Bad Tourism, Good Tourism

Written by Kyle about Nicaragua. Feelin' thoughtful
Nothing much to report on our travels in the past days, mostly because we have been resting off Bessie's stomach illness (although, I'm sure she might have some fun descriptions of riding in long buses and slow ferries while trying to keep her bowels in check).  So, with the non-travel time, we have been able to catch-up on some cnn watching and internet time. 

In that time, I found an interesting Washington Post article called Don't Go There which, unlike most happy-go-lucky travel articles, tells of the side effects of globalized travel.  The executive summary is basically this: travel, when done wrong, puts undue stress on resources and actually has negative effects on the local environment and its people.  Unfortunately, I could not agree more with this sentiment.

Bad tourism!
I have seen too many cases first-hand where a flux of tourists has either made the lives of locals actually seem worse because either A) resources such as water or electricity are diverted from them in order to satisfy the needs of hotels or B) prices of land and products skyrocket so that the necessities of life are no longer affordable.  These problems usually arise with poor regulation and planning and not at the fault of the poor locals just trying to get by.  In fact, in most cases there are regulations (against drawing too much water from a water source, for instance) but either developers ignore them or pay a bribe to a local official to get around them.  And it's not like this happens infrequently, either.  This happens A LOT.  In fact, it's almost standard practice in some places.

As a consequence of the poor planning of development, what tends to happen is that a wealthy few who own the land and develop the property end up becoming richer, while the local people end up being pushed out (by high prices or, as in Cambodia, by government officials burning their houses to the ground) or overworked at their new, menial hotel job.  In other words: rich foreign investor/developer gets more money at the expense of the locals.  Hooray for greed!

Good tourism!
There are, of course, huge benefits to tourist dollars getting pumped into far-flung places that 10 years ago no one would have dreamed they'd honeymooning.  Once a plane, bus or microbus starts carrying in tourists, locals start selling more Chiquita Bananas, bottled water, and gum, and they open their kitchens and extra rooms to guests.  New restaurants open.  Taxi drivers are in demand.  Locals earn good money sharing their expertise on the beauty their land has to offer.  In a country like Costa Rica where tourism has been their main industry for quite a few years running they've seen improvements in their education, road, and water system.  Tourism can be a huge boost to economies and employ the unemployed.

Some Tips

Great.  Here you are reading our travel blog and maybe thinking about taking some time and traveling for youreself.  What are you to do?  Well, I'm no expert (and we're not always angels, either), but here are some things that can help:

1. Go Local

Stay at locally run hotels.  Eat where locals do.  Use local transportation.

Staying at locally run hotels is sometimes difficult as it seems like there's an expat who runs everything (but at least they live in the country), but there are a lot of places that are locally owned or support local non-profits.  Doing a bit of research by checking out guide books that you can usually rent at the local library will get ahead on this one.  As a general rule, if you stay away from the "Big Box" hotel chains owned by multi-natiional companies (Merriot/Sheriton/etc) you'll do a much better job of supporting the local economy.

Eating where the locals do is usually fairly easy.  Ask around or simply just follow the crowds come meal time.  As for local transport, if people ride bikes, rent a bike.  If they walk, walk.  If they over-pack 30 year-old American school busses, hop on.  It'll be cheaper for you and you'll get a better experience.

2.  Don't cruise

Disclaimer: this section is rife with personal opinion and may offend some of its readers.

Sorry for all of you who like your cruises, but I can't stand them and I can't really think of one local that I've met that likes cruise boats coming into their city.  This is mostly because in a lot of cases, the cruise passengers get off, go to a very narrow part of the city where they shop, eat, and then get back on the ship after some hours.  Unfortunately, most of the shops and restaurants are foreign owned which means that, other than the few local workers who work there, there very little positive effect on the local economy.  Yes, there are the tours, but quite often they are very "groomed" and steer you towards places that they want you to go (i.e. places that probably have an agreement with the cruise companies).

I remember asking someone once what positive effect the cruise boats had on his town.  "Well", he told me, "I suppose if you sell toilet paper, it will help you out.  Seems like people just get off the boat, take a shit, and leave."

Of course, the kicker is that I've never been on a cruise, so I'm only seeing one end of it.  I'm sure there are better cruises than others and I'm also sure that I would probably have a good time if I went on one.  But, I do think that there are better (and cheaper) options.

3.  Spend more time at the less popular destinations

Usually the places that are just off the beaten track are better than the ones pictured on the poster of that country.  The large hotels haven't made their way there and it makes it unavoidable to interact with locals who are eager to show you around and who own all of the restaurants and hotels that you will frequent.  I'll admit that sometimes the less popular destinations are a bust, but they do generally create more memories than the popular ones.

4.  Stop showering so damn much!

I used to be a shower everyday for 30 minutes kind of person.  Now, I think I might be a shower every 3-4 days for 10 minutes kind of guy.  Of course a lot of this behavior is dictated by the lack of hot water, but I have come to realize that it's not necessary for a daily shower.  If you get dirty, sure, clean up but if you are just walking around looking at buildings, put on a new shirt and you're fine.  Plus, you're saving water that, in many parts of the world, can be a scarce resource.

5.  No touchy!

I can't say this enough: don't touch or take things that you are not supposed to!  There are too many incidences of people snapping coral to take home or taking orchids from a reserve or even taking chunks of temples back home with them.  Sometimes it's too easy, too.  I have had a guard at Ankor Wat in Cambodia try to sell me his badge for $20.  I'm sure for $50, I could have taken a chunk of stone if I wanted to.  In any case, don't ruin it for other people.  It's one thing for tourist sites to be overcrowded, it's another for them to be decimated.

Ok, time to get off my soapbox and watch our presidential candidates get on theirs...


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