Urgent appeal to keep Goa ‘going with the flow’

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.”

Dumped waste and sewage behind hotels at Colva Creek Photo: Tourism Concern

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.



The people I meet

Ben Rramat and Ben Longisa with Catherine in Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Christine Kieffer, donkey conservationist and mountain guide shows us our route through The Alpes - to be led by one of her donkeys

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.

It was a great relief, therefore, that humans were being put back in the heart of tourism at the recent  Tourism Industry and Human Rights meeting in London, co-hosted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Tourism Concern . Speakers from the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Water Aid, International Business Leaders Forum, Minority Rights Group, and the the International Labour Organisation (ILO) all agreed that human rights issues have been at the top of corporate agendas in other industry sectors for a long time now, and that tourism has a lot of catching up to do. Not for the want of trying, I am sure Tourism Concern wanted to shout out, the charity which has been putting people first for a long time now, and giving a voice to many people who wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of being heard in the past.

Zinaib, a Berber woman, teaches me the basics of weaving in Morocco

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.

David Job, owner of Yarde Orchard eco bunkhouse and cafe on North Devon's Tarka Trail

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.


All inclusive holidays – the way to a ‘better world’?

A beach in Togo Credit: Tourism Concern

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.”

Sustainability Manifesto for Lanzarote outside home of island acclaimed artist Cesar Manrique Photo: Catherine Mack

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.

Lanzarote Retreats, a sustainable and sublime alternative to the all inclusive resort Photo: Catherine Mack

(An edited version of this article was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland)










World Water Day – tips for tourists

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

View the full set of tips at Tourism Concern

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.

Enjoying an outdoor shower at Kingfisher Camp, Herefordshire http://www.canopyandstars.co.uk/find-a-place/grove-farm/kingfisher-camp

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.



Who is responsible?

Bulldozers in Bimini Photo: Gail Woon via Tourism Concern

[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.

Sun worshipping in Togo Photo: Tourism Concern

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.



When disaster strikes

When the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami hit, many tourists raced back to beloved beaches to help. Because everyone was desperate to help, even in some small way. People have donated generously to Haiti, but few have raced back to its beaches. Because, sadly, Haiti was only just starting to paddle its feet in the murky waters of tourism before disaster struck. But it is not tourism Haiti needs now. It is money, water, food, energy and expert support. Not tourists. If you want to travel to Haiti as a volunteer, do so only if you can offer expert help, and through an agency or charity. Haven (havenpartnership.com), for example, is an Irish charity already with substantial experience on the ground, and which is looking for volunteers to go there in April. This charity has also been recommended by Richard Morse, whom I have been following on Twitter. He runs the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, and has been Tweeting ever since the earthquake struck. Do check him out for an up to date voice from someone on the ground, at www.twitter/RAMHAITI.

In the meantime, one thing we can do as tourists is support other areas struck by natural disasters in the past, but now on the road to recovery. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept away 80% of Caribbean island Grenada’s infrastructure, devastating its spice and tourism industries. Hotels have been rebuilt, but a great ethical choice is to opt for a homestay, and homestaysgrenada.com has received international recognition for its work in bringing tourism right into local communities. Or check out Paradise Bay Beach Resort (paradisebayresort.net), an eco-accommodation committed to helping local farmers get back on their feet. Just staying here will help the local economy, but you can do even more by choosing their volunteer holidays, where you give hands-on help on a farm in the morning, and holiday at the beach in the afternoon.

Hurricane Katrina was not strong enough to stop the Mardi Gras Carnival in New Orleans either, and it is not too late to go and support the many businesses in need of tourist dollars. The party is just about to start, but keeps going until 16 February (mardigrasneworleans.com). Or Cyclone Aila, which hit Eastern India & Bangladesh in May 2009 and which also left a massive path of destruction. Ethical travel organisations Travel to Care and Help Tourism both rose to the occasion, raising funds for many of the small communities they represent. Their websites traveltocare.com and helptourism.com will lead you back to the ones which are ready and more than willing to have visitors back in their homes.

And let’s not forget the people of L’Aquila, Italy, where an earthquake struck last April. Nearly 300 people were killed, and 40,000 left homeless. Bizarrely, there is no obvious mention of it on the Italian Tourist Board (italiantouristboard.co.uk) website, unless you dig deep. Many hotels in the region of Abruzzo have been accommodating those who lost their homes, so they deserve a helping hand from tourists as the season begins. But do check that they are open for business. For information on agritourism, (farm-based) holidays in this region, see also, http://en.agriturismo.it/abruzzo.

The opportunities to holiday ethically in post-Tsunami destinations are many. A first port of call should be Tourism Concern (tourismconcern.org.uk) which has campaigned for fair and sustainable post-Tsunami tourism development. Its book, The Ethical Travel Guide, available on their website, lists leading ethical tourism providers, such as Andaman Discoveries, born out of the relief efforts, and which now brings tourists to community-led tourism projects and homestays (andamandiscoveries.com).

In the meantime, let’s hope that if Bill Clinton, UN special envoy to Haiti, is considering tourism development there in the future, he does so sustainably. By consulting with experts who have successful rebuilt from grassroots level, such as those above, he could eventually create a tourism industry which will benefit all Haitians well into the future.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 30 January 2010


People of the year 2009

Donkey trekking with Itinerance in Mercantour National Park, France

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







Voicing Irish concern

Photo: Tourism Concern
Photo: Tourism Concern

The Irish are famous worldwide for their sense of justice and human rights. During my travels, this is something that many people comment on and admire. One active conservationist company providing hiking holidays asked me to write about them recently, and requested specifically that I choose an Irish target audience, “We love Irish visitors” they told me, “as we don’t need to explain to them about leaving no trace as they go, or respecting farmers’ privacy. They don’t just barge into the countryside like gatecrashers at a party. They are always sensitive to local needs.” 

That is why I am urgently appealing to Irish tourists to support another organisation which has been striving to put a stop to exploitation through tourism for over twenty years now. This sense of justice and democracy, which the Irish tourist so often demonstrates abroad, is something the charity Tourism Concern has been actively campaigning for, for twenty years now. Like so many charities at the moment, it is struggling to survive and it recently announced that it won’t make it beyond the end of the year, unless it gets an urgent injection of funding. I have often referred to Tourism Concern in Ethical Traveller, because its work is unique. I have seen its Director, Tricia Barnett, in action at international conferences, taking on tourism ministers, multinational hotel chains and tour operators to put a stop to unethical practice. Consequently, they persuaded leading tour operators to adopt policies on labour conditions for hotels represented in their brochures with their Sun, Sand, Sea and Sweatshops campaign, and their Trekking Wrongs: Porter’s Rights campaign forced many international trekking companies to improve the lives of hundreds of porters and their families. It has also created huge international awareness of breaches of human rights in the name of tourism in Burma, put a hold on bulldozers which are wiping out local communities to build mega-resorts, and keeps up a constant awareness campaign on the horrors of the child sex tourism industry.


Tourism Concern has just put an urgent appeal out to the UK travel industry, where the charity is based. The appeal is called Tourism Concern 100, because it hopes that 100 travel companies will donate £1000 each in order to sustain the charity into the next decade. However, the Irish travel to many of the same destinations which Tourism Concern strives to protect, and also benefit from the ethical framework which it has put in place for us, so I wanted to share the appeal with you too.


I love writing about the ethical companies I come across on my travels, and giving them a voice. I am hoping that some of these will now offer a little bit back to the organisation which paved the way for exemplary ethical practice in tourism. Or perhaps some of those large businesses which have contacted me for advice on how to incorporate travel into their impressive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies can offer support. Inform your employees of Tourism Concern’s campaigns, make a donation, or why not consider getting individual annual membership (only £24 or equivalent in Euros) for each employee who travels regularly for work? To become a member, see tourismconcern.org.uk or for a one-off donation, please go to www.justgiving.com/tourismconcern/donate.


 And if you are planning any international travel over the next year or so, I would always advise checking out Tourism Concern’s website or buying their superbly informative travel guidebook, Ethical Travel, which lists audited eco-accommodations in many destinations, as well as ethical tour operators to guide you when you are there. You can buy this on their website and, if you can also afford annual membership, then you will be doing your bit and flying the Irish flag of support for good ethical work in the way that we are so often proud to do.


An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 31/10/09







Green is the new black

‘The only true ethical traveller is one who stays at home,” an old friend of my father’s announced over Christmas. “Bah, humbug,” I said, and we entered into a hearty debate. I am glad to say I managed to win him over. With luck I have managed to win a few readers over since I started Ethical Traveller, earlier this year. My argument is quite simple. Tourism is the one of the largest industries in the world. If we all stop travelling, world economies would be much more bruised than they are already. On the other hand, tourism grows all the time, with new destinations suddenly becoming the place to see “before we die”. So we need to stop and take stock of the effect we are having on these places.

According to the UN, European trips will grow by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2020, despite the current economic downturn. Its Code of Ethics for Tourism rightly talks about “tourism’s contribution to mutual understanding and respect between peoples and societies”. In other words, the world we like to call our oyster is also someone else’s home. If we trample all over these homes, use up all their resources, shut them out of their own back gardens or beaches, or treat them like servants, all in the name of a holiday, then this is not ethical.

If this all sounds a bit worthy, then that’s because it is. We don’t have to sugar-coat the ethical message any more, as people get it: we all recycle, buy energy-saving bulbs and know something’s not right about a T-shirt that costs €1. That is why eco-, sustainable or ethical tourism, call it what you will, is one of the biggest growth sectors of tourism.

Many companies are finally taking heed, listening to their clients’ increasing ethical concerns, and providing holidays that really make a difference to the places we choose to visit. Charities such as the UK‘s Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) lobby multinationals and governments to stop exploitation in the name of tourism.

This column aims to help you pick out the real thing, because with green being the new black, “eco” is being rapidly tagged on to any old travel website. So beware. Look for responsible tourism policies, read them and find out what the companies are really doing to improve their business practices. There is no international ethical rating system yet for tourism, so it is difficult to distinguish the good from the dodgy, but I try to give the good ones a voice.

Travel is one of life’s most rewarding and inspiring pursuits, and doing it more responsibly does not mean giving it up altogether. Just do it better. Fly only when absolutely necessary. Spend your holiday money locally in whatever way you can. People in tourist areas depend on it for a living, so think local. Learn some of the language; it is the first step in embracing local culture. Leave the car behind, and use low-carbon transport whenever you can. Learn about the local flora and fauna. What impact does your jet ski have on marine life? What is the artificial snow machine doing to the Alps? How can a golf course be so green in a drought area, where locals have water restrictions? How much is that waiter being paid?

The good news is that there is a plethora of alternatives. Amazing train journeys, cooking holidays, walking breaks, cycling getaways and kayaking trips. Ecofriendly cottages, castles and campsites. And, most importantly, people out there creating superb ways for us to see the world and ensuring, at the same time, that it will still be there for the next generations. So, happy travelling, and happy new year.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 27 December 2008)