Why Think About Sustainability While Traveling Abroad? An Introduction to Alternative Travel

0072dafBrittany Gibler, ND ’15, majored in Finance in the Mendoza College of Business. Also a sustainability minor, Brittany focused on different forms of sustainable tourism and how it impacted the host community’s participants as part of her capstone thesis. This is the first in a series of blog posts written by Brittany that describes various ways adventurers can contribute to responsible tourism.

People, Environment, Economy

Traveling abroad is an exciting time. You are thinking about what you will see, where you will visit, and how you are going to live in a different country. However, the aspect that has become even more important is considering your impact while abroad. The level of tourism has risen dramatically in the past decade and it has also become a tool for economic development for many communities. From my travels during a summer internship in Ghana and a semester abroad in London, I was challenged by two vastly different experiences in the same way: how can I leave a positive impact to these generous host communities that have given so much to me? Alternative travel is a way to maximize that benefit of tourism for tourists as well as the community. It creates and strengthens intercultural relationships. Throughout this series of blogs, I will explore a variety of issues regarding sustainable travel abroad, as well as concrete ways to leave a positive impact on the host country in terms of environment, economy, and culture. To give a broad background for the rest of the series, it is important to clarify that there are three primary types of alternative travel: responsible tourism, voluntourism, and ecotourism.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.35.10 PM

Responsible tourism is an alternative form of tourism that aims to leave the host community with a minimum burden while the tourist is learning about the host culture. The emphasis of responsible travel is on the economy. The use of the word responsible emphasizes the obligation on tourists to engage in the complexity of the community while minimizing costs on the host community. (1) This translates to tourists shopping locally rather than at the recognizable Starbucks, bringing a water bottle instead of buying plastic water bottles every day, and taking shorter showers because, let’s face it, the hostel shower is not a place for a long shower anyways. With regard to historical sites, heritage tourism introduces a conundrum for the community of sharing the history and gaining the revenue while trying to preserve such important sites or pieces of art. (2) So as funny as it may be to stand on a statue to imitate that statue, it really is damaging that piece of history. The overarching theme with responsible tourism is that tourists experience the host culture at a deeper level with the understanding of how their actions affect the community. In practice, responsible tourism often looks like smaller, community-based enterprises that engage tourists with local culture.

Ecotourism, another alternative form of tourism, is defined by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (3) Compared to responsible tourism, ecotourism focuses heavily on respecting the environment. Ecotourism is not a new concept and continues to grow each year. Many argue that ecotourism is inherently flawed for it brings many people to areas most vulnerable to global warming, such as coastlines, where certifications can be misleading, and where it can cause more stress on the environment. (4) You should not be discouraged, however, in terms of practicing ecotourism. Small-scale privatized implementations have proven successful. Cambodia has implemented ecotourism in low GDP villages. (5) This community-based ecotourism has placed greater intrinsic value on the environment while providing jobs to the local community. When searching for a more natural escape during your journeys abroad, consider staying at an ecolodge or searching for green adventures that support the local community.

Voluntourism-cntravelerThe third type of alternative travel is voluntourism, which emphasizes the importance of culture. The Voluntourist describes voluntourism as a way to travel and see parts of the world through a service and learning experience. (6) It also is a form of bringing benefits to under-resourced places. This is highly criticized, however, for having a band-aid effect in host communities. As a visitor, it is important to be respectful. Although this seems obvious, oftentimes there is a sense of inequity in volunteer relationships in which the volunteer acts with a sense of privilege and belief of superior knowledge. In short-term experiences, a “feel good” response can exacerbate stereotypes of the poor being helpless. To alleviate this, PEPY Tours advocates learning service rather than service learning, which will be elaborated on in a later post. (7) The visitor is meant to use travel to learn about the other culture and, if applicable, learn how to help an impoverished community in the future, not on the first day of arrival.

Maya Angelou once said, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but, by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Stay up-to-date on future posts from Brittany as part of this series on Alternative Travel, as well as all things Irish Impact, by subscribing to our newsletter.

(1) Li, Yiping. “Situated Learning, Responsible Tourism, and Global Peace.” Peace Research 30.4 (1998): 83-100.

(2) Focus on Responsible Tourism and Heritage. Manama, Jordan, Manama: Al Bawaba (Middle East) Ltd., 2014.

(3) The International Ecotourism Society. 2014. Online. http://www.ecotourism.org

(4) Cox, Rachel S. “Ecotourism.” CQ Researcher 16.37 (2006): 865-88.

(5) Zeppel, Heather. Indigenous Ecotourism: Sustainable Development and Management. Wallingford, Oxfordshire, GBR: CABI Publishing, 2006. ebrary.

(6) The Voluntourist. 2014. Online. http://www.voluntourism.org/educators.html

(7) Brown, Sarah. PEPY Tours. Personal interview. 12 May 2014.

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