Something I’ve spent many hours pondering about is whether tourism has been an overall positive influence for most communities I’ve visited, or if it it might have been more counter-productive than anything else. I’ve been making quite a few journeys lately – to some beautiful locations across the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand. I’m often my happiest when I’m on the road exploring, with the smell of freedom and the wind on my skin, not sure where we might end up at the finish of the day. But I’m also a somewhat reluctant consumer of tourism, joining in the throngs of other tourists at some of the popular attractions.
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with being just another tourist in a crowd – it can too often feel as though I’m just consuming the local culture in a sort of superficial or commercialised format. Experiencing culture, but only on a surface level. Skimming over all the complexities of local life taking photos – taking something – but never really leaving anything meaningful behind. In that way, traveling can sometimes leave me feeling empty or as if something is missing, which I guess is why I usually prefer to settle in one location for a period of time rather than move from place to place. I usually seek out the most remote locations or try to get off the beaten track so that I can encounter something more real and authentic – to be challenged by what I see and to learn from the local culture that is there.
It was clear that tourism has had an undeniable impact on Batad and surrounding areas. For centuries families have operated out of subsistence living, consuming only what was produced or could be traded within the region. But in recent years the influx of cash from tourism has sent ripples of change throughout the system. Grass thatched roofs are now rare and houses are mostly constructed with materials brought in from the outside world. Many of the souvenirs offered are no longer traditional but instead made cheaply in foreign factories. And like any tourist destination, stiff competition was evident among the accommodation providers. There were also stories of families splitting and children moving away to the city. Some ancient traditions have been lost in recent years, like the art of wooden flute making, which we learned was lost when a recent older generation passed away.
The ironic thing about tourism is that most travellers come to experience the traditional and cultural way of life and yet the presence of so many foreigners is the very thing that often triggers so much change, separating the community so definitively from their old, more insular past. Sadly what is often left behind can be just an imitation of ancient traditions, much like the touristy imitation flutes now available, just a caricature of what once was. In their hurry, tourists might easily miss the little details that make the difference. Batad reminded me that with change and development inevitably comes loss of some of the traditional. No culture in the world has been able to avoid that, and yet I can’t help but feel a little disheartened about it.
The fact of the matter is that tourism accelerates change. In doing so it has both positive and negative impacts, some of which are irreversible. But just as tourism can accelerate the loss of the old ways, it has also proven a powerful catalyst for transformative change that has had a remarkably beneficial impact for many poor communities around the world. By harnessing the beautiful environment with which they are blessed, many struggling countries have been able to bring in and use new cash to substantially improve living standards for their people. For example increasing access to medical care and enhancing the quality of education (such as in the Cook Islands, Samoa, Thailand). In fact this positive change is exactly what I work hard to facilitate and foster in my day job as a development worker.
As the rice terrace communities of Batad have gained access to cash and modern technologies since the 1970s, they have been able to propel themselves up the development ladder, sending their older children away for quality schooling or offering their children new opportunities they themselves have never known. Those children gain jobs and are able to send money home to their families where it is invested in more schooling and development of tourist accommodation which produces better returns. Ultimately the changes I was observing in Batad were perhaps not really about the tourism per se, but more about the process of development itself.
I am starting to think that tourism is something that should be embraced and encouraged, but only in it’s most respectful and ethical forms. Not all tourism is equal – far from it. But just as mass tourism can ruin the environment and marginalise indigenous populations, so too can sustainable tourism have a profoundly positive outcome for the community. In my travels I came across one or two inspiring examples which I will blog about soon.
From what I have seen so far, positive tourism seems to be the kind that gives cash directly into the hands of community members, that provides fair wages, promotes products made locally, provides training and up-skilling for communities members, is fair and transparent and is sustainable and environmentally friendly. It is the kind of tourism that encourages many small local businesses to provide services for travellers so that the benefits can be shared, rather than concentrating the rewards among only a few large (especially foreign) companies.
I’m convinced that we as consumers have the power to dictate the impact that tourism has for poor communities by demanding and only using the kind of tourism services that benefit rather than further marginalise poor communities. Its difficult to know what these services are and how to spot them, but I’m committed to learning more about ethical, impactful tourism and how I can improve the influence I leave as a traveller. I will be sharing my ideas about socially conscious tourism here in this blog as I go, but in the meantime I’d love to hear from you if you have any experiences of great tourism providers, or lessons from your journeys, please share them below.