“Sustainable travel is all about creating a positive effect on the communities you visit. Leave the place better than you found it.”
– Jon Bruno, International Ecotourism Society
When most people think of green travel and ecotourism, they think of environmentally friendly acts like reusing bath towels, turning off the lights and air conditioner when they leave their hotel room and even buying carbon offsets for flights. International travel taught me that ecotourism encompasses so much more.
My interest in ecotourism grew organically as I traveled around the globe. In Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, I was enthralled by white, sandy beaches lined with extravagant hotels and resorts. But just beyond the glitz, the nearby neighborhoods were poor, depressed and inhabited by people who were effectively barred from the beaches and likely would never experience such luxury. In Brazil, I observed tour buses journey through popular tourist sites and favelas (slums), offering little opportunity for cultural interaction and financial exchange between tourists and local residents. Those encounters nagged at me and prompted me to chat with local tour guides, vendors and workers about their daily lives, their thoughts, and experiences with the tourism industry, and what I perceived as offensive and exploitative practices. Through those discussions and my own personal research, I learned some uncomfortable truths about the tourism industry and it changed the way I travel.
Economic and Social Responsibility is as important as Environmental Sustainability
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO), global tourism is a trillion-dollar industry, and more than one billion people travel internationally per year. Unfortunately, few of those dollars trickle down to local communities. All-inclusive resorts provide convenient and safe travel experiences for tourists, but typically less than 20% of travelers leave the resort to patronize local businesses, restaurants, and cultural sites. Because many of these resorts are owned by foreign multi-national corporations, most tourist dollars don’t stay in the host country to support the local economy. To make matters worse, resort workers are often subjected to long work days, poor working conditions, and incredibly low pay. By the same token, organized tour guide operations are dominated by corporate tour companies who function as gatekeepers – contracting with local guides to provide tours for the masses, while retaining the lion’s share of fees and profits. Smaller tour operators are unable to compete with the marketing budgets and name recognition of these large corporations; hence their limited access hinders ecotourism success.
Africa: Leading the Charge in Ecotourism
Ecotourism has been recognized as one of the fastest growing economic sectors in Africa. Many African countries have been in the sustainable travel movement since the 1980s, and the continent is a global leader in ecotourism. The local community is viewed as integral to its success, and through partnerships with indigenous people and villages, many African countries have been able to balance the lucrative tourism business with preservation of their country’s natural and cultural resources. The arrangement provides much-needed funds to the community and gives the people incentive to preserve the ecosystem. It also enables travelers to engage local communities and learn about their traditional knowledge and culture, while allowing the people to have dignity and pride in their traditional lifestyle and culture. While not without problems, this model allows local communities to reap some benefit from increased tourism in Africa.
Like many Black Americans, I’d always wanted to go to Africa to see the land of my ancestors. I traveled there for the first time in 2013, with visits to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Ghana. I fell in love with the continent and have since visited six additional countries. I specifically sought out local tour operators and ecotourism projects and saw firsthand how sustainable travel could generate revenue and empower local communities. In Ghana, I visited Atsiekpoe village and witnessed how their partnership with a local tour company allowed them to build several school buildings and a small history museum, fund electrical poles and wiring, and purchase a motorized canoe taxi. In South Africa, I took a walking tour with a Langa township resident who formed her own small tour company. We visited a community museum, cultural center, medicine healer, and restaurant, where I both interacted with residents and spent funds on handmade souvenirs, artwork, and food. These encounters affirmed my belief that as travelers we have a responsibility to ensure there is mutual benefit from our tourist activities. They also encouraged me to create a new travel platform to introduce more travelers of color to ecotourism experiences in Africa. You can find us on Facebook at the Travel Africa Movement.
Ecotourism has tripartite goals: Social: enhancing the pride, culture and natural resources of local communities; Economic: promoting increased income, poverty alleviation and non-exploitative work; and Environmental: supporting conservation of wildlife and plant life and using renewable resources. If you’re a conscious traveler who shares these values, consider an eco-travel destination or tour company for your next trip.