A topic that really doesn’t have a right or wrong way to go about it except for educating yourself. Now, we’re not shining golden examples for everyone to follow. Lord knows we’ve made mistakes when traveling but we also think it took us to make those mistakes and have our eyes open to consequences in order for the importance of responsible travel to really hit us. The best lessons learned are from mistakes you make, right?
We’ve done cruises and fancy all-inclusive resorts but we’ve also tent camped and stayed in local homestay’s. We like to think we’ve experienced both ends of the responsible and non-responsible travel spectrum. Which is why we are writing this. A post to simply express our feelings in the hopes to educate our readers and just make them think twice when visiting a destination.
We as tourists play incredible roles when visiting countries. Tourism is HUGE dollars and for certain countries their biggest form of revenue. However, with this influx of tourism also comes cultural changes to local customs and everyday life. We don’t think tourists really understand the power of their footprint.
The best example we can use for this is Koh Phangan in Thailand. Lauren’s aunt and uncle were in Koh Phangan in the late 80’s. When they were there the island was desolate. A few bungalows lined the beach, with no electricity, no restaurants, and no paved roads. It was local through and through. Her aunt and uncle were actually at one of the first full moon parties – crazy right?! A few hundred people, at best, were on the beach. Someone had a stereo and basically, everyone just sat around fires, danced and drank the night away.
Fast forward 30 years to 2017 and enter the Wandering Stus. Koh Phangan is flooded with tourists! Hostels and hotels line the streets and cliffsides. Taxi Trucks run their routes on paved roads transporting tourists from bar to bar. Your food options are endless along with which souvenir shop to choose from. The lush jungle that once lined Haad Rin has been lost to the commercialized times. Below is a picture Lauren’s Aunt & Uncle took (top) versus a picture we took (bottom). This picture is taken from the exact same place, just 28 years apart. You can see how development has overtaken the island.
We’re not saying country development is bad. Because in certain aspects it’s not. Sure, it provides jobs to locals and provides infrastructure but it seems like the cost is always at the sake of cultural evaporation. Now, we should just preface this that by no mean are we pretending to be experts on this topic. We’re solely coming from our personal points of view based on what we experienced. Below are situations were faced and dealt with head on while we were backpacking for 8 months through Southeast Asia and Nepal.
Who doesn’t love a good hike? Out in nature for a day or weeks at a time taking in the beautiful scenery and summiting incredible peaks. We for one LOVE hiking. It’s quite possibly our favorite thing to do together. We make it a must for any place we go to. So it was a no brainer to get some epic hikes crossed off our bucket list when we were in Nepal and Asia. Himalayas and Rinjani anyone?!?
We did the several week Annapurna Circuit and the 3-day Rinaji hike. Amazing and accomplishing doesn’t quite cover it but it’ll do for now. As awesome as the hikes were, the one thing that was obviously noticeable was the trash.
You’d think, high up on the mountains it would be a pristine and beautiful environment, right? Well, not exactly. Add some plastic water bottles and Lay Chip bags to your idea and that’ll be more accurate. Thousands upon thousands of people do these two treks a year. That means thousands and thousands of footprints are left in this habitat.
Think about it. Really, really do. How much food waste and human waste do you think that is a year? We sure as hell have no idea but it’s a lot. Hikers as well as guides aimlessly throw trash and food waste to the side. Burry their used toilet paper in the ground and carry on. The lack of education is a huge problem. Tourists aren’t the main issue. We saw plenty of guides and porters throwing trash aside and when we asked them about it they would casually laugh, shrugged it off and be on their way.
It starts with a small behavior change. We started picking up trash when we saw it. Did we make a massive impact, probably not. However, what if everyone started doing this? Visiting a natural habitat and picking up junk when they saw it? Can you imagine the impact that would have? Something to think about for your next hike.
Plan and simple, this is the only section we will be telling you what not to do. DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS. You’re an asshole if you do. DO NOT VISIT TIGER TEMPLES. You’re still an asshole if you do. If you do both, you’re a massive asshole.
These two activities are prime example of tourism going to the extreme. In Thailand specifically, tourism companies exploit animals to make a living. Sure the idea of having your picture taken on the back of Elephant or petting a “sleeping” tiger is a wonderful thought. But just get it out of your head. We’re not even going to begin to dive into this. Instead, we’ll let you watch this and read this.
Tiger Temples should be an automatic cross off your list. However, there are still wonderful ways to interact with Elephants. There are several organizations in Thailand that promote safe interactions for elephants and humans a like. The organization we went through is Elephant Nature Park. We did the Karen Hill Tribe Experience and it was so wonderful. Read our fill post on our day spend with elephants here.
The Myanmar Crisis. Currently, this is a very controversial topic. We’re not going to dive into it much out of respect for the situation and also, we really don’t know enough facts and history to accurately give an opinion one way or the other. We will say that no words can adequately describe how awful the situation is. Myanmar is one of our favorite countries on earth and it breaks our hearts what the country has gone through and what it is still going through.
Which bring us to our point. When visiting a country that is known for corruption and mistreatment of its people, educate yourself. Understand the current issues and how you can avoid contributing to the situation. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our tourism dollars, as much as we think otherwise, supports a lot of shady shit so let’s do our best to avoid that.
For us, when we were in Myanmar in February 2017, we had no idea about the current conflict. The day we landed in Yangon, we found out that a few days earlier a government official was shot in the head at the very terminal we were arriving in. The next day, we were walking in a peace march in downtown Yangon. What the hell is going on?
We were very in tune with the countries past. We watched an incredible documentary called Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country and we knew how shady the government was and still is. So we made sure to stay with locals, eat street food and book any tours in cash to local agencies. Not saying this is fireproof. In the back of our minds, we had a feeling our money was finding its way into the hands of the government but we were doing our best.
This is a personal choice for everyone. Do you go or do you not go? It’s your own moral compass that should guide you but the basis of it is education. Educate yourself on the current situation and ask yourself “what can I do?” There isn’t a right way to handle it. Do I not go to show the government what they’re doing is wrong? But then what if everyone decides to do that? What happens to those locals that rely on tourism to live? Okay, so I go. I go to support the locals and make sure our money goes to the right places buuut what happens if my money ends up in government official hands?
It’s definitely not an easy decision that has a clear right and wrong answer. Let us know what you think in the comment section. We’d love to know how you’ve handled similar situations and what your recommendations and thoughts are.
Volunteering. What an extremely wonderful, fulfilling act, right? Well, it depends on your intentions. If your aim is to get cute pictures with local children for the gram, meeeh, better sit this one out. If your intention is genuine and you want to help and contribute to the greater good, then we applaud you and say go for it.
However, not everyone is honest and forthright. For example, ever since Angelina Jolie went to Cambodia and adopted her first child the world went bookoo at the idea of helping “helpless, hungry, sad” children from developing countries. The “do gooder” complex is a real thing, in our opinion. The idea of showcasing you doing good on social media is more important than actually having a moving, powerful and hopefully live changing experience with the people or organization you are trying to help.
Developing countries have caught on to this. There are thousands of agencies that pop up all over the world claiming “your money” is going to the right cause when in actuality it’s being pocketed. There are loads of scams that target western societies and their money. From fake orphanages to actually selling peoples kids off as orphans, there are 100’s of articles you can read on varying topics that talk about how agencies exploit people who are trying to do good.
Fake orphanages was something we were faced with while in Cambodia. We were scared to commit to an organization in fear we would be supporting child endangerment. Worried we’d make a wrong decision, we opted to not even make arrangements to volunteer. Little did we know fate had a different plan in store for us. Read about our experience at BOVA – Battambang Village Orphanage Assistance and an amazing man that started it.
It is sad that there are these organizations out there but it is up to you, person traveling, to do a bit of research on an organization to ensure that whether it be your money or time, it is being donated and allocated where it is supposed to be. Doing your research is important because you could unknowingly be supporting an organization that exploits people and/or animals. With every donation you make, it could be going directly to keeping the organization up and running continuing the cycle of abuse.
We’ve bought the cheap souvenirs, eaten at chain restaurants and have even stayed in the franchise hotels more times than we really care to admit. It wasn’t until we changed the way we traveled that those actions started to change. For instance, when we booked a 4 day, 5 night all-inclusive Mexico vacation through FunJet we weren’t really in a position to do “local” things when we decided to stay at a resort. Anything we ate was money that went to the resort, not a street food vendor. Anything we bought was money that went to the resort, not the local market. Where we slept was money that went to the resort, not a local homestay. Granted, we have learned a lot since then!
We really weren’t contributing to the country we were visiting or getting an authentic cultural experience. It took us to travel “the packaged” way for us to understand that. Now, we do our best to try and support and contribute to the country we are visiting. Sure, it can be difficult at times and we’re not going to pretend we don’t slip up every once and while but where and when we can control it, we do. We try and support local artists by buying from them instead of taking home a cheap souvenir We try and eat street food because it supports a family and simply, it’s better food! We try and stay at family homestays rather than franchise hotels.
Things to think about when planning your next vacation. Why travel if you get the same cookie cutter experience everyone gets? Why not try for a more local flare? Really sink your teeth into a place so you can say with confidence, “yeah, I traveled to (insert country name)” and freaking mean it!
Wrapping It Up:
The whole purpose of this article is to not tell you what to do and how to travel because everyone is different. Instead, hopefully this has made you think a bit differently than you did before. If we are able to change one of your actions to make it leave a positive outcome on a country or culture you are visiting, we will consider this article a success.
We all really do leave a tremendous footprint on a country when we visit. Responsible travel, is to leave the place better than you found it. This is completely in our control to make positive impacts on an environment. Don’t cause more harm than good when visiting a place. Future generations want to enjoy its authenticity too.
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For more travel tips, guides and awesome travel shots, be sure to poke around our site, follow us on Instagram @wanderingstus and on Facebook. Oh, and if you have any questions, let us know in the comment section. We’re happy to answer. Or, just leave us a positive note!
– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)