically utilising small food providers, boat operators and artisan producers into their tours and adopting fair trade principals in their procurement, making sure their service providers are justly rewarded. If you are lucky enough to visit the region do get in touch with Shajas or Ramesh. They offer enchanting and unique tours of the backwaters of Kerala (often referred to as God’s Own Country due to its outstanding beauty) giving one a chance to explore the area in a way otherwise impossible.
Sensitivity to Religion & Culture
It is essential to act respectfully and thoughtfully when travelling in different cultures. Do some research before you go. For example, in most Asian countries it is rude to touch someone’s head (say, if you’re ‘patting’ a baby), never give or receive something with your left hand, and finally, it will come as no surprise to know you should dress modestly in places of worship. If in doubt always ask a local for advice on dress code.