The words responsible travel and “Will I reach my potential?” flash across the screen. I quickly peer about the darkened room, searching the crowd of dimly lit faces. It’s an interesting term and a weighty question, and thanks to Mark Horoszowski of Movingworlds.org, we all paused to think about our own individual legacies. But what does that have to do with responsible travel? For those who attended the CBT Vietnam presentation on the Power of Responsible Travel last Thursday night at Capilano University, we learned about how the relationship between tourism students like Justina Faye at Capilano University, and various Hmong communities in Sapa, Vietnam, is contributing to the latest a shift in the travel landscape. In an event stacked with industry experts, including indigenous Red Dao speaker, Lo May from the village of Taphin, we as travel professionals, academics and world wanderers, attempted to answer the questions, what is responsible tourism and more importantly the answer to Mark’s question, how can we reach our potential?
To define responsible tourism, albeit brief, we first have to revisit the history of tourism as a whole. Interestingly, it was our final speaker that shed some light on the evolution of the industry, Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Peter Williams, professor and director of the Resource and Environmental Management Centre for Tourism Policy and Research. Dr. Williams spoke of early speculation in the 1960’s that considered the tourism industry to be benign by some, while others spookily forecast tourism to become the world’s largest industry. Today, the tourism industry accounts for 10% of the world global market and employs some 700 million people globally. To put that into perspective, the United States Defense Department was named the world’s largest employer in 2015 employing 3.2 million people. Additionally, tourism has grown from swingin’ sixties roadtrips between Woodstock and politically charged protests, to budget backpacking adventures across Europe, to far-flung luxury safari tours, mass produced packaged getaways, Space-X and finally, sustainable travel.
Travel trends often mirrored generational tropes. In the 1980’s, our concern with the environment birthed a series of environmentally focused travel options or eco-travel. Jungle lodges in Costa Rica, conservation projects in Borneo, we wanted to get up close and personal with Mother Earth to do our part. In the 1990’s, Africa was still in the midst of war and famine, ethnic Albanians were fleeing their homes, we were at war in the Gulf, and on the heels of the world aid fever, niche travel markets focused on ‘giving back’ to developing nations. However, Voluntourism and sustainable travel into the 2000’s, was as Professor Williams describes, “theoretical, bureaucratic and conceptual.” Travelers swooped in for one-to-two weeks at a time, threw some money at a problem (most of which went to inflated administrative costs or lined the pockets of crooked bureaucrats), and left, leaving communities in the same state of disrepair as when they first arrived. It was a step in the right direction, but like aid, the travel industry looked at the developing world as the White Man’s burden – Money doesn’t solve everything, and as Erin Buttler, sales manager of G Adventures put it rather eloquently, vulnerable “communities don’t need a hand-out, they need a hand-up.”
A New Way of Thinking – Responsible Travel
This sort of shortsighted thinking (coined sustainable travel) is still pervasive, however, the newer, more “practical, tactical and realistic daughter” (Professor Williams) of sustainable travel is not sustainable but responsible travel. And the key here is to maintain the delicate balance between ethics and desire to do good. Responsible travel is more of a partnership with indigenous and local communities, and as Mark Horoszowski puts it, an understanding that “we don’t travel for ourselves and our community, but for the world at large.” To travel responsibly is to travel in a way that negates the negative impacts of traditional tourism (ie. not arriving in a gargantuan cruise ship to an impoverished port, creating an overly inflated cost of living, whilst destroying the marine environment). Responsible travel supports locally owned tourism outfits, empowers localized communities, and ideally, leaves them in such a state, they become self-sustaining and successful on their own. If you ask me, that’s the sort of legacy I would like to leave as a world traveler.