Tourism can be helpful for local economies, but it can also have devastating effects on the places we visit. How can we make sure that the impact we have while traveling is a positive one?
Of course, shopping locally and using the services of local people are good ways to contribute. Buy souvenirs from the craftspeople who made them rather than via middlemen who will siphon off profits, and shop at small street vendors rather than big supermarkets. Don’t bargain to a price below what is reasonable; the difference may be the price of a drink to you but the price of a whole family meal to the vendor. Stay in locally run accommodation rather than foreign hotel chains. Use the services of a local guide or a child who wants to help, and pay a fair rate. Bring with you only those supplies that you know you won’t be able to find on the spot and buy the rest in local stores and markets (pens, notebooks, toothpaste, etc).
We may encounter beggars. How you handle the problem is a very personal matter, but just remember that the ‘visible’ misery of those thrusting their hands out to you as you pass is not necessarily any worse than the ‘invisible’ misery of those suffering silently at home; so a donation to a relevant charity (for the homeless, orphaned, disabled or abandoned) is likely to mean that your money is used more effectively. But sometimes it’s hard to walk on by.
If you decide to give cash on the spot, then do look the person in the eyes, smile and say an appropriate ‘good morning’; being given a coin is probably far less of a novelty to him or her than being treated like a human being. (And prepare for the onslaught as others nearby spot that you’re a soft touch and suddenly materialise.)
Just occasionally you can turn begging into an encounter that’s pleasurable for you both. Many children do it from habit and would much rather be playing; so, if you turn it into a game, they’ll remember the fun of it far longer than the handing over of a coin. Also try learning ‘What is your name?’ in a few appropriate languages. The effect is astonishing on someone, whether child or adult, who’s used to being ignored or pushed aside. Even if you only learn their name, tell them yours and then say goodbye, you’ve lifted them several rungs up the scale of humanity – and again, that’s what they’ll remember. Or if you’re refusing to give, then use their name politely as you say ‘no’. In fact this is a great way to connect with children at any time; by using their name you give them dignity, and they respond.
Do bear in mind the damage you can do by giving little gifts (coins, sweets, pens, toys, cookies or whatever) to a child or youngster who comes up and begs, however cutely. If the begging bears fruit, he/she will start to pester all visitors some of whom may react aggressively. Or begging may appear more profitable than going to school.
At the end of your trip
Here’s a final chance to be useful. Don’t take home that T-shirt you probably won’t wear again, that half-full bottle of baby lotion, that soap, that pen, that pad of paper, that length of string, that torch, those spare batteries… collect them up and give them to a local charity. This should include all your meds too, but keep enough for the end of the trip. Organizations looking after the homeless or running children’s homes can turn pretty much anything to a good use. And then you’ll have more space in your bags for all those bulky souvenirs that you couldn’t resist.
Tourism and change
Developing countries need the foreign currency that tourism provides, but the benefit isn’t purely financial. Tourism also affects inter-ethnic or international relations and cultural interaction. Ecotourism is still a relatively new concept in many areas but will develop as education spreads. Nor is our visit a one-off, complete in itself; the behavior of any tourist can affect the welcome given to those who follow after, which in turn can affect their reaction to the country and thus the extent to which the country benefits from their visit. We’re all interlinked.
Tourism as an industry can cause positive change by offering the hosts new markets, new sources of employment, new tools for development and a new knowledge of the world. However, that’s not to say that travelers should aim to cause change themselves. The old adage about taking nothing but photos and leaving nothing but footprints still makes sense. We travel to experience different countries and different people and, ideally, to see them as they are, rather than as we (outsiders) feel that they should be. It’s easy to criticise the unfamiliar. We’ve probably all asked exasperatedly ‘Why on earth don’t they – ?’ at some time or another, but in the end that’s much less useful than an interested ‘Why do they – ?’. There’s often a good reason.
Whichever way we travel in developing countries, we are always going to be seen as ‘the rich’. We may or may not decide to remain involved at the end of our visit. We may or may not be able to teach, donate, sponsor, volunteer or otherwise share the life of the country and its people. However, it’s good relationships and good interaction between individuals that are the key to just about everything in the end, and here we do have one very positive component to offer. We can offer ourselves, our own genuine interest and friendship. At least in that, if in nothing else, we can ‘give something back’!