27 Jan Thoughts on Bad Tourism and How to Travel Responsibly
Causally throwing a banana chip into my mouth I leaned out of the stationary tuk-tuk and craned my neck up towards the cave above, waiting for the million-strong swarm of bats to flood out of its entrance into the gathering dusk. A boy of about eight or nine, bare-foot and messy-haired, wandered past our vehicle and I smiled as our eyes met. My banana chips captured his attention and for a moment I began to stretch my arm out to offer him some before remembering: we’re not supposed to give things to kids, especially not here in Cambodia where child-begging is such a problem.
Why we don’t give Money to Children who Beg
It pained me to pull the chips away and the boy paused, sensing my weakness, pointing his finger at the bag. I felt like a selfish, greedy western tourist denying him this small pleasure I didn’t even need, would it really hurt to give him just one banana chip? I thought back to the time in the Philippines when I gave a little girl a shiny green apple; seconds later another child appeared, her sister perhaps, begging for more. Immediately I saw the error of my ways; not only had my gift bred jealousy, it had also taught the girls that begging works. In turn, I had also encouraged the girls’ parents to send them out on the streets to work when they should be at home or in school.
As I’ve since learned, organisations in Asia such as Child Safe Tourism ask visitors not to hand money or gifts straight to children who beg, however tempting it may be. Child Safe points out that giving directly to children just perpetuates the practice of begging and keeps kids out on the streets where they’re incredibly vulnerable to abuse. Instead, you can give money or help more responsibly through donating to organisations listed on the Child Safe Tourism website. While in Cambodia we chose to give blood to the Angkor Hospital for Children and eat at NGO restaurants to help kids instead of supporting begging.
Bad Tourism Traps and How to Avoid them
As Andrew and I have discovered since travelling in Asia, there are all kinds of ways that tourists, often despite their best intentions, can have a negative impact on a place and cause more harm than good – giving money or gifts to children who beg is just one of them. The issues surrounding what I refer to as ‘bad tourism’ are incredibly complex and we, as tourists, need to be constantly aware of how we behave as we travel.
We don’t claim to be perfect travellers and we’ve done things we regret in the past, such as giving that Filipino girl food, but we are constantly trying to learn how we can travel more responsibly. Aside from child begging, here are a few of the most visible bad tourist practices we’ve come across while travelling in Asia and how we avoid contributing to them.
This is the issue that angers me the most; sex trafficking and tourism is an extremely destructive global problem which enslaves and ruins the lives of millions of people. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, authors of Half the Sky, write that worldwide around three million women and girls, as well as a small number of boys, are currently trapped in the sex trade. In my opinion tourists who contribute to the sex industry at home or abroad, be it through involvement in prostitution, strip clubs or sex shows, perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of vulnerable people. Even if you believe many people work in the sex industry out of ‘choice’, how do you tell whether the person you’re engaging with is a ‘willing participant’ or forced to work? I’d recommend reading Half the Sky (Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn: 2009: Random House) and The Industrial Vagina, The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade (Sheila Jeffreys: 2008: Routledge) to find out more about these issues.
Sadly, in Asia animals are often used as photo props and cute gimmicks to make money from tourists. In particular we’ve seen plenty of monkeys, horribly abused and as far away from their natural habitat as they can get, forced to work by their owners. In Jakarta for instance, a macaque chained to a post performed handstands for passersby while its child-owner begged us for money; in Koh Tao, Thailand we spotted a gibbon tied to the branches of a tree, rocking back and forth in distress while his owner napped in a boat nearby.
On our visit to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand we also learned about the issues surrounding elephant tourism in Asia. These gentle animals are horrifically tortured into submission so that they can make money for their owners through tourist rides. In Indonesia it was common to see horses chained up all day in the stifling heat waiting to carry tourists around in carts and there are plenty of badly run zoos, crocodile and snake farms across Asia where animals are neglected and abused. Added to all this, the amount of skinny and injured cats and dogs roaming the streets in Asia is enough to make you despair.
While the laws surrounding animal welfare in Asia aren’t likely to improve overnight, tourists can help protect creatures a great deal by simply not contributing to unethical animal tourism. There are plenty of ways you can responsibly get up close to wildlife in Asia; volunteer for a certified programme or visit respected sanctuaries such as the Elephant Nature Park, the Tarsier sanctuary in the Philippines or the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary in Borneo. We choose not to feed, ride or be photographed with animals if we’re uncertain where our money is going or how the animals are treated.
Disrespecting Cultural Practices
The daily alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos, is an example of just how badly tourist behaviour can affect cultural practices. Every morning hundreds of monks from nearly 80 temples surrounding Luang Prabang walk silently through the streets collecting sticky rice from locals. This centuries-old tradition is now on the verge of being scrapped due to the actions of disrespectful tourists who turn up dressed inappropriately and proceed to interrupt the procession by talking noisily, blinding monks with camera flashes and stepping out in front of them.
All this occurs despite the fact that there are posters plastered all around the city instructing tourists on how to behave respectfully. We headed out early one morning to watch the ceremony; sitting quietly across the road from the procession as instructed, we were shocked to witness tourists getting in the monks’ faces and snapping photos. Amazed, we watched as one man chased the monks down the street, an alms bowl in one hand, his camera in the other. We felt awkward even watching from a distance and left, wondering whether the best thing we could have done to honour this sacred tradition would have been to avoid it altogether.
This is just one example (and a pretty extreme one) of how tourists can be culturally disrespectful. Not covering up at temples and religious sights, getting ridiculously drunk, showing affection in public or inadvertently making an inappropriate gesture or comment can offend local people and give tourists a bad name. We try to read up about local and religious customs before we visit a place and dress and act appropriately but it’s easy to make mistakes and carry the constant fear that we might be causing offense somehow.
There definitely isn’t as much general concern for the environment in Asia as there is in the west; littering and pollution levels are endemic problems and are caused primarily by locals. However, we’ve also witnessed ways in which tourism negatively affects the environment as we’ve travelled. We noticed a build up of tourist-related rubbish such as beer bottles, on the Thai islands of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Tao as well as noise pollution in backpacker districts, coral reef destruction and land clearance for tourist resorts throughout Asia.
While our idyllic boat trips in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and the Whitsundays in Australia were tightly controlled by government environmental guidelines and the waters weren’t overcrowded with boats, our trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam was a completely different story. Due to the amount of companies operating in the bay, we found the tourist services were appalling, focused only on getting as many people on quick overnight trips as possible. We were also sad to find that the bay’s natural beauty and peacefulness had been sullied by the huge influx of tourists – dozens of boats littered the bay blaring music at night while hordes of tourists were shuttled through the caves and beaches in conveyor-belt fashion.
We try to seek out eco-friendly tour companies and activities wherever possible as we travel but that isn’t always easy in Asia as there aren’t any trading standards and companies can easily make unsubstantiated claims about the services they offer. We also keep up our western practices of simply always using bins and recycling wherever possible as well as conserving energy by turning off lights and air conditioning when we’re not using them.
As I mentioned above, there are so many issues involved in bad tourism and we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers to these problems – these are just a few thoughts on some of the issues we’ve faced so far.
What kind of bad tourism practices have you encountered on your travels and how do you deal with them?