I once had an editor who told me that I shouldn’t write about people in travel. “Holidaymakers only want to know about the place, not the people. They’re irrelevant to travel articles”, he told me. However, writing about beaches and budget airlines, is not really my bag, as regular readers will know by now. People who create incredible places to stay or things to do, and also care deeply for their local environment, community and climate change, sell a holiday to me just as much as any piece of ‘beach lit’. And 2009 has definitely been a year about people in tourism.
Those who survived this worldwide recession without compromising their principles of responsible tourism merit huge recognition in my book. Some even dared to set up new businesses this year, such as Tripbod (tripbod.com), which puts travellers in touch with local guides before they travel. For a small fee, you get email contact with carefully selected local guides, who give you all the inside, finger-on-the-pulse information on the place you plan to visit. Tripbod works with an ethical ethos, and sources ‘bods’ who think the same way as they do, and top bods they are too, in my book.
One organisation which nearly lost its battle for survival in 2009, was Tourism Concern (tourismconcern.org.uk) a charity which has been fighting for human rights in tourism for twenty years. They put out an international appeal for rescue funding, and have managed to see their way into 2010, when the appeal will continue. Taking on tourism multinationals over employment conditions, governments on indigenous land ownership issues, as well as equal access to basic resources such as water, so often usurped for tourism purposes, its role in protecting people affected by tourism is invaluable.
Many thanks also for all the lovely feedback during the year, such as the two women who travelled to Africa with People and Places (travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk), which won Best Volunteering Organisation at this year’s Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards. These readers had great volunteering experiences, and felt as if they had made a genuinely positive contribution to the communities they visited. People and Places won this award because they not only offer a sustainable, transparent approach to volunteering holidays (they are externally audited), but they actively campaign for an end to the many cases of bad practice in the sector. Such as lack of consultancy with local communities, no police checks, abandoning volunteers in situ and, very importantly, where the volunteer’s money is actually going at the end of the day. People and Places gets what ‘voluntourism’ is about and, if you are thinking of giving time and money to people who need it, they are the people to call.
But my ‘People of the Year’ award goes to the Kieffer family in France. They run a walking holiday company in the Mercantour region of France, called Itinerance, They sent us off into the Lower Alps earlier this year, walking from gite to gite with a donkey to carry our bags. They bring hundreds of visitors to their spot in the Alps every year, teaching chlldren about the joys of nature, bringing money to many rural villages, sharing their love of slowtravel and slowfood, and running one of the most exemplary ethical tourism businesses I have come across (itinerance.net). So, bah humbug to that editor, he was wrong. It’s people like this who are creating a truly ethical tourism industry, and ensuring that travel is still one of the most exhilarating, eye-opening ways to spend our precious time.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 2 January 2010