I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the people I meet in this field of ‘responsible tourism’, and how sometimes, it is the they who make us want to visit a place. Their stories, their commitment, their love of a region. So, let me introduce you to Sam and Beth Hardwick, the owners of Bivouac, one of the most stunning campsites in the UK , located in Yorkshire. I don’t want to put it in the ‘glamping’ box because it is something more than this somehow. As a result of my chatting with the Hardwicks, I invited Beth to write a guest blog for me, to share her story of how The Bivouac was born. Because I do firmly believe that it is the people who make the place. Over to Beth….with thanks.
“Sam and I worked long hours during our dating period. I had my own business and he worked in the city. We decided that when we got married we’d quit our jobs and go traveling together for some proper revaluation time. We backpacked around the world talking the whole time about what we believed in; what made us who we are; what inspired us; how we wanted to live; what we were good at and no so good at. Some key themes came from this such as community, faith, family, sustainability, simplicity and nature. There was a lot more talking … and then Bivouac fell out.
So we came home, rented out our house and converted a garden shed to live in whilst we began building the dream. It was a very long up and down journey through finding land, gaining planning permission, getting a government grant and raising a family all at once. The initial plan was that this Bivouac adventure would add massive value to our family, but at times we felt we had lost that ability as our family life got more disjointed as we got further in. But now, even though we have to work really hard, this was the best thing for family life.
Family life means a great deal to us. Bivouac is a place where we want family life and spending quality time together to be inspired again and time and space is given to just being together, in the outdoors, in our activities or cozy by the fire.
We have had our own family torn in bits with the death of our third daughter Florie Briah. She caught a nasty virus and was not old enough to fight it and she died from the damage to her heart that it caused. This happened just as the thirty or forty guys arrived on site to build the project with us. It was like living in a nightmare which couldn’t stop or slow down. We had folk living with us, needing us each day, when all you want to do is hide and catch breath. But, the flip side of this is that everything we believed we were building, community, and ethos of family and friendship, transparency, creativity – it all came into play in that season and I knew then, no matter how hard things were – Bivouac had been birthed. In Florence’s memory we are raising money to build a natural play park here on site. Free to use and designed for families to play, laugh, relax and reconnect.
We have Martha Willow 4, Elsie Myla coming up 3, full of life, creative and amazing company. We are a long way off where we hope to be, but this place is something special and I am so very privileged to have time here with my family, building something for other folk and us to all enjoy and take a part in. Bringing back something about life which might get missed far too often”.
I was recently asked to contribute to an article on ‘Dangerous Places to Visit’. I politely declined, as warzone voyeurism or ‘extreme’ excursions are not really my thing. I did ask them if they would like an article on my skating across Sweden’s frozen lakes, which is about as dangerous as my world gets really, but that was so not on the danger meter compared with what some people like to put themselves through on holiday.
A slow paced walking holiday is my ideal really. However, with temperatures rising there are now growing concerns about the safety of walkers. Just a few weeks ago, a tragedy occurred when a 78 year old British hiker died from a heart attack, after struggling with the extreme heat while she was walking on Gran Canaria. As temperatures hit 38 degress Celsius six other people, all in their sixties, were rescued that same weekend, suffering from problems relating to heat.
I, like so many others, read this with horror, knowing that even though these hikers were not new to long distance walks, they could be struck so suddenly by the heat in this way. And even though they were in their more mature years, some of the fittest and most agile walkers I meet on my travels are twenty or thirty years my senior. And, I must admit, that I have hiked in extreme heat and never given it a second thought, as long as I had my usual water, sunscreen and a hat. But of course, there is so much more to take into account, whether you are five or fifty and the British Consul for the Canary Islands gave me ten of the best when I admitted that I wasn’t perhaps as knowledgeable as I thought I was:
Don’t hike alone unless you are an experienced walker and are familiar with the area (guilty)
Always plan your trail in advance. There are many useful websites with well researched routes (more or less)
Choose an appropriate trail according to your fitness level (Emm, guilty).
Take a map with you and don’t go off the trail (Not guilty, but map not always brilliant quality)
Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather and length of your hike (not guilty).
Take enough water and food (always pretty good on that one).
Don’t forget other essential gear like sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat (ten out of ten).
Inform someone of where you are going and when you expect to return (Guilty)
Take a fully charged mobile phone with you (Guilty).
Another great piece of advice came from Amanda Marks, Managing Director of Tribes Travel, one of the most exemplary travel companies in terms of ethical and sustainable practices. Just back from Botswana, Amanda told me, “ I’m probably a good one to ask about this problem, as I don’t cope with the heat at all well, yet love going on walking safaris etc. As soon as it goes above 25 degrees I struggle, but I have learned to cope with this in a variety of ways. Firstly, shade. I always walk wearing a hat with a wide brim all the way round. On top of this, if it’s REALLY hot, I take an umbrella. Yes, I get a lot of stick for that one, and it’s not practical all the time, but can provide much needed shade at critical times. Secondly, hydration. Most people know to drink lots of water, but I always add rehydration powders to my water. It gives you extra salts and sugars that help your body cope with the heat. Thirdly, choosing your times. Apart from choosing the months which are less hot, I also choose my times of day quite carefully. Always walk in early mornings and late afternoons. The middle of the day is most definitely siesta time for me”.
So, my hydration salts are going to be a firm fixture in my Camelbak from now on, and if you haven’t heard of Camelbaks, a brand of hydration pack, check them out. There are many cheaper versions on the market now and when I have lots to carry, I just take the inner section out and transfer it to my normal day pack. Another expert is Carol Palioudaki, resident agent of Pure Crete which offers walking holidays on this stunning island, as well as a superb collection of holiday accommodation all owned by members of the local communities. She says that “People really don’t think about the heat risks, or they underestimate them. We always warn our clients here in Crete that when temperatures are above 35 celsius hiking becomes dangerous. Our body temperature is 37 celsius so when the outside temperature goes above this, the body can’t cool itself. The best time for walking in Crete is during the spring and autumn, but even then mini heat waves can pose a risk. The dangers of walking in extreme heat are well know in Crete, and the Samaria Gorge, one of Europe’s longest and most demanding gorge hikes, closes to visitors during extreme local heat waves” .
Gran Canaria is also home to a superb English travel writer, Matthew Hirtes who, if you are a fan of this part of the world, is worth checking out, either on his blog, Gran Canaria Local, or via his book, Going Local in Gran Canaria (Summertime Publishing, 2012). His thoughts are also worthy of adding to the walking wake up call to those of us, myself included, who have been guilty of walking on regardless. “What was most depressing of the recent hiking tragedies on Gran Canaria”, says Matthew “ is that they were so preventable. There’s a reason for the hiking season being from October through to March on Gran Canaria. And that’s because the island is politically Spanish but geographically African. Heatwaves originating from the dry and dusty Sahara, which is a lot nearer than the Iberian Peninsula, make hiking a no-no from April through to September. I recently completed a round-island trek at the tail-end of March and it was heavy-going. The surprisingly verdant interior of Gran Canaria offers a whole new world to explore beyond the bucket and spade. But there’s a time for this place and it’s certainly not May”.
And a few final thoughts to throw into the mix from a spokesman at the British Embassy, following the Canarian tragedy. As well as concurring with all the above, he wisely added that tourists should “bear in mind there may be no supplies of fresh water in the mountains and hills. Streams will often have dried up” and “be aware that the Catalonia region has started charging negligent hikers, climbers, skiers and other adventurers who have to be rescued. The regional government has recently started sending bills to all people who required emergency rescues, to encourage others to be more careful”. He also couldn’t stress the importance of travel insurance highly enough, adding that “If you need to be returned to the UK it could cost between £12,000 to £16,000 for an air ambulance from the Canaries”. All sobering stuff – not that I paid attention while walking along Pembrokeshire’s Coast Path in Wales a couple of weeks ago. After a night of storms, it suddenly hit a cloudless 24 degrees, and not a bit of shade in sight. I didn’t even have my Camelpak, just my usual aluminium water bottle and certainly hadn’t packed a rehydration sachet. This was Wales after all. After three hours of walking, I had to take a rest under a gorse bush, slowly sip what was left of my bottle, and then walk off my route for a couple of kms to find proper sustenance. I can honestly say I have now learnt my lesson.
This article was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland.
If you love Goa, then you have a chance to take action to preserve its most vital resource – water. There are so many injustices going on with relation to water that the majority of tourists don’t have any idea about, and the fact is that water which is being made available to tourists in contrast with that available to people who live there has hit crisis point. Which is why I am asking you to urgently sign a petition to the Goan government, as part of an campaign led by Tourism Concern, the Council for Social Justice and Peace (CSJP) and Eco Footprints to urgently address the overexploitation of Goa’s water resources by a growing numbers of resorts and hotels.
Petitions do make a difference, especially when they have an heap of tourists behind them, upon whom Goa’s economy heavily depends. New research by Tourism Concern entitled Reclaiming Water Rights – Towards and Equitable Social Contract in Goa will also give a strong spine to the petition landing on the Ministers’ desks, which indicates that the luxury tourism sector is being prioritised over domestic and small-scale livelihood needs.
For example, findings show that residents in the popular resort town of Calangute receive piped water for just two hours every two days. Traditional community wells are becoming unusable due to pollution and over-extraction, forcing a growing dependency on inadequate public supplies and infrastructure. Meanwhile, nearby resorts boasting swimming pools and golf courses enjoy a continuous water supply. One 5-star hotel in Benaulim consumes up to 1,785 litres of water per guest per day, compared to just 14 litres per day by neighbouring villagers. One guesthouse owner in Calungute comments, “The wells here have been contaminated for 10 years. The contamination has been partly caused by soak pits from tourism. Dirty water leaches into the ground. The soak pits are illegal. In the hot, dry season – March, April, May – we get water for 20-30 minutes a day…. Many people depend on tankers. Local people sometimes feel angry, but they recognise the benefits that tourism can bring. But it is we ordinary people who are suffering. We are drinking this water, they are not. Some can afford to buy water, some cannot.”
It does not mean that you shouldn’t go to Goa, enjoy your pool, shower or golf course, although using water responsibly, just as we do at home these days, does help. Real immediate change must start at government level, so that urgent improvements can be felt straight away among the local population, who need water urgently. “The Government of Goa must respond to this critical issue and implement the recommendations of our report, Reclaiming Water Rights – Towards an Equitable Social Contract in Goa. We urge them to instigate a clear regulatory framework for water and tourism management, implement existing laws and improve infrastructure to ensure community water rights don’t come second to major resort developments”, says Mark Watson, Executive Director of Tourism Concern.
The research simmers with discontent, quoting many local people who are now panicking about this life threatening issue. Geraldine Fernandes, another guesthouse owner in Benaulim says, “I have a well, but the water level is going down. When they build these new developments they dig a borewell with a pump. My well water has significantly declined. I’m now running dry by February… There’s so much environmental destruction and garbage, and lack of proper sewage treatment… We are not anti-development; we want development that protects our livelihoods.”
So please, if you love Goa, take thirty seconds and sign the petition here to keep Goa going.
I remember pitching a column idea to some editors a few years ago, on one of those ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ sort of days. It had the working title of ‘The People I Meet’. My aim was to get human stories onto the travel pages and, in the process, create a consumer awareness of responsible tourism without labelling it such. So many people get uptight about terminology linked to the responsible tourism movement but my feeling is that, call it what you will, it always comes back to people. Predictably I received several polite ‘no thanks’ to the pitch, but the one which stood out was from a leading broadsheet which just said “We and our readers want to read about places, not people. If you could get an interview with Richard Branson, however, we might run it”.
So, I put the idea to bed for a while, and in my own way, still try to incorporate the people I meet into my travel features. For example, Ben Llongisa, the Maasai elder whom I met a few years ago and who, against all odds, has created a lodge to host tourists in his village of Enkereri in Kenya ( see the video thanks to The Travel Foundation). I remember one of the editor’s arguments against ‘people stories’ was that they don’t sellholidays and, in an effort to keep their sponsors and advertisers happy, they need to talk about the place first and foremost. However, ever since leaving home at eighteen, it has so often been people who have lead me to a place, not effusive editorial or ‘on brand’ marketing campaigns. In fact, it was hearing a Maasai elder speak at WTM about how they just ‘needed a voice’ that made me want to go to Kenya in the first place.
Of course, I accept that not every traveller wants to holiday in order to ‘give people a voice’ or indeed, an ear. But I do believe that people’s stories do often influence our travel choices. The success of the much missed BBC Radio Four’s Excess Baggage or popular books such as A Year in Provence are simple examples of this. Last year we had the honour of hosting Michel Awad in our home, the co-founder of the Siraj Center in Palestine, an interfaith, community based tourism initiative in Palestine, which runs walking and cycling holidays. Michel talked to us about his fascinating organisation, which works closely with the Palestinan Center for Rapprochement Between People, enabling them to partner with many grassroots organisations to discuss and act upon issues such as water distribution and, of course, changing tourists’ perceptions about Palestine. Palestine is now at the top of my list of places I hope to visit in the near future, not because of a PR pitch or an alluring article, but because I met a lovely person doing extraordinary work there. I will certainly be needing a people-phile editor to commission that one as the stories will, hopefully, be worthy of a weighty word count.
In other industries, speakers reminded us, the commercialisation of an industry needs to take into account all the costs involved and a true analysis of the social, or human cost should take place in tourism destinations as well. There was a lot of talk about UN Guiding Principles, endorsed in June 2011, which outline how States and businesses should implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework in order to better manage business and human rights challenges. So, do destinations which are marketing themselves for tourism protect their country from human rights abuses by travel companies, for example? Secondly, adhering to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in all tourism activities, and then thirdly, providing greater access to victims to seek a remedy for any injuries resulting from human rights abuses.
The tourism industry was also being urged to get a system of due diligence in place quickly if they were to play ethical catch up. What are the country’s human rights risks, are you linked to them in any way, how transparent are you being about these risks, and do you have adequate remedies available when, as one human rights expert stated ‘ when bad things happen’ ? Tourism businesses were being advised to ‘stop being the experts and go out and see what people think on the ground – not just once, but often, as human rights issues change all the time – and if you don’t engage you won’t know’. We are not just talking about the Burmas and Balis either here. This could involve child sex tourism in Eastern Europe, inhumane working conditions in the UK hospitality sector, or people displacement in Scotland in the name of a golf course. And if, as a tourism organisation, you are super proactive in the area of remedying some of these issues, then these are stories you might want to shout about. And hopefully, if any editors out there don’t want to shy away from the human element in tourism, I can then share.
By writing about people who are creating a force for change in tourism, we can not only assist them in seeking remedy, but we can also simply remind tourists that human beings and their homes are central to our holidays. I stayed at a Cretan house a few years ago, and we invited our hosts in for a bottle of wine on the first night. A bottle of home made wine they had been kind enough to give us, by the way. In spite of our language barriers, we enjoyed the wine, more wine, songs, laughs and warmth. And then more wine. When we left, our host told us we were the first UK family in twenty years of hosting, to invite him and his family in. This is far from a human rights issue, but for that human, it was certainly a big issue. If it is this hard for us to even say ‘hi’ on holiday, then we have a long way to go before we hear the real stories behind the smiles. But, we have to start somewhere.
Since leading holiday company, First Choice decided to make 100 per cent of its holidays ‘all inclusive’ packages this year, it has grabbed the headlines. An all inclusive holiday is one where flights, accommodation, food, drink and entertainment are paid for in advance of the holiday so that customers can, more or less, leave their wallets at home. Demand for such holidays has been increasing over the last few years (a third of all package holidays booked in the UK are all inclusive now) and so First Choice says that this switch over is merely a response to customer demand. In spite of the fact that the company has a responsible tourism plan which is crammed as full as an all inclusive buffet. A veritable smorgasbord of sustainability, in fact, which proudly states that, “We in the travel industry often get to meet those who are most affected by the big social and environmental issues of today. So perhaps this gives us a greater chance to create a better world through the way we operate”. So, is the all inclusive holiday the way to a better world?
I pick First Choice merely because it calls itself the ‘The home of the all inclusive’, but of course there are many other companies offering similar packages. First Choice even has an all inclusive calculator on its website, where you can work out just how much you are saving, compared with staying at the local villager’s apartment, buying fruit and vegetables at his mother’s market stall, eating at his uncle’s restaurant, renting canoes from his neighbour, and buying ice cream from his best mate. Don’t do that, First Choice says, because you can get it all in their resort and at half the cost.
“We are just doing what our clients want us to do’, emphasised First Choice’s representative at a recent debate on the sustainability of all inclusives, as if to suggest, it’s nothing to do with us, we just have a duty to uphold. So, imagine this. A region such as West Cork in Ireland, the Isle of Wight in England, or the Pembrokeshire in Wales, is suddenly marketed as THE next destination for, say, Russian tourists. The Russian tourists want casinos, golf courses and all day buffets, all within the resort gates, with no access to local people, except to come and clean the rooms and serve the food. The use of locally produced food is not guaranteed, no one needs to use local cottages, canoes, walking guides, car hire, bikes, markets, tourist offices, gift shops, bakeries, pubs, etc. Looking at the ‘I want therefore I get’ school of commerce, it’s not hard to imagine what the reaction of the host nations would be.
The ‘pro’ argument for all inclusives is always that local people should be happy because they offer ‘employment’. At a recent conference on responsible tourism, when one international hotel chain which was boasting its ethical practices in the Caribbean, because it was now buying all its jam from an island producer, I challenged them: “Why stop at jam?” I suggested, “Surely there are so many other products you could source locally?” to which the response was, “Have you any idea what that would do to our profit margins? And anyway, we employ hundreds of people here every year, which is more than they had before we arrived.”
In a BBC television interview last week, where Nick Longman, Distribution Director at First Choice defended the decision to move to a 100 % all inclusive model, he said “Businesses have to be innovative in how they get to customers and I would also suggest they would want to work with our hotels”, adding that First Choice is “developing dine-around programmes, where we may give people the opportunity to go out into the town to eat and drink in bars that we have relationships with”. This suggestion that, for example, traditional cafés selling cafes con leche and cervezas were just not innovative enough or, indeed, commercially minded, is beyond patronising.
I also asked a representative from the Spanish Tourist Board recently, who was agreeing that all inclusives were not a positive model for the Spanish economy, why they just didn’t go out on a limb and ban them. “We can’t do that, it is a free economy, they can do what they want”.
Until the customer starts to say no, that is. Especially if it is, as suggested,solely customer desire which drives boardroom decisions. Many customers are capable of calculating the real costs of costa del consumerism, especially if they know that only 10% of tourist spend in Turkey makes its way into the local economy due to the all inclusives, for example. Or that in Kenya, 87% of tourists go on all inclusive holidays, and yet over half of local people live on less than $1 a day. These statistics are from recent research from Tourism Concern, the leading UK charity campaigning against the exploitation of human rights in tourism, which is currently leading a campaign highlighting the destructive impacts of all inclusives in destinations all around the world. Check out their online questionnaire on the subject, to give much appreciated feedback on these issues.
Jost Krippendorf, author of a superb book The Holiday Makers (Butterworth-Heinemann) put it perfectly in his detailed study of the impacts of international tourism: “Why has the loss of local autonomy – certainly the most negative long-term effect of tourism- been totally ignored? Why does the local population tolerate it?…the determining factor is perhaps the very nature of the process: it creeps in, moving on soft soles and one only becomes fully aware of it when it has reached an advance stage. Tourism is a kind of friendly conquest, which takes place not only with the acquiescence of the conquered, but at their explicit invitation” and that eventually, “foreign infiltration it total”. He concludes that “it is a new and devious form of colonialism, because it creates, in a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-its-mouth way, a new dependence and exploits people and resources”.
The fact is that all inclusive resorts are not always the cheaper option. I used the First Choice all inclusive ‘calculator’ to see just how much a saving they say I would make if I buy an all inclusive holiday in Lanzarote, compared with a self-catering one. For a week in July, with two adults and two children, they offer a deal of £2768 (Sterling) all inclusive, and claim that a similar holiday on a non inclusive basis would cost £4349. Although the calculator is not an exact quote, described as merely an ‘entertaining tool’ , I thought it would be equally entertaining to compare the cost of staying at a wonderful eco-friendly glamping resort which I wrote about earlier in the year, Lanzarote Retreats. Here are the approximate costs for a family of four in Sterling: Flights £800 (quote from 29 April 2012), accommodation, £700, airport transfers £100, day trip to water park £100, day trip to local island £122. Total: £1822. If I were to add on £946 for food and drink for the week, that would bring me up to the same cost as First Choice’s all inclusive deal, as opposed to the £4349 they were suggesting. And even eating out a couple of times, buying fish from the local fishmonger, shopping at the local markets, buying the finest Lanzarote wine at €10 a bottle, I can make a grand a week spread a long way and have an wonderful and truly sustainable holiday. So, you can consume and care, without it costing you or your hosts a fortune. But at the end of the day, the real choice is yours.
(An edited version of this article was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland)
This International World Water Day (22 March 2012), tourists are being urged to remain water aware while on holiday. The call comes from campaigning groups Tourism Concern and Water Wise, who have produced a set of water-saving tips for tourists – whether they are holidaying in the UK or overseas.
“The current drought in the UK highlights the need for us all to use less water in our daily lives. This should extend to our holidays, whether we’re visiting Bognor Regis or the Balearics. Generally, there’s a tendency for our water consumption to increase while we’re away”, says Mark Watson, Executive Director of Tourism Concern.
Many of our favourite holiday destinations are in hot and dry regions of the world, where water is scarce due to low rainfall levels. In poorer countries, such as Kenya, The Gambia, India and Bali in Indonesia, lack of infrastructure and poverty means communities often struggle to meet their daily water needs, even if seasonal rains are plentiful. Tourist high season usually falls during the summer months, which can place additional pressure on water supplies. Meanwhile, neighbouring resorts consume vast quantities of water for guest rooms, landscaped gardens, swimming pools and golf courses. This can lead to the depletion of groundwater resources and place additional strain on public supplies.
While governments and the tourism industry must lead in managing water resources more sustainably, Tourism Concern and Water Wise point out that tourists also have a vital role to play. Their top tips for a water friendly holiday include:
Take a shower instead of a bath. This uses about a third of the amount of water.
Opt in to towel and sheet re-use schemes and report dripping taps
Turn off the water while lathering the soap, brushing teeth or shaving. A running tap uses 6 litres of water a minute.
Ask your hotel what it’s doing to save water and find out about the water situation in the area where you’re staying
Tourists can also get involved by taking the online WET Pledge in support of Tourism Concern’s Water Equity in Tourism Campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that the water rights of communities in tourism destinations are not compromised by tourism development.
For example, research to be published by Tourism Concern next month indicates that in the Indian state of Goa, a popular destination with British holidaymakers, the hotel industry is consuming vast amounts of water from the public supply, while local communities only have limited access. In the tourist hub of Calangute, some households reportedly only receive piped water for two hours every other day, while aging infrastructure and frequent power cuts mean that even then it can be unreliable.
Meanwhile, the depletion and pollution of groundwater and waterways, caused in large part by the tourism sector, means that some traditional community wells are becoming unusable. This in turn is forcing households to become increasingly dependent upon the erratic public piped supply.
Back in the UK, southern and eastern regions are facing their worst drought for many years. The UK actually has less water per person than Greece, Italy or Spain; London has less rainfall than Istanbul, and Manchester has just half the rainfall of Sydney”, says Jacob Tompkins, Managing Director of Water Wise. “We can all do our bit to use less water and still have a fantastic holiday”, says Tompkins.
‘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.
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.
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’.
As my four years of writing a regular column for The Irish Times comes to a close, I just wanted to share some of my favourites with you. In no particular order, these are some of my top trips and tips. Just click on the link to take you to the original article now republished here on the blog.
One of the most spectacular has to be the swimming holiday I did in Croatia, training for about four months so that I could swim from island to island every day, achieving 3-4 kms swims through Croatia’s magical aqua-maze. Outdoor swimming, and discovering travel in this slow, peaceful way has become a part of my life now, as I constantly crave another swimming holiday in the way others do about skiing.
The most challenging family holiday, and indeed the most memorable, was trekking across the Alpine Mercantour National Park in France with a donkey to carry our bags, and a few maps to guide us from auberge to gite. Feeling like the veritable Von Trapps by the time we had finished, this is pure, family time just walking and talking, cheering each other on when we faded, or dozing on mountain tops before a well earned descent.
Ireland is so full of green gems, it almost makes our emerald shine brighter. There were so many favourites to choose from that I had to put them all on a travel app, called Ireland Green Travel. Some which stand out in our memories not only for being sustainable beacons, but also for giving that extra special something include Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites, a place so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Less chic but just as cool and copped on to the responsible tourism movement are the yurt camps, Chleire Haven on Cape Clear and Teapot Lane on the Leitrim-Donegal borders. My kids took to horseriding in one of the most friendly and eco friendly riding centres, Slieve Aughty in EastGalway, where the owner Esther encouraged us to look our horses in the eyes and talk gently to them, allowing the whole process of riding to be organic and natural.
On the water, there are two kayakers leading the way in greening our tourism industry in Ireland: Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking, in West Cork, who took me on a stunning nature trip around the islands of West Cork, with some fab seaweed foraging and cooking to make this trip even more memorable. And Nathan Kingerlee of Outdoors Ireland in
Kerry who showed us Kerry from a kayak, miles away from any tourists into bits of Kerry we never knew existed. Not only does kayaking make me feel young again, these people are committed not only to conservation but also their communities. They also made me smile a lot. And for trips out on the water, one of the most innovative companies I have come across was Dulra Nature Tours in Belmullet, Mayo, who took us on a ‘Catch and Cook’ weekend, but with so many more surprises thrown in.
Two places in Galway will pull us back again and again, for the sheer friendliness and creativity. As well as their gobsmacking locations. Delphi Mountain Resort in Leenane is the place to bring your kids to be active. You can canoe, climb and surf with them, or you can just leave them to it and chill in the seaweed baths. You can stay in a budget dorm, or treat yourself to a luxury suite. Either way, Delphi is just too cool for school in my boys’ books. And Ballynahinch Castle quite simply wins the crown of Connemara for so many reasons you just have to read the article to find out more. And then just book it.
I don’t fly very often, but sometimes it just has to be done. Grabbing a bit of sun once in a while is good for us all, but doing it in a green and gorgeous way, while reducing your carbon footprint while you are there, was made possible at the eco-chic Lanzarote Retreats, which we still pine for. And covering issues like the exploitation of the Maasai Mara in Kenya was a good reason for flying too. Spending time with the Maasai was eye opening to say the least. They are natural educators, open to different cultures, and innately generous. We had the honour of hosting one of the elders I met in our home a year after I met them, so that he could share his story with the tourism industry. I am sharing it here. Giving these honourable, dignified people a voice in tourism is what makes my job special, and so I would like to add this article to the list above, and hope it, like others, helps you change the way you travel in small ways.
[This article was published in The Irish Times following the dramatic enquiry into phone hacking and News International in July 2011]
Many of us have spent the last two weeks watching the dramas of international organisations unfold. As we learn more about the effects of power and money, secrecy and immorality, few can sympathise with the hackers, editors and company directors who are being forced, finally, to account for their illegal and inconceivable activities. Yet, in a world where share values, sales targets and market share take precedence, it is getting harder and harder to see who is accountable for social responsibility.
In tourism, one of the most powerful industries in the world, companies are merging into corporate giants quicker than most holiday makers can get their towels on a sunbed in the morning. Last week saw Thomas Cook being given the green light for a proposed merger with the Cooperative Group, both already holding a vast share of the travel market in UK and Ireland, with Thomas Cook owning Sunworld and Panorama brands to name but a few. In 2007, German travel group TUI, which already owned Thomson, merged with First Choice, to create TUI Travel UK and Ireland, which includes the brand Falcon.
Let me be clear – I am in no way equating the business practices of these tourism giants with those of, say, the Murdoch media empire. In fact, the good news is that all these companies are members of ABTA, The Travel Association which aims to encourage a high level of sustainability among its members, and they are also all supporters of The Travel Foundation (thetravelfoundation.org.uk), a charity which guides leading tourism businesses to participate in responsible tourism practices in specific destinations. ABTA, for example, has created the Travelife System, which audits hotels’ environmental practices as well as the degree to which they support the local community. You can see all participating hotels and tour operators at travelifecollection.com.
However, at a recent conference, when another leading international hotel chain boasted their ethical practices in the Caribbean, announcing that they were now buying all their jam from an island producer, I challenged them: “Why stop at jam?” I suggested, “Surely there are so many other products you could source locally?” to which the response was, “Have you any idea what that would do to our profit margins? And anyway, we employ hundreds of people here every year, which is more than they had before we arrived”. Bread and circus, with jam flavouring to hide the real taste, I thought.
The problem is that sustainability seems only to be a concern for many of the players in tourism when they can be shown that there is a ‘business case’ for it. Or, in other words, when ethics translate to profits. The other argument I often hear is that mass tourism businesses are simply doing what we, the consumers, want. For example, both the Director of Communications and the Director of Purchasing for TUI Travel UK and Ireland concurred, at a recent debate on the sustainability of all inclusive holidays, that TUI’s recent decision to make all their First Choice holidays ‘all inclusive’ from summer 2012, was purely a response to increased consumer demand for this type of holiday, adding, “The tour operator supplies what the customer asks”. This ethos of ‘if there is a demand, it is our job to supply it’ leaves ethics a bit far down the pecking order, in my view.
At this same debate, however, Rachel McCaffery, Responsible Business Manager at Virgin Holidays stated, “We have bought into the fact that there is a business case for sustainable tourism but, at Virgin, it is about doing the right thing too”. Profit can no longer be the sole motivating factor in economic activity and, in travel, the time has come for all tourism businesses to recognise human needs in the destination too.
There will always be some corporate leaders who roll there eyes at the ethical debate in tourism, dismissing proponents of sustainability as ‘snobs’ who just don’t ‘approve’ of mass tourism, or out of touch with world economics. But this is not the case. A growing number of consumers are demanding that people in destinations are treated fairly, and that their homelands are respected. Perhaps we just need to shout our consumer demands a bit more loudly. And, in the worst case scenario, if mass tourism doesn’t turn out to be a destination’s promised panacea, that someone is able to hold up their hand and be accountable. Be that we the consumers for ‘demanding’ it, the businesses for profiting from it, or the governments for allowing it.
Most of us know that tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world. However, travelling with the sole purpose of paying money for sex is also a form of tourism, and a multi-million dollar side of the industry it is too. And although these are not the type of economic benefits the world tourism industry boasts about as it develops across the globe, all sectors are set to benefit from it indirectly, including travel agents, hotels, airlines and taxis.
Less well known, however, is that over three million children are exploited for sex around the world. It was not surprising, therefore, that it was one of the topics being debated at last week’s United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) International Congress on Ethics and Tourism in Madrid, which I attended along with 450 people working in tourism. One of the key speakers was Kathleen Speake, Executive Director of ECPAT International (ecpat.net), a global network of organisations and individuals working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Speake not only managed to astound us with her stats and strategies, but also enlisted many of Spain’s leading tourism companies to sign ECPAT’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, an initiative funded by UNICEF and supported by the UNWTO.
The Code (www.thecode.org) is for companies which are willing to put ethics before profits and already has 1030 signatories in 42 countries. ECPAT is not just about Codes and empty words however. They run international campaigns, lobby local governments to increase policing and change policy and lead training groups for hotel and other tourism related businesses around the world.
ECPAT’s influence has been significant. In Thailand, for example, there have been more and more prosecutions relating to child sex tourism offences. But it is still happening, and although many prostitutes will claim to be over eighteen, few sex tourists are going to ask for ID. The town of Pattaya, for example, is notorious for prostitution, and you only have to put ‘bachelor holidays Thailand’ into Google or Tripadvisor see that the industry is thriving. In Leo Hickman’s book The Final Call (Eden Project Books, 2008) a serious piece of investigative journalism into the dark sides of tourism, he describes a visit to Pattaya where he saw “men sitting around tables with boys who look as young as ten…it seems gut wrenchingly obvious what must be going on”. They are rarely caught in the act of paying for or having sex with a child, however, as they groom the children in these cafes, and then have them ‘delivered’ at a later stage to their room. As Hickman puts it, “this is child abuse made as easy as ordering a pizza’.
And yet Pattaya, is a town which marketing website gothailand.com promotes as “The ideal family holiday destination” in one paragraph, and a place where “Beer bars and g o-g o bars are dotted all along main roads and side ‘sois’ (streets), and have earned a dubious reputation for Pattaya, but also happens to be one of the main draw-cards” in the next. Thailand is not alone, of course, with ECPAT providing statistics on many countries around the world, such as Mexico’s 20,000 minors being estimated to be victims of prostitution, Kenya claiming to have as many as 30,000 girls aged from 12 to 14 being sexually exploited in hotels and private villas, and Moscow alone thought to have between 20,000 to 30,000 victimised children.
According to ECPAT, the majority of people exploiting children for sex purposes are not all defined as a ‘paedophile’ either, but more often as a ‘Situational Child Sex Tourist’, i.e. “someone who abuses children by way of experimentation or through the anonymity and impunity afforded by being a tourist. He or she does not have an exclusive sexual inclination for children”.
So, what can we do? Support ECPAT through donations, but also check www.thecode.org to see which companies have signed up and, more significantly perhaps, which ones haven’t. Accor Hotels (which includes Novotel, Mercure, Ibis and Sofitel) have worked with ECPAT for eleven years now, for example. If your hotel, airline, tour operator or travel agency has not signed up, then ask them why not. And most importantly, as confirmed by ECPAT’s website, report anything suspicious directly to them as well to a local authority if you can. This includes if you see a tourist sexually abusing a child, a person selling a child’s services (including a taxi driver, waiter, café owner etc), a tourist trying to buy a child for sexual exploitation and a hotel or travel company allowing it to take place. Child abuse has shocked us for many years at home, but now the time has come to ensure that we don’t let it travel.
An edited version of this article was published in The Irish Times, September 2011