Trouble in paradise – for responsible tourism to be successful, local support matters

andaman islands

Last week I was on holiday with my family in Portugal for the first time in almost 30 years, celebrating my mother having turned 70 and me 40. Portugal is the first country my family ever took me to, when I was 6 months old, and all these anniversaries and nostalgic reminiscences resulted in lots of flicking through yellowing holiday snaps and even more wine-fuelled conversations about ‘life back then’ and how much has changed, whether for better or worse.

While away, I also read a disturbing article about the killings of the indigenous Ati people’s community leader Dexter Condez on the Philippine island of Boracay. Condez is believed to have been shot dead by the security guard of a hotel chain that is in dispute with his tribe over ancestral land rights. One line from the article struck a chord with my nostalgic self, as it quoted one of the other Atis remembering a time when Boracay “had no hotels or buildings, we could bathe nude in the sea, and we would hunt wild boar, monkeys, turtles and lizards”.

Of course Portugal had changed too, with my mother telling me there were carts and horses back when we first came, but not like Boracay, voted ‘best island’ in the world by Travel and Leisure last year. It was exactly 40 years ago that President Marcos declared the island a ‘Tourist Zone’. In Boracay tourism began in 1973.

This got me thinking, because unfortunately Boracay hasn’t been the only story in the last few weeks concerning trouble between local peoples and the tourism industry. What, I wondered, might I learn by looking back at these other events through the prism of my birth year?

The first story concerns the Jarawa, a tribe living in the remote Andaman Islands between India and Thailand, of whom only a few hundred remain, rejecting contact with the world outside. A few weeks ago the NGO Survival called for a tourism boycott of these islands until what it terms ‘human safaris’ are banned, namely truckloads of tourists driving on tours on the only road through the Jarawa’s forests to stare at, photograph, and even, it has been reported, throw food to them. 1973 was the year this road was built, the year the Jarawa were introduced not just to tourism, but to the outside world.

The second is about Everest, in the news a lot this year because it is 60 years since Tensing and Hillary first reached the summit (unless it was Mallory). 1973 was in no way unique, but it was telling. There were two expeditions to the summit that year, one of which – the Italian – was described as ‘huge’ for having 60 people on it, of whom eight reached the peak. Flash forward to today, and the talk is of luxury base camps, traffic jams, and up to 200 people at the top on one day. And many news inches about a large group of irate local sherpas violently attacking three mountaineers this April.

My search for the state of the world’s tourism in 1973 ended with an article from that year’s Ecologist magazine, which revealed that in 1971, 181 million went on holiday abroad. This year that number broke 1 billion for the first time. The article also quoted James Mitchell, then Prime Minister of the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as saying:  ‘The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where people have lost their soul is no longer worth visiting.’

Responsible Tourism, which endeavours to addresses these risks, wasn’t even a phrase in 1973. The Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism only took place 11 years ago. But just last week, the head of the world’s largest independently owned adventure  travel operator, Bruce Poon Tip, reflected on how fast responsible tourism has grown, saying: ‘I am sure 90% of the people who walk into travel agencies are motivated by the best deal, but if two options are put in front of them and one is sustainable, almost all of them will choose the sustainable option. We are at that tipping point.’

For the sake of the native peoples of the Andaman Islands, Boracay and Nepal, and all those of us who hope to continue selling, buying and enjoying responsible holidays to places like them, it can’t come a moment too soon.

  • This post led me to many others, all of which I found fascinating and of great interest. I particularly like the idea of the Lamai Homestay and I have marked this one to research on my next visit to Thailand.