Becoming a conscious traveller

After booking my flight out of New Zealand, my spare time and lunchtimes at work has involved researching South East Asia. This is a well trodden backpacking route, and there are plenty of travel blogs and forums available online. Through this I have discovered information that has made me aware of the importance of sustainable and ethical tourism, and that actually it’s something I’m quite passionate about.

Here I will highlight a few strands that are particularly relevant to the area I will be visiting.

Firstly, Orphanage Tourism. This can either be visitors offering a donation to the children performing a show or orphanages offering paid volunteering opportunities. This growing business to exploit the well-intended traveller is rife in Cambodia at the moment (as well as Uganda, Nepal and Haiti). There are reports to show that most of these children have atleast one living parent. The sad reality is people have realised they can make money off foreign visitors but most often the money from tourists doesn’t end up for the children. A good place to start for more information on this is is Think Child Safe’s campaign “Children are not tourist attractions” and Unicefs in depth report.

Secondly, is the Voluntourism industry. This term is used to describe short-term volunteering placements of tourists as part of their overall travels. In most cases the biggest benefactor is the volunteer who goes away from the experience feeling good that they have “given something back” whilst gaining a whole host of Instagrammable profile pictures. One of the many opportunities is teaching english, there are programmes which prepare, teach and qualify you for this, the most well known being TEFL where you will end with a long term teaching placement. The issue isn’t with these courses. The issue is with people volunteering to teach for a week or two weeks in the middle of their jaunt around South East Asia. I believe that you shouldn’t do something abroad that you wouldn’t do at home. Would you expect to be able to teach children without a qualification, experience or a police background check as a minimum at your old primary school? I didn’t think so. Would you like your own children or nephews or cousins to be taught by numerous underqualified, uncommitted foreigners who will post their photos all over the internet without your permission? I didn’t think so either. You believe you could be doing something worthwhile, but there are studies which have shown that children can experience negative developmental effects from the high turnover of volunteers. Voluntourism undermines the value of the community, why would someone hire locals to build a community building when volunteers will do it for free on their holiday? There are numerous other effects, both good and bad from tourism which Uncornered Market go through in detail here. A good website to point you in the right direction of worthwhile volunteering is Grassroots Volunteering.

Thirdly is wild animal tourism. This can range from paying to have your photo taken with cute tiger cubs, to taking an elephant trek to buying products made from animals. Tiger tourism is something in its own right with the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand allowing visitors to spend an afternoon with these Kings of the Jungle. An in depth report has been done of the Tiger Temple which can be read here so you can form your own opinion. However, I think it is wrong to cage up a wild animal claiming to be for “conservation” when actually they are out to make a tidy profit from ignorant tourists who just want a great animal selfie.

Elephants have been used for centuries in parts of Asia to help with farming, logging and ceremonies therefore communities have come to depend on their elephants for their livelihoods. The issue of elephant welfare and conservation is a much more complex issue involving the elephants, their owners, the communities and tourists. Yes I want to protect and conserve Asian elephants in the wild. Yes I think the way of “taming” a young elephant is cruel. Yes I think the conditions some elephants are made to work in are horrendous. However, when a mahout relies on income from his elephant whether it be trekking or street circus tricks you can’t justify taking the elephant away without a support system for the mahouts and their families. There are good programmes out there such as the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia which pays the mahout wages whilst their elephant has “time off” at their sanctuary and also the Elephant Nature Park.

An elephants back is not designed to carry the weight of people plus a huge wooden seat which can cause problems in itself for the elephant. Plus the fact that they are usually overworked and badly managed, it doesn’t encourage me to seek one of these out when I visit Thailand. However, it’s not as black and white as that because some elephant trekking centres provide an income to protect land for critically endangered tigers, rhinos and wild elephants. At Chitwan National Park elephants provide one of the safest ways to access the park and allow closer encounters with wild animals there. Read more about this complex issue on Responsible Travel.

These are few of the issues I am fed up with that come up on my Facebook feed again and again. There is a lot more to sustainable and ethical tourism, and it will differ depending on where you visit. So make sure you ask questions and do some research. In this day and age when information is so widely available at our fingertips we should be more ethical and responsible when spending our time and money abroad. Go on forums, read blogs and chat to locals and travellers alike. There are reputable organisations out there, you just need to find them.

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