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Looking at the Big Picture

Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

In the last issue I talked with our special interest travel editor, Ann Waigand, about the pros and cons of group travel. This time I spoke about the effects of travel on the natural and cultural environment with two of our ecotravel editors. Ron Mader is an author and “information catalyst” whose award-winning website. Deborah McLaren is the author of Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel: The Paving of Paradise and How You Can Stop It.

Transitions Abroad: Picking up from my interview with Ann Waigand in the last issue, my first question is what’s the best way to travel—on your own or with a group?

Mader: This depends on what kind of person you are and the time you have available. Personally, I love traveling alone, but I know this style is not for everyone. Independent travel allows for much greater flexibility. For example, if you find that a town is more interesting than you expected, you can spend extra time. Likewise, if you meet up with interesting travel mates, you can travel together. Package trips provide something that’s very important—security. And some people prefer to have someone else make the arrangements.

McLaren: I do both. I have been a conventional tourist (described in my book, Rethinking Tourism and EcoTravel), which prompted me to take a critical look at tourism and look for alternatives). I’ve also been an alternative tourist, an educator, a tour planner and leader. I have traveled independently, with small groups, and with family. I’ve stayed at megaresort hotels, fleabag hotels, small ecolodges, homestays, in tree houses, under the stars, in a tent, on a boat, and just about anywhere you can think of.

TA: If on your own, what’s your checklist, your ground rules?

Mader: Find out as much as you can before you go. Getting information is no trouble via the Web, guidebooks, or by calling government tourism phone lines. Find out what the weather will be like, if there are special events you can plan to attend.

McLaren: First, learn about the community you plan to visit and link with grassroots organizations there. See my list of grassroots organizations in the November issue.

TA: If with a group, how decide on what group and what destination?

Mader: If you want to book a tour, approach only those operators you might actually hire and ask how they support conservation or local development projects. Many agencies and operators are very proud of their environmental conservation and community development work. They can either send details via email or direct you to a section of their web site which explains their programs in detail.

McLaren: I’ve been more the “organizer” lately, planning and leading Indigenous alternative tours to Mexico with our partners in Morelos. These combine learning about community development with rest, relaxation, and a focus on health.

TA: What about combining the two: independent travel to your destination, then choosing a local outfitter or provider?

Mader: This is ideal. It allows the maximum flexibility and professional service, but it usually takes getting to your destination to find out your options.

McLaren: That’s often the only way to get a local person.

TA: Is this always the cheapest way to go?

Mader: Not necessarily. Packaged tours—while appearing to be quite costly—may limit your expenses.

McLaren: Planning your own itinerary is often the cheapest way to go. Volunteering helps bring the price down even further, particularly if you are really collaborating with an organization or community and can arrange something substantial (it takes too much energy and time away from community projects if a volunteer can only spend a couple of weeks).

TA: Why is it the most “responsible” way to go?

Mader: Responsible travel is simply treating others with the same respect you would ask for in your own community. While tourism officials talk of “destinations,” in fact we are simply entering someone else’s home. Independent travelers can be just as disrespectful as those in a larger group.

McLaren: I truly believe in linking what is important to you in your own community to your travels. For example, if you are a teacher or community gardener, do your homework and link with schools or similar programs in the community you plan to visit. This way you make valuable friends and gain insights into another community that can last a lifetime. It avoids the “point and click” vulgarity of tourism and puts us on the same level as our hosts.

TA: Since all travel burns fossil fuels, is there any rationale at all for pleasure travel?

Mader: John Shores poses this question in his influential essay, “The Challenge of Ecotourism." What use is an “ecolodge” if it takes so much energy and natural resources to get the traveler from point A to point B?

My belief is that since tourism is a social process it cannot be reduced to mere economics or an environmental tally. Tourism can have benefits for locals and travelers alike. We are more aware of human rights violations, environmental catastrophes, and other global ills precisely because of the role travelers play in sharing information.

McLaren: I think it’s important, especially in this age of corporate media, to see things for ourselves, to connect with one another, to organize together and learn about what’s really going on in the world. Don’t trust travel marketing and the mass media to tell you. I guess that’s the most important reason for going—and for this magazine!

However, it is important to look at the negative effects of our travel. How can we make real changes in our lives that lessen these effects? Not just little ones like riding a bike instead of driving (a great thing to do) but lobbying for better environmental standards and regulations and for adherence to human rights. Travel means looking at the big picture.

TA: Are there particular tour operators you can be recommend?

Mader: I have some favorites, and the one thing that they have in common is a great respect for both locals and travelers. One operator told me, “Ecotourism begins with how you treat people in your office.”

Sometimes my favorite operators overlap with “award winners” from magazine contests and tourism fairs. Sometimes not. Many of my favorites simply haven’t received much publicity. What we really need is a system of nominating the “best of the best” operations, then providing detailed information about what it is that they do so well. Until such a system is fully developed, I welcome travelers to post their experiences on the country forums. And I know Transitions Abroad also welcomes feedback from its readers.

TA: Can you think of a list of places that travelers should avoid?

Mader: Travelers need to develop a keener sense of where to go. I personally do not believe in boycotts.

McLaren: Absolutely! Travel boycotts to stop horrendous human rights abuses work. Also, boycott guidebooks, magazines, and companies that continue to promote travel to areas that are boycotted. People need to do their own research. No one can provide an up-to-date list, but there are boycott guides. In addition to the selection of responsible tourism organizations and resource publications I describe in the November issue of Transitions Abroad and on the Transitions Abroad web site, there are a staggering number of resources on Also, check out Tourism Concern’s web site at

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Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

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