10 steps to a clear(ish) conscience on holiday
There has been a global explosion of travel and tourism in recent years, fuelled by cheap flights and expanding consumerism. Many developing countries are joining the party, welcoming visitors as a major source of much-needed income. Yet while these relative newcomers hungrily develop their trade, other more established players are now wearing of the tourist invasion and their people are less welcoming, even hostile, with organised protests against visitors and the problems they bring.
Through business and leisure, I have been one of this growing number of travellers, fortunate enough to travel quite extensively. I have discovered a wide variety of amazing landscapes and fascinating cultures. With this privilege, however, has come an increasing awareness of the damage my fellow visitors and I are causing to the planet, so it was no surprise to learn of the World Travel and Tourism Council’s campaign to make this industry more accountable.
The WTTC has identified several areas in which we can pledge to be more considerate travellers and become a “force for good”:
1.Sustainability – Many people travel for their own benefit, with little thought of what their visit means to the country, for good or bad. On my recent trip to the beautiful city of Krakow, I found most visitors strayed little further than the most central streets which were packed and unpleasant, even though it was not peak season. Most visited a small handful of key attractions, sites and eateries, generally the ones recommended on internet review sites. Facilities were at capacity and staff weary.
A little further exploration and effort led to some less exploited museums, trails and historic sites and a much more enjoyable experience. Little cafes and restaurants just off the beaten track offered a warmer welcome and more authentic, better quality food and drink. Lingering here brought money directly to the local pockets and took the strain off the busier places.
2. Respect, of people and culture – there has been wide publicity of shocking, thoughtless behaviour by tourists in places of spiritual or cultural importance. But smaller acts of disrespect go unremarked upon. Visitors arrive with the expectations of home countries, not caring what the local traditions prefer.
For example, many countries prefer modest dress, yet visitors of all ages think it’s their right to wander the streets scantily clad. Large groups of alcohol-fuelled men and women, celebrating significant birthdays or impending nuptials, roam the streets rowdily uncaring, long after working locals have lights out. In one historic capital city that I visited, stickers announcing that “Ron and the boys are here on the lash” were stuck on lamp posts. Small acts, but thoughtless, damaging and disrespectful to the hosts.
3. Water use – climate change has brought drought to many areas. Tourism and agriculture, therefore, must compete for precious water supplies. Last year, in Northern Spain, I passed a major reservoir with shockingly low water levels, exposing buildings which had been submerged for decades. Limiting frequency and lengths of time in the shower seems a small thing to ask when faced with such critical shortage.
4. Plastic – the world has at last awoken to the massive problem that plastic is causing worldwide and many of us strive to go plastic-free whenever possible. However, in Albania, a country quite new to consumerism, I witnessed leafy river banks and sandy beaches with thick coatings of discarded plastics anywhere that populations were growing in size, wealth and tourism. This saddening sight seemed to prophecy impending troubles that we already see on our own western shores and was all the worse in a place otherwise so unspoilt and breathtakingly beautiful.
5. Animals – as an animal lover I enjoy seeing unfamiliar flora and fauna, so it is always a pleasure to spot wildlife, wildflowers or even traditional use of working animals. Unfortunately, what we must be aware of, is that these poor creatures are often cruelly exploited for the travellers’ pleasure. That romantic horse-drawn carriage ride or photograph on an elephant or camel may hide cruel and unethical practices. Attractions such as wildlife orphanages or rescue centres may be filled purely to attract business or animals may be over-worked, badly fed or kept in appalling conditions simply to feed our desire for a selfie!
6. Buy local – air miles, carbon footprint and global share prices are of little interest to most holiday-makers, but global chains often put little back into local economies. Far better to stop at that roadside stall selling handiwork of local artisans or produce from nearby small-holdings, wander the smaller markets where local people haggle for the freshest produce one can buy or support tiny, family-run restaurants handed down through generations. Not only will this help the people who serve you, but the freshest and tastiest food or most unique and memorable souvenirs will be your own, even bigger, reward.
7.History – many holidays include visits to museums or historic sights and destinations market these widely as must-see attractions. Many of these are architecturally attractive or magnificent in their own right so one can forgive, if not understand, the flourish of selfie-sticks and poses. There may be a time and a place for a brightly-hued tour buggy with a group swiftly ticking a mental “seen it” box or bagging a bragging right for dinnertime. Yet, some places surely warrant a little more time and reflection.
My trip to Krakow would have included a trip to the “honey-pot” historic sites, but as they were already booked up for days I wandered the Jewish Ghetto area instead, discovering a less-publicised “memory trail” of plaque-bearing buildings with much more touching stories evocative of the troubled times this area bore witness to.
While standing reflectively by a small remnant of the ghetto wall, I was unable to imagine the horrors that had been perpetrated there. As I stood, several electric carts each seating a handful of seemingly affluent trippers, sped into the road, paused briefly as the recorded narrative related what this landmark was, then sped off to the next trophy.
How little respect was paid, or thought for the deceased and their descendants, horrified and disgusted me. Talking to one of the young local men later, he proudly told us how his grandmother had been in Auschwitz for 3 years and survived miraculously. His comment “this place is not an attraction” rang so true. Surely visitors should not buy into the “Disneyfication” of such sites?
8. Offset impact – I admit, my love of travel comes with a sense of guilt when I read how much air pollution harms the planet. Offsetting projects run by various companies became a popular conscience salve a few years ago, but are often disreputed. Instead, I prefer to advocate for living simply, consuming consciously and only what is really necessary.
9. Education – with the ever-growing availability of information on the internet and on our hand-held devices, there is no excuse to travel in ignorance. Take a little time to educate yourself about the culture, history and language of your destination. Any attempt at a few basic words of the home language will be welcomed and repaid many times. Translation apps are widely available and can be an aid to simple things like reading the menu or asking directions. Understanding the history and culture can help your relationship with the local people too and enrich your experience.
10. Speak out tell others – take the WTTO campaign pledge and finally…. share your experiences with your friends and family and encourage them to travel with respect for our global family too.