How To Travel With Meaning – Ethically, Sustainably & Responsibly
Introduction – What is Meaningful Travel?
My name is Jennifer, I work in Meaningful Innovation at Rickshaw Travel and when I visited Thailand I rode an elephant.
Some of you are thinking, so what?
Or maybe you’re thinking wow! That sounds cool!
Or you might be completely appalled…
Why? Why would you be appalled?
Well, it’s gaining traction now in the media that elephants used for riding, particularly in Asia, have often undergone unspeakable cruelty to get them to obey humans.
Elephants are herd animals and have never been domesticated in the way that dogs or cats or horses have been, so in order to ‘train’ an elephant, babies are taken from their mothers and their spirit is broken through isolation, starvation and beating. This is an animal that is now ranked alongside chimps and dolphins in terms of intelligence.
And as tourists we’re not just encouraging this, we’re fuelling it. Riding elephants is not part of Thai culture it has developed specifically in response to tourist demand and is causing a predicted 100 elephants a year to be poached specifically for tourism.
So, why did I do it?
Because I didn’t know. I had no idea and I loved elephants and I wanted to get close to them, which, undeniably, I did. I did get close to them.
What is Meaningful Travel?
But was it Meaningful?
What do I mean by that? Was it Meaningful? What am I talking about?
I’m talking about experiences where everybody benefits, where everybody gets something out of it.
Where you or I, as a traveller, get a unique insight into a different culture, come face to face with people who have a completely different perspective, where you learn something new and are immersed in local communities, while at the same time, preserving and supporting those communities.
Where you or I, as a traveller, can spot thriving wildlife that you’ve never seen before, surround yourself in some of the world’s most stunning landscapes, be wowed, awe-struck, perhaps even inspired by what you see, while at the same time, keeping it that way.
Experiences, where everyone involved gets something positive out of it.
So, what did I get out of riding an elephant?
I could tick it off my list. That’s about it, to be honest. I didn’t learn anything or feel like I understood elephants any better. They just plonked me on top and off I went. Took a photo. Got off. NEXT!
What did the elephant get out of it?
She was being controlled by the mahout with a large hook, so she got a hook poked into her head repeatedly. Unlike horses and camels, elephants spines are quite weak and not well equipped for carrying heavy goods or people. She therefore also got a damaged spine from the large chairs they use which are far too heavy and she got that for the entire day until she was chained up with no company or entertainment.
What did the local people get out of it? The mahout for example.
Well, the majority of mahouts live on site at the elephant camps in appalling conditions. They are paid incredibly low salaries and much of what they make is spent on keeping the elephant well enough to carry tourists around all day. They are essentially trapped into a cycle of poverty. So, yeah, they don’t get very much out of it either.
Why is it important?
And these are not the only issues that all of us as well-meaning travellers trying to expand our horizons can unwittingly contribute to.
Primates for example. How many of us would like to see the mountain gorillas or cuddle a baby orangutan?
Well, unfortunately, we’re genetically similar to primates which means we only have to be within 15 metres of them to pass on a disease and potentially wipe out an entire species. There have been documented cases of tourists passing diseases to primates and very nearly doing just that. This happens, not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know. Because we’re focusing on what we’re getting out of it and forgetting about the animals.
Animals, of course, are not the only ones who fall victim to the negative impacts of tourism. The industry by its very nature often involves people who are relatively wealthy (in a global sense) interreacting with people who are relatively poor and this formula can all too frequently lead to exploitation.
Many destinations have very lax laws and regulations around worker’s rights with higher paying jobs and responsibilities given to foreigners rather than natives.
Trekking porters are a particularly vulnerable group.
Required to carry heavy loads that we would never dream of, they operate in some of the world’s harshest climates often with inadequate clothing and equipment resulting in frostbite, permanent injury and even death. Again, this happens, not when we don’t care, but when we forget about their needs and focus only on what we, as travellers are getting out of it the experience.
Women and children too are often cruelly exploited not just by the infamous sex tourism industry but also in orphanages. Many of us would be willing, perhaps even want to volunteer in an orphanage, thinking that we are helping needy children, but sadly this is often not the case.
Nepal, for example, has over 800 orphanages, that’s a lot of orphans. It may not come as a surprise that 80% of these are located in the country’s tourist hotspots. What’s going on here? Sadly, the majority of these orphanages are fake. What I mean is, these children are not orphans. They have been deceived or even stolen from their parents to fuel the tourist demand for volunteering at an orphanage.
This has happened because we, as wealthier Westerners, wanted to help because we do care, but we focused too much on our needs and didn’t stop to think about the bigger picture. We think nothing of volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal for a week, but we wouldn’t be able to do that here in the UK. And for good reason.
A very visible way that irresponsible tourism can damage local communities is when development goes ahead uncontrolled, hugely impacting the environment. There are some parts of Danang in Vietnam that are now unrecognisable compared to 10 years ago because you can barely see between the concrete.
But a less visible impact is around water equity. In many parts of the world, tourism’s demand for water has resulted in the appropriation of water supplies to the detriment of local domestic and agricultural needs. A good example of this is in Bali, while the Indonesian island’s popular golf courses use 3 million litres of water every day, villagers in some parts of the island reportedly have to walk up to 3km to collect water from a well.
Perhaps we should have thought more about what the local people were getting out of our visit instead of ourselves.
Incredibly complex issues
These issues are not simple though. The relationship is incredibly complex with many factors at play and many parties at fault. An example of this is the so-called long-neck tribe in Thailand. Indigenous people and tribal communities are especially vulnerable to exploitation and this tribe is at the heart of a complex problem.
You may have heard of this tribe, whose women place rings around their necks in order to extend them by compressing the collarbone. Whether you believe this traditional practice is ok or not is somewhat by the by, but what we do know is that it was just beginning to die out until the tourists started showing an interest.
The volume of visitors to these remote villages rose rapidly with tourist dollars becoming their primary source of income. The practice of using the metal rings began to flourish once again despite having already lost much of its cultural significance. A typical visit would involve a walk round the village, perhaps looking at some local handicrafts and of course plenty of photos. It was all about looking.
Criticisms began to appear in the media, accusing these tours of being a “human zoo”. In some ways they were right, there was no cultural exchange or interaction. So the tourists numbers rapidly declined as travellers no longer wanted to be associated with the human zoo and the tribe, therefore, lost their primary source of income.
As a minority group, they have very few rights in Thailand, the majority are illiterate and do not speak the local language, and under current legislation, they are not permitted to leave the area of their village. They are now stuck. Stuck because we forgot to think about what they would get out of it. We forgot to empower them, to ensure they were agents in their own destiny and had a say in what was happening. Instead, we focused on our desire to see a remote and exotic tribe.
So, what’s the solution?
So, now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you all, I’m going to try and bring you back up. To reassure you that it doesn’t HAVE to be this way. It is our belief at Rickshaw and my own personal belief that travelling with meaning can be an incredible force for good.
As I mentioned, tourism is unbelievably complex, and while getting too close to primates can spread disease, academics studying primates believe that mountain gorillas would be extinct if not for tourism. Tourists pay through the nose to see these incredible animals which is far more lucrative than the local bush meat trade. This makes it in the local people’s interest to preserve them rather than hunt them.
I talked earlier about elephants. Should we boycott all elephant experiences and interactions then? It’s just not that simple. A sudden or total boycott would result in hundreds of animals being abandoned or even killed – many simply cannot be rehabilitated back into the wild and without a lucrative income their owners can no longer afford to keep them. A better alternative is to seek out meaningful elephant experiences.
At Rickshaw, we offer an experience at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai instead, a park that prides itself in its ethical treatment of the elephants in its care, many of which have been rescued from the logging industry and irresponsible tourist camps. Needless to say, it operates a no riding policy.
How is it meaningful?
What will you get out of it?
The park provides education to visitors and tourists alike about its elephants, helping you connect with each one’s unique story. So unlike the elephant ride I did, you’ll learn something new, and create a closer more meaningful connection with the animals because you’ll understand them better.
What do the elephants get out of it? The park aids rehabilitation of the elephants wherever they can, and those that are permanent residents are encouraged to live in a herd as they would in the wild. This way they can enjoy their retirement, probably far more than I’ll be able to!
What about the local community? They can get employment at the park in positions which pay a fair wage and empower them to make a difference. Even more than that, though, the park is Thai owned and run so the decisions made from a grassroots level and are sensitive to Thai culture.
I mentioned that irresponsible tourism can destroy the natural environment, well meaningful travel can actually preserve it.
At Rickshaw, we offer a trip deep in the Sumatran jungle in Indonesia .
How is it meaningful?
What do the local people get out of it?
Well, they were concerned by illegal logging in the area, which they could clearly see was destroying the forest and it’s unique animals along with it. They grouped together to create experiences here that travellers could enjoy and bring them into the area. Many of the illegal loggers were local people trying to supplement their agricultural farms and were exploited by the logging companies. They were approached and educated on what was happening and soon realised they could make more money from retraining as guides than from illegal logging. Many are now active conservationists and have a healthier income too. It’s been a success for the local community because they’re involved in the decision-making process.
What does the environment get out of it? Once the heart of illegal logging in Sumatra, this area now sees next to none. The jungle is flourishing again and the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan has even been spotted in the area.
What will you get out of it? You’ll stay in one of the world’s most remote jungles, surrounded by wildlife and lush vegetation unlike anywhere else and you might even have a chance of spotting the Sumatran orangutan yourself – from a safe distance of course!
Meaningful travel can do even more for people, though. It can also build cultural bridges while bringing much-needed funds to local communities. We’ve all heard the cliché that Travel Broadens the mind, but you cannot deny that direct interaction with different people from different walks of life builds tolerance and understanding.
At Rickshaw, we have plenty of opportunities to do this. One I tried myself is a stay on a small farm in rural Peru where I also helped out with the daily tasks.
How was this meaningful?
What did my hosts get out of it?
The funds they received from my stay supplemented their existing income from the farm so they can continue to preserve their cultural traditions rather than becoming dependant or reliant on tourism. They had a sense of pride in their way of life as they could show it off to me, and I’m pretty sure they got a few laughs out of my rather pathetic attempts to milk a cow.
What did I get out of it? Despite not speaking a word of Spanish, and my hosts speaking very little English, I was able to interact directly with them over breakfast. With the help of a trusty phrasebook and plenty of gesticulating, I was able to tell them about my life in the UK and they could tell me all about their life on the farm. I learnt so much more and had a far better understanding than if I’d just taken a walk around and looked at some handicrafts. And I learnt how to milk a cow really badly!
Through Rickshaw I also had the opportunity to cook a traditional Sri Lankan curry in the home of a local woman who’s been whipping up curries for her family for years.
How was this meaningful?
What did I get out of it?
Well, just like the Peruvian family I had a unique insight into her way of life that I wouldn’t have been able to get from just having a look around. Being a huge curry fan, I was also able to add something truly authentic to my repertoire which has now become my go-to dish when cooking for friends and family. It always goes down well.
And what did she get out of it? Well, tourism is unique in the sense that it gives women as well as men opportunities to work and manage their own finances. In this way she was empowered and in control of the extra money being put in her pocket. She was also very much in charge of my performance in the kitchen giving our relationship a more equal footing than if I’d just been served a meal that she’d made. And again, I’m pretty sure she had a good laugh at my abysmal coconut grinding skills!
I mentioned earlier that indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and cultural commodification, but at Rickshaw, we offer a trip to stay with the indigenous Kuna people in Panama.
How is it meaningful?
What do the Kuna get out of it?
Because the Kuna own and run the lodges, because the guides are from the community, they see most of the income from travellers. They can maintain their traditional way of life and feel a sense of pride as they show it off to visitors on their terms.
What will you get out of it? Apart from meeting and understanding a remote and unique community who were using coconuts as currency until the late 1990’s, you’ll be staying here!
I don’t know about you, but I’d definitely rather be there right now!
What all these experiences have in common is that everybody benefits. You or I as travellers gain a unique insight into a completely different way of life, learn new things, see amazing animals and incredible landscapes.
And the local people have a say in that interaction, they have some form of control over what happens and are agents in their own destiny. The experience is on an equal footing as it’s on their terms as much as ours.
How to check your tour operator is operating sustainably, ethically & responsibly
Ok, so how do you make sure you’re in the camp that’s making people’s lives better? How can you make sure your part of the solution and not part of the problem? Tour operators have a responsibility to do the right thing where they can, so here are some things you should check with them before you book:
- Check whether they have a policy on sustainable tourism or responsible travel or something similar.
- If they list any accreditation schemes, follow up on them – check they still exist and that this company is listed.
- Avoid companies who have lots of pictures of tourists touching or feeding wildlife, especially primates and check what education is involved in their animal experiences.
- If a trip helps to conserve the environment, ask whether the local community is involved in the decision making. Conservation only really works when the local people benefit.
- Go local – check whether the accommodation is locally owned, are they using local guides? This helps put money into local people’s pockets rather than international chains.
What can you do to travel sustainably, ethically & responsibly
But there are also things which are ultimately down to us as individuals – how we behave when we get there.
- Buy local. The money you spend in the destination is free from tariffs so it’s a great way to inject money directly where it’s needed is by buying from local shops and eating at local restaurants. It’s also a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the local culture and have a more enriching experience. I remember being the only westerner in a local restaurant in South India and being presented with a masala dosa. I had no idea where to start until a local family helped me out and showed me how to eat it. It’s something I’ll always remember and a really great unplanned moment.
- Get clued up. Familiarise yourself with the local culture, customs and dress code. You’re representing your home country while you’re in theirs so it’s best to avoid causing offence. You’ll also feel more like you’re part of it – when you take your shoes off at the local Buddhist temple you make a connection with the local people.
- Watch your resource use. Remote destinations in particular often suffer from a limited supply of water or electricity. Do you really need that towel washed?
- Take your waste with you. There are so many stunning locations around the world, together we can keep them that way. You can play your part by taking your litter away with you, leaving plants and rocks where they are and setting an example to locals and travellers alike. We’d all hate to be that traveller that accidently burnt down half a National Park in Chile by being careless with their cigarette.
- Enjoy it!
By far the best way to travel is to really throw yourself into the destination. Talk to local people, explore, ask questions and try new things. You may never develop a taste for that Cambodian tarantula, but it’s sure to make a great story!
Some things to think about
I could waffle on forever about this topic because it’s so close to my heart, but let me just leave you with a few things to think about.
It’s predicted that there will be 1.8 billion international tourist arrivals by 2030 (doesn’t include domestic tourism). That’s a 5th of the global population travelling to another country.
Tourism is the primary foreign exchange earner for 65/69 less economically developed countries.
Imagine if all tourism was done right. If all travellers behaved responsibly. What kind of difference would that make to us as travellers and to the local people, plants and animals?
Yes, it’s our holiday. Some of us have worked long hours in stressful jobs so that we CAN go on holiday. Of course we want to have a good time while we’re there. But let’s not forget that this is their home. How would you normally behave in someone else’s home? Let’s make sure that our once in a lifetime adventure isn’t at their expense.