Travelers leave impacts wherever they go, especially in developing countries. But with thoughtful planning it is possible to travel so that you leave your destination better than if you had not visited at all.
Tourism is vitally important to many developing economies, providing up to 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, in developing countries, and it often is the main source of foreign currency in these countries. Clearly, tourism could help alleviate poverty while providing economic incentives to protect important ecosystems and maintain biodiversity in tourism destinations.
Sadly, however, most mainstream tourism does more harm than good, as it serves to make the wealthy richer while damaging ecosystems that attract tourists in a short term money grab. The jobs provided for local people are so low-paying that they exacerbate poverty, rather than alleviating it.
We Support Leave No Trace Principles
Before we get anyone too riled up, please understand that we are big supporters of the Leave No Trace campaign, and fully support it, especially when it comes to camping in wilderness areas and national parks in the United States.
But let’s face it, wherever you go you do leave a trace; pretending otherwise does no one any good. Even when minimizing your impact through Leave No Trace practices on a wilderness camping trip you leave footprints, you trample grasses and other vegetation, you impact riparian zones, you consume water, you leave behind human waste and you affect wildlife just by your very presence (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/opinion/sunday/leaving-only-footsteps-think-again.html).
Tourism Can Be Bad For the Local Destination
When you travel internationally, especially in developing countries, you have significant impacts, and if these aren’t planned for by the tourism destination or operators, they are quite harmful. Just getting to your destination leaves a huge environmental footprint of carbon emissions, air pollution, and resource extraction.
Tourism Can Stress Basic Infrastructure. By simply traveling in many developing countries you strain the already basic and fragile infrastructure as your very presence puts more stress on their fresh water delivery systems, their sewage and garbage systems, and their roads and transportation services. Poorly managed tourism often has no plan to deal with the increases in garbage and human waste that more people bring (especially wealthy foreigners who consume more goods and have more waste), and tourism often leaves litter along roads and beaches, with sewage poured directly into oceans, lakes, and rivers, all potentially damaging the resource that attracts tourists in the first place.
Haphazard Tourism Development Can Damage Fragile Ecosystems. Many of the tourism destinations we visit are in fragile ecosystems along coastal zones, in mountains, or in protected areas, and often the basic infrastructure we need as tourists (roads, airports, hotels, restaurants) are hastily or carelessly built, which leads to damage of the very resources that attract tourists. Haphazard or thoughtless tourism development can lead to deforestation, drainage of wetlands, and loss of biodiversity through resource depletion and habitat destruction. Sadly, this is often the most common tourism development in the developing world.
Tourism Can Drive Up Prices Beyond What Locals Can Pay. Culturally, your visit can have many impacts as well, from driving up the prices of food, land, and utilities so that local people can no longer afford them, to the erosion of local and indigenous cultures as rich foreigners, without thought, display their wealth by the vast amounts of gear and electronic gadgets they carry with them. Often the only contact tourists have with local people is through hotel staff who make their beds or deliver their umbrella-adorned cocktails, leading local people to feel their place is not as equals with the tourists, but as merely those who serve them, ultimately leading to a sense of inferiority. Local people can rarely remain the same after these contacts.
Tourism Often Provides Low-Paying Jobs to Local People. And while tourism brings jobs to an area, these jobs are often low-paying, with wages too low to offset the increases in the prices of food and basic commodities brought about by the increased demand from tourism, leading to more poverty, not less.
Most Money Spent On Tourism Doesn’t Even Make It Into the Local Economy. In traditional tourism, much of the money you spend on your trip doesn’t even make it into the local economy to benefit local people or to help pay for the necessary improvements to the infrastructure. Locals often don’t have the capital needed to buy large tracts of land and to create tourism infrastructure, so often this money comes from outside the local destination, from multinational corporations and wealthy foreign business owners. When these businesses earn profits, those profits are taken away, back to the home country of these foreign owners, rather than staying in the local economy to employ more people and improve the standard of living for local populations.
To Meet Tourist Standards Many Items Are Not Purchased Locally. Additionally, tourists demand standards of equipment, food, and other products that the host country often cannot supply, so tourism businesses import these items to satisfy their customers. Unfortunately, this means that even more of the income from tourism leaves the country to purchase imported goods. Often tourism takes more from the local destination than it gives to it.
Foreign-owned, large, all-inclusive resorts, and cruise-ship tourism often leave the largest negative trace. They are known for haphazard development that causes environmental damage, leaves behind litter and pollution, and overstresses local infrastructure without helping to pay to upgrade it, all while paying extremely low wages to local people.
When You Travel with Detour, You Leave a Positive Trace
While you always leave a trace when you travel, that trace doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, through thoughtful trip planning on where you travel, where you stay, and who operates your trip, your trip can have broad benefits for the people and the environment of the destinations you visit. In other words, you can leave a positive trace.
Leaving a positive trace begins with making sure that the vast majority of the money you spend on your trip stays in your local destination. Stay in locally owned hotels, use locally based tour operators and guides, and buy goods produced in the country and destination where you travel whenever possible. Buying local on your trip, just like buying local in your home community, ensures that the money you spend stays in that community where it spreads and grows; tourism dollars can pay fair wages that are used to buy food, groceries and services from other local businesses, thus employing more people and helping the community thrive.
Tourism money spent locally can help protect natural resources by providing incomes to local people from protecting those resources, thus giving an economic incentive to keep ecosystems healthy and to maintain biodiversity and animal habitats, rather than having to turn to destruction of these resources through extractive industries in order to make a living. Many protected areas, such as the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, would not remain protected if not for the revenue earned from tourism.
Tourism money kept in the local economy can also help improve the lives of local people through taxes that go to improving the infrastructure to provide cleaner water, better sanitation, better roads and transportation, and even better schools.
On a Detour Trip The Vast Majority of Your Trip Cost Goes directly into Your Local Destination
Detour believes strongly that where the money goes matters, and we work only with tourism companies that are owned by people living in the country where they operate trips, thus ensuring the money doesn’t leak out to the owners’ foreign home. On average, 80 percent of the money spent on a Detour trip goes directly into the local economy, with the remaining 20 percent going to pay for marketing and sales costs to attract and book foreign travelers.
But leaving a positive trace means more than just buying local; it means buying local from sustainable companies that invest in their communities and invest in protecting their area’s natural resources.
We hand-pick our local tour operators based on a combination of the quality of their trips and the amount they give back to their local destinations and the way they treat their employees and contractors. Our local tour operators help attract grants to allow local communities to build their own solar-powered lodges, they fund local schools, they train and professionalize their staffs and pay them accordingly, they provide health and dental care to local communities, they actively promote practices that protect wild places, and much more.
Community-based tourism sounds about as fun as going to the dentist, but this type of tourism can provide some of the most memorable travel experiences you can have while also having a strong positive impact on the destination you visit. Community-based tourism is a lodge, hotel, or tour operator that is owned by the community where the trip occurs, and the community sets the rules of how the tourism operates to try to minimize negatives, while sharing profits with and providing jobs to local community members.
Just by staying at a properly run community-based tourism lodge or taking a community-based tour you are leaving a positive trace, as by definition your money is going into the local economy to make a better life for community members. Often community-based tourism takes places in zones with indigenous tribal people living in areas of rich biodiversity, and some great examples are in the Amazon region in Ecuador. There, community-owned lodges have protected vast tracts of the rainforest, while neighboring lands owned by other tribal groups without a community tourism project have been devastated by palm oil plantations or for oil and gas development.
Detour Follows the Frog: Green Certified Hotels and Lodges, the Rainforest Alliance, and Detour
We partner with the Rainforest Alliance to promote and sell green-certified sustainable hotels and lodges, properties that have gone above and beyond to ensure they are following best practices to minimize their impact. Many of these lodges were built with sustainability in mind, designed to minimize impacts to the ecosystem, while offering state-of-the-art septic, fresh water, and alternative energy electrical systems. Others have adapted existing infrastructure to cut down on energy usage and minimize waste, all while providing top-quality lodging for guests.
And finally, leaving a positive trace means interacting with local people as people, not just as waiters, bartenders, and maids. Leaving a positive trace means seeking cultural experiences that allow you to experience life in the destination you visit, to meet local people, share a meal with them, and learn something about the world from them. In other words it means meeting and sharing with local people as fellow humans, not “others” who are to be photographed and gaped at, as if they are freaks in a zoo.
So, go ahead and take that vacation you’ve been dreaming about. Just do it thoughtfully, so that just by going you make the world a little bit better.