Become a Sustainable Traveler

What is sustainable travel? Social Media covers a wide variety of travel styles. Terms like ecotourism often encompass a form of tourism involving the preservation of natural areas. Sustainable tourism on the other hand encompasses more. Responsible tourism practices involve educating travelers on how to  preserve local communities. These behaviors directly benefit the economic development of local inhabitants. Sustainable travel fosters respect for different cultures, and it protects the rights of humans. Here is how you can be an integral part.

Guatemalan women baking tortillas.
Guatemalan women baking tortillas.

We need to consider the cultural impacts our action have on the places we visit. One thing I learned while living in Central America is that depending on their ethnicity many of the locals were quite conservative. Tourists wearing skimpy beachwear were viewed as being disrespectful and offensive to some indigenous people. In such cultures exposing a lot of bare skin is viewed as soliciting sexual attention. They also have preconceived notions that people from developed nations are morally promiscuous. When traveling to such such destinations it is always a good idea to respect local customs regarding modesty. This is not only for your own safety, but out of respect for their beliefs, which they are entitled to.

This is especially true when visiting rural areas outside of well know tourist destinations. While on a budget tour to Semuc Champey, in Guatemala our local guides were telling female travelers to strip down and get naked. What they meant was for us to put on our bikinis. I found this to be both incredibly sexist and unprofessional. The guides repeatedly touched us without asking. At one point I slapped a difficult guide across the face like a vintage film starlet because he wouldn’t stop touching me. Another young women almost drowned because her guide was occupied flirting. My friend who herself is not a strong swimmer rescued her. This should never have happened. Whenever you are paying anyone for a guided tour you should expect the greatest respect and professionalism. 

Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey

The majority of our group was comprised of single women. Many of whom were inexperienced travelers. They didn’t fully comprehend how disrespectful and dangerous the situation was, although a good many did feel uncomfortable by it. Many travelers don’t realize that it’s their lack of understanding of local behavior that encourages this. Guatemala has an extremely conservative and macho culture. Where many men show little respect for women. Some of my Guatemalan friends need to ask their fathers and husbands for permission to leave the house or cut their hair.
Many backpackers just want to ‘have a good time.’ There is nothing wrong with having fun, but sometimes this “fun” includes having sex with their tour guides. Many of whom are married men with children. Guatemala is not a part of the western world. Many rural Mayan women get married and start having children from their early teens. They have very little education and few opportunities to supporting themselves outside of marriage to their cheating husbands. Modern tourism brings in a steady stream of new opportunities for these men. Something that traditionally would not be available to rural men living in small village where everyone is acquainted with each other. I was shocked to learn from a local doctor that many of the disabled children in rural communities become deaf or blind from the sexually transmitted diseases their tour guide fathers bring home to their wives. Our actions affect other people. Some for the rest of their lives. It’s our responsibility to be the change we want to see in the world. This includes respecting local cultures and considering how our actions shape their world.

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While it may not initially seem like it, another major consideration when traveling is the booking of socially responsible tours. Always do research before you book a tour. Budget tours operators, while inexpensive often come with sub-par guides who employ questionable practices. I made this mistake when booing a budget cave tour through a local hostel. Caves have extremely fragile ecosystems. The tour operators used candles instead of headlamps to save money. The candles were turning the caves delicate limestone walls black with soot Wax buildup on the walls prevents future stalagmite growth virtually killing the cave. It made me sad to think what the inside of this beautiful formation would be like for future generations. Many of these caves have great cultural significance to the Maya as well. The guides were ruining their own heritage and possible future revenue to earn a quick buck.  Sometimes we need to have principles and just spend the extra dollars to ensure the preservation of our planet. Then guides would then be able to purchase headlamps and other low impact equipment that would preserve the environment.

Likewise bigger isn’t always better. Many large resorts advertise tours inside huge air conditioned buses with free drinks. These overpriced tours involve large numbers of people converging on a single point of interest. Mass Tourism often results in the destruction of local habitat through overuse.  Large scale tourism has a negative impact on the economy as well. Proceeds from resorts and large scale tours go to corporations. Corporations are accountable to investors, not to local communities. Instead It’s best to book local accommodations and small tours with reputable tour guides. Locals are the ones most interested in preserving their heritage and surroundings, not only for themselves, but for their families, and their communities as well. These tours also benefit yourself as you will receive more attentive service, enjoy smaller lines, and receive the satisfaction that comes from knowing you are reducing the negative impact tourism has on the ecosystem. Research and an awareness of our surroundings can help make the world a better place. Let us work together to create a society of travelers who preserve the beautiful diversity of our planet and it’s unique people. For more articles on sustainable travel check out my friend Nina over at U2GUIDE. How to be sustainable when you are traveling

The Gallivanting Nomad

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