Do punters give a toss about responsible tourism?

Maasai villagers reading about their achievements in The Observer Photo: Tribal Voice Communications

‘Responsible tourism? Ha! Does that mean not dropping your litter as you walk through the rainforest?’ was the scathing reaction of a friend when I told her that I was taking on an Msc in Responsible Tourism Management six years ago. I tried somewhat pathetically to defend my tiny corner. Then, “I am so tired all of this f***king eco shit” one award winning travel writer said loudly in my direction a few years later at the ABTA convention, to a round of back patting and communal cackling from his peers. By then, I had learned to smile politely and walk on. But oh, how they laughed.

So, six years later, with one Masters degree, a modest pile of published work, three books, one app and an award, I am simply bemused to see they are still laughing.  Just this week  on Twitter, in an albeit humourous banter between fellow travel Tweeps, I posted something about Responsible Tourism Week, an online iniative happening 13-17 February 2012.  So why was I surprised to see the ensuant piss taking? “Apparently it’s Responsible Tourism Week soon. Personally I quite fancy an Irresponsible Tourism Week. Anyone else?!” one travel writer teased. “Isn’t every week an irresponsible tourism week?” another retorted. I retweeted and replied, “Speak for yourselves”  *still smiling*

However,  what surprises me most is that six years later, after a plethora of responsible tourism conferences, conventions and codes of practice, so many travel writers, not just travellers, still think it is amusing that our industry is ‘responsible’  for so much damage. As one Tweep put it, the term responsible “feels at odd with fun”. They still dismiss the responsible tourism movement as a bit of a whim, a green geeksville. A posse of party poopers even. They still don’t get the fact that the responsible tourism movement is about water inequity, human rights abuses, irrational use of natural resources, waste, pollution, commercialising culture, and so much more.  And why do they not know? Because so many of the responsible tourism issues and destination developments are debated in academic circles, at government or UN level or around the board tables of small, committed tour operators and agencies. And there is always one empty chair at these debates. That of the media. There will always be travel writers for whom a commission will come before a ‘cause’, of course, but there are so many who are still just simply in the dark where responsible tourism, ecotourism, green or sustainable tourism issues , call it what you will, are concerned.

Ireland Green Travel app by Catherine Mack

The reason ‘responsible tourism’ evolved as a term, is because, long before I started my studies,  many forward thinking individuals from around the globe recognised that we all have to take responsibility for the tourism industry. That is to say,  tour operators, tranport providers,  accommodation owners, tourists, governments, service providers, activity companies  and of course, the media. I completed my Masters degree with detailed research into  the UK travel media, and how responsible they were in their travel journalism. The research results were, not surprisingly, a bit grim. Some shone, however, and stood out as getting what sustainability in travel really meant. One editor commissioned me to write my first piece, as a result of my meeting with him to discuss the research, and so my writing career began. I remember thinking that if I could get all the editors around a table to debate the issues, with a view to spreading a social responsibility among travel writers, I would put myself out of a job, being a ‘specialist’ in this area. But that idea was never jumped upon, funnily enough, and then when I hear the jibes and jests emerge once again,  I realise that I still  have a few years’ work ahead of me

In the meantime, the challenge for me is to make a ‘responsible’  holiday sound fun, exciting or interesting enough to persuade a tourist to go on it, without making them feel they are sacrificing anything for the sake of being  more ‘responsible’. And then if both the readers and the editors can see that I am not the party pooper they presume me to be, I can start to throw in a few of the more urgent, if not life threatening issues which arise from irresponsible tourism in certain destinations.

 In response to the latest Tweet from a colleague on this subject this week, “Do punters give a toss?”, the business case for responsible tourism is already well documented. The rise of the ethical consumer is considerable, a growth trend which is surviving the global economic crisis. I guess what I give a toss about is getting the chance to write an article for a mainstream outlet about a small fishing village on County Mayo’s most remote coast, where a young group of fishermen are working to conserve their marine environment and community by creating an exemplary and exciting tourism business to keep them in their region.  A good article in a reputable media outlet could have them booked out for a season, allow them to get a loan for a new boat, and stop them emigrating from the area.

Spotting dolphins on the way home from a fishing trip in County Mayo Photo:

Or when I get to highlight the exploitation of the Maasai through reckless oversights on the parts of foreign-owned safari lodges, and promote their hard won sustainable enterprise which helps to provide schools and clean water. This beats any press junket, Facebook following or Klout rating. Or when I get even a handful of the 90% of visitors who travel by car around our National Parks to leave them at home, by showing them how to get their by train, and kayak, coasteer, walk or cycle when they get there, that is a good day’s work. And when one tiny Alpine business which has been fighting to stop the pollution caused by skiing in their region almost single handedly for the last ten years, gets put on the Sunday supplement map, then this is cooler than any award. One thing it isn’t is boring. And fun? Well, each to their own, but I am about to go ice skating across Sweden’s frozen lakes with exemplary responsible tourism company Nature Travels, which is fan  f***king eco-stastic in my book.  So, laugh away, and I will try to keep smiling. And then I will calmly keep on ‘worthying’.



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