Travel with a cause: right or con?

If you were to add a social cause or a humanitarian aid project to your vagabonding venture, you could pretty much avoid any kind of criticism from ever reaching you. Mention your noble cause first and foremost and the only thing you will get are numerous pats on the back. To someone who has fallen for this trap and then suffered a painful bout of realistic enlightenment, this is a rather hard truth to swallow.

I’ve seen the sort of detrimental effect foreign aid has had on developing countries and I have, rather unwittingly, contributed. Africa springs to mind. Not only has aid there allowed the progression of a totally dependent generation of beggars and grabbers; it has also single-handedly altered the very fabric of nomadic societies and helped the disintegration of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Yet heaven forbid you were to criticize foreign aid: you’d be labelled the most cold-hearted person on the planet.

But there is one, even more insidious industry which doesn’t get much scrutiny at all: the whole sustainable tourism world.

From the eco-lodge, to the socially-responsible tour, rubbish-recycle project and conservation excursion; the environmentally friendly tourism industry is a gazillion-dollar money-maker nowadays. Almost every lodge, jungle safari, volunteer organization and tour operator you’ll encounter, will advertise their product or services under the banner of ‘eco-friendliness’. Their intent is to lure environmentally conscious individuals who appreciate earth’s biodiversity and feel a certain kind of responsibility towards local populations. They exploit people’s weak-spot (guilt) and with fervent ardour reel ’em in hook, line and sinker.

Travellers are often urged to ‘take only pictures and leave only footprints’, this being the most widespread credo in some of the world’s most remote and exotic places. If you want to admire them though, you’ll have to use up about 700 litres of petrol if said place is 10,000kms away. This includes whatever planes, trains or automobiles you’ll need to get there. That impenetrable jungle will need to be accessed via an intricate road and trail network which, incidentally, will also be abused by poachers. Plots will be deforested to house both guests and local employees, not to forget water-treatment plants and sanitation facilities. After all, your chosen lodge may only allow 1,000 visitors a year…but that’s still a thousand people who have to crap somewhere!

When two million people invade the woods, for every step they take they will leave multiple footprints, even if all they see is ONE. If you have trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, you will have noticed existing trails transformed into deep ruts with numerous ‘shortcuts’ contributing to massive erosion and damage of vegetation. Build your eco-lodge as green as you like…guests will still eat, defecate, produce rubbish and exploit local resources, all so that a tourist can swing himself between tree-tops on steel cables like Tarzan.

This whole duplicitous business is called “greenwashing”; whereby consumerism and profiteering are masqueraded as environmental welfare. Ecological tourism is, in my humble opinion, one of the biggest ruses of the 21st century. When push comes to shove, the only genuine environmentally friendly lodge is the one that’s never built…and the one YOU can never visit.

I once had an argument with the owner of an eco-lodge in a small coastal town of the Sinai peninsula, who was desperately trying to convince Chris and I that his volunteer-based backpackers lodge was worthy of its USD50 a night price tag. According to him, due to the fact that they grew their own veggies (the volunteers tended the gardens) and powered the camp by solar panels, it meant that his lodge was not only environmentally friendly, but also benefitted the community. Oh how lucky for them!

The owner of this particular lodge stressed that we’d never be able to drive Matilda further than the car park; because she would pollute the beach. This place was full of hippy, dreamy 20 year olds who were under the illusion that their paid holiday was benefiting a needy community and the environment. Had I felt argumentative, I would have told the owner that the building of his establishment had polluted the beach infinitely more than Matilda’s tyre marks ever could. I would have added that so far, solar panels produce more harmful emissions in their manufacture than they can ever hope to minimize; and I would have also pointed out that while he hired 5 local youngsters, the un-eco Hilton up the road hired 250 and bought veggies from local farmers. If he would have let me continue, I would have commented that his insistence on guest-work was a blatant and deplorable attempt at wage avoidance, and that his prices were not only extortionate, they were downright ridiculous.

Please, tell me that you wish to minimize the impact on the environment whilst lining your pockets, but do not sit there and tell me we’re doing the environment a flamin’ favour. Human beings have been polluting this planet since homo-erectus rubbed two sticks together and came face-to-face with our ancestral Zippo. We could certainly limit future damage, but even if we all magically ceased to breathe today, Mother Earth will still require eons to recover from her injuries.

Travelling with and for a cause is certainly a worthwhile venture, yet judging one’s worth as a human being due to his/her lack of humanitarian goals is one of the most self-righteous errors anyone can make.

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3 Responses to Travel with a cause: right or con?

  1. debbonair says:

    Yes gives us something to think about. People are full of crap often. We live lives of constant compromise and all in the name of … Hope your travels are going well, and maybe you might even get to Melb eventually … Arriverderci Amigos

    Debbie and the boys.

  2. Jeff C. says:

    I agree re: “eco tourism”. I found over the years people will find & use whatever they need to justify their position or actions. These positions can inherently be good or have ulterior motives but many times something is touted as a good thing which we should not question.

    I was an “eco tourist” back in 1994 when I traveled into the Amazon rainforest in Peru. We stayed at the Explorama / Explornapo lodges which would sometimes host scientists, environmentalists but in our case it was a bird watching group (and I don’t bird watch so I went just to travel). I kept thinking of the noble purpose of traipsing through the endangered rainforest with the hypocritical question in my head of were we doing any good to this place? Perhaps if the money I paid led to this center allowing scientists and researchers help increase our learning, discover new medicinal ways the rainforest can help human, provide better protection for the ways of the indigenous people who still lived there… But I don’t know…

    So I take these things like ecological tourism with a big grain of salty doubt. 🙂

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