Ten Tips for Ecotourists
Many years ago, when I was on an adventurous tour of northern Pakistan, an incident occurred that continues to trouble me. Our hardy band of 10 had been told by both our Pakistani guide and our U.S. guide that we should not take pictures of local women, as this was extremely disturbing to the Pakistanis. As a result, everyone in our group scrupulously refrained from photographing the women — except one photo-obsessed person who would furtively take out her camera and photograph women in fields and villages when she was sure no locals could see her.
I asked her not to, but she said no one was being hurt by the photos. If they didn't even know she was photographing them, she reasoned, how could it matter?
But it did matter. It was a violation of the spirit of the place, the spiritual equivalent of leaving beer cans and freeze-dried food wrappers in a pristine campsite.
I felt sullied by the experience, and saddened. Here was a person who had traveled to the far corners of the Earth, but who had still maintained her blinders, completely missing the gifts of humility and mutual respect that travel bestows.
For s long, long time in the history of travel, of course, exploitation, not appreciation, has been the prime goal -- first material exploitation, and then shortly thereafter spiritual exploitation. In fact, it is only very recently that any widespread recognition has been accorded to the notion that travelers need to preserve rather than plunder the places they visit.
In the late 1980s this notion was given a name -- ""ecotourism.'' But today, two decades later, while ecotourism and its siblings, responsible travel and sustainable tourism, have become popular, all-purpose buzzwords, there is still no general agreement on a precise definition -- and in fact, in their desire to jump on the ecotravel bandwagon, some travel operations have stretched the notion beyond all coherence.
Just what is ecotourism? To my mind, ecotourism denotes tourism that is environmentally, socially, culturally and economically aware, that strives to appreciate, nurture and enhance -- not exploit -- the countries and cultures it touches.
Why are ecotourism's principles and ideals so important? They are important because they help us to understand and cherish the world, and to preserve precisely those things we find to cherish. I think of the world as a glorious puzzle composed of beautiful, precious, unique and irreplaceable pieces. And I think that we who love to travel -- who, in a profound sense, live to travel -- are the guardians of that puzzle, for it is we who hold its pieces in our hands, and who celebrate and sanctify its existence in our lives.
As summer journeys begin to beckon, I think back to that misguided photographer in Pakistan -- and realize again how important it is to underscore the responsibilities and the opportunities travel presents, whether we are going to Paris or Papua New Guinea.
Over the years, a number of organizations -- among them the Center for Responsible Tourism, the Audubon Society and the Ecotourism Society -- have promulgated principles of responsible travel, guidelines travelers can follow to ensure that their journeys are as globe-enhancing as possible. Adapted from these guidelines and my own experiences in three decades of world-wandering, here are 10 ecotourist's tips for travel on a fragile planet:
1. Travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to meet and talk with the local people. Acquaint yourself with local customs and respect them.
2. Be aware of the feelings of other people, thus preventing what might be offensive behavior. Remember this especially with photography.
3. Cultivate the habit of listening and observing, rather than merely hearing and seeing. Ask questions and seek to understand, not to convert.
4. Realize that people in the country you visit often have time concepts, thought patterns and cultural preconceptions different from your own. Not inferior, just different.
5. Do not look only for the beach paradise of the tourist posters. Discover the enrichment that comes from seeing another way of daily life.
6. Remember that you are a guest. Do not ask for or expect special treatment.
7. Spend wisely. Remember when shopping that the bargain you obtain is possible only because of the low wages paid to workers and craftspeople.
8. Make no promises to local people unless you are certain you can fulfill them.
9. Be aware of the effect you inevitably have as a visitor, and reflect daily on your experiences; seek to deepen your sensitivity and understanding.
10. Take only photographs; leave only footprints. Do not disturb or despoil the local environment.
Actually, our responsibilities and opportunities as travelers begin as soon as we start to think about a trip. If you are traveling on your own, try to incorporate the suggestions above into your itineraries and arrangements as much as you can. And if you are planning to take an organized trip, keep the following questions in mind when choosing a tour operator:
Is the tour company really ecologically and culturally aware? On wilderness trips, for example, does it make every effort to pack out whatever it brings in, to dispose of waste as responsibly as possible and to use local resources as efficiently and responsibly as possible? Does it use low-impact forms of transportation whenever possible? Does it work with local guides, and does a percentage of its earnings in some way filter through to the local economy? Does it exhibit attitudes of humility, care and respect in its itineraries, brochures and other explanatory materials? Does it earmark some percentage of its income for special programs designed to aid the areas it visits?
As you narrow your choice of tour, ask specific, pointed questions of the operators you are considering. After all, many of these tours are a substantial investment, and you might as well make sure your money is being used as well and wisely as possible. And shop around. By doing so you will not only help guarantee that you get a tour suited to your own philosophy and travel style, you will also help spread the message that truly thoughtful, responsible tourism -- rather than lip-service labeling -- is good for everyone.