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Indigenous Communities and Their Environments

Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel

Deborah McLaren has long been an international leader in the responsible tourism movement. Her journey began with a long-anticipated vacation to Jamaica in the 1980s. In her provocative book Rethinking Tourism & Ecotgravel , she writes, “I bought into the dream that I could go to Jamaica as a package-deal tourist and have a profound experience with local people. In fact I did have a profound experience, but not the type for which I was searching.”

What Deborah found was an on-going struggle with racism, oppression, and hardship amid a “fantasy tourism culture” of waterfall hikes and all-inclusive resorts, where “local people were banned from the beach.”

Deborah returned to the U.S. critical of traditional tourism: “It offered no mechanism for fostering friendships with locals or gaining insight into local cultures,” she writes.

She came to further question the validity of the popularized notion of eco-tourism—an idea created with good intentions, she argues, but which has been marketed indiscriminately and is often in conflict with local people and the very wilderness and wildlife it promotes. Her examples of eco-tourism failures include some of those locations that are most popular or, as it has been said, are “being loved to death”: Costa Rica, the Galapagos, and the Himalayas.

Yet, Deborah’s book is not a manifesto to stop traveling; rather, it offers a thoughtful and compelling message to rethink tourism so that it does benefit local people and their environments.

Advocating on behalf of indigenous people worldwide is at the heart of what Deborah now does. As founder of Indigenous Tourism Rights International, formerly the Rethinking Tourism Project, she and her nonprofit organization are dedicated to collaborating with Indigenous communities and networks to help protect native territories, rights and cultures. She holds a master’s degree in social ecology, and she has lived and worked throughout Asia and the Americas.

Transitions Abroad magazine issue published Deborah’s article about working with the conservation arm of the Bhutanese government in designing an ecotourism management plan for its Jigme Dorji National Park. She met with community members to discuss the national park and to encourage their participation in its planning and management.

This summer Deborah helped organize the first-ever online conference, Rethinking Indigenous Tourism Certification, intended for Indigenous Peoples who are concerned about tourism certification, working on certification, or working to develop sustainable tourism in their communities.

I spoke with Deborah about her views on responsible travel.

In Rethinking Tourism & Ecotravel you mention the inherently negative impacts of tourism and you refer to new threats like the spread of sex and drug tourism. Yet, you include a heartening quote from Virginia Hadsell, founder of the Center for Responsible Tourism: “You must know the dark side of tourism! It grows. But there are encouraging pockets of responsible opportunities for travel that benefit both host and guest.” What are some of the responsible opportunities you favor?

Deborah McLaren: Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and as citizens of North America we can participate in tourism, as well as advocate for and support some pretty exciting changes in travel. International, even domestic tourism is a bit scarier these days. The travel industry is working hard to address some of these issues, making security a priority and providing up-to-date travel warnings. I think its very important to look at all of these issues and make safe choices.

Human rights groups have gotten into monitoring some situations and either providing insightful information to travelers who opt to visit regions like Tibet, or develop full-scale boycotts like they have in Burma (Myanmar). There are a lot of new choices out there, as well as some that have proven very successful over time. For example, there are responsible tourism operators who not only understand the culture and people they send tourists to, but they work to develop long-term relationships and return benefits to local communities. Kurt Kutay is the president of Wildland Adventures, Inc. and the non-profit Travelers Conservation Trust. He’s been a leader in developing programs that support local communities while continuing to build a critical analysis of global travel and its impacts. Wildland Adventures understands that the arrival of tourists alters the nature of a place and therefore it works to build the kind of inter-cultural, interpersonal and environmental bonds that enhance rather than exploit the people and places where we travel.

Organizations like Tourism Rights and Tourism Concern have organized human rights campaigns, such as those to protect porters and design policies that protect sacred sites, Indigenous communities, and biological diversity. Numerous new community-based tourism programs in Namibia, Botswana, and Ghana are very grassroots oriented and promote small, sustainable local programs.

The Internet is a new important resource. Ron Mader, the host of, has built the largest ecotourism website on the planet. Not only does he provide accurate, insightful information about tourism in Latin America, he has hosted numerous conferences and given presentations to advocate on behalf of local communities. He also hosts traveler get-togethers in Mexico to connect and inform international tourists.

Fair Trade Tourism is a new and exciting area. Currently Fair Trade Tourism is one of the leaders in this field. Instead of focusing solely on economic development, fair trade provides a framework for human rights and just economics.

SS: You are critical of Western “development” agencies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. What more effective measures do you propose for ensuring the wellbeing of more of the world’s people?

DM: It’s definitely hard. Those organizations are in the development game and are very top-down in their development approach. Even the environmental organizations and tourism development groups that are associated with them lack real insight and connections to the communities they are targeting. It’s a well-worn development path. They must change their approach in order to understand issues that are important to the communities that are targeted for tourism development. In order to make a real difference they will have to tackle issues such as collective rights, Indigenous development, and international sustainable tourism policies and work directly with Indigenous networks and grassroots organizations. These communities require their own, culturally-appropriate technical assistance and want to follow the policies that they recently been won to protect their resources.

SS: What advice can you share with readers to make their travel experiences more worthwhile for themselves and their host communities?

DM: I think the best advice is really to choose a mix of travel and personal experiences. Most people end up disappointed when they think they are going to paradise. Understanding the political, social and financial situation of your destination can really help. So many people have asked me this question over the years. My advice is to be yourself and reflect that in your travels. If you are a teacher, find out about educational volunteer opportunities where you plan to go and connect with them in advance. You’ll be with your own community and will be able to relate to people who are very similar. The value of that kind of experience is tremendous. Same with doctors, students, archeologists, gardeners, seniors, whatever you may be. What do you do in your own community? If its important to you, spend the necessary time in advance to do your homework and make your trip really meaningful.

SS: How did Indigenous Tourism Rights International come about?

DM: It began when I started traveling to Ecuador as a human rights witness about fifteen years ago. There were so many issues facing the Indigenous Peoples there—from logging the Amazon rainforest, to oil exploitation, to roadbuilding. The elders were very concerned about the next wave of development, tourism. They wanted information for their communities in order to make informed choices about their long-term development. The Rethinking Tourism Project was initially set up to be an information network and resource for communities. We focused on information sharing and education, training. We were asked by Indigenous organizations to monitor international policies at the United Nations and provide feedback and advice. Eventually, we decided that we had done enough “rethinking” and our work had really taken on a more activist, rights focus. Our board decided to change our name to reflect this. We continue to develop local leadership, facilitate information and networking, and help in the area of international policy and development. The past year or so we have been swamped with “tourism certification” work. Our board has really been the biggest influence on our work. It represents Indigenous Peoples and allies around the world. So our work has always been at request, reflecting needs of local communities, rather than us going out to look for the work.

SS: What are some of the most pressing tourism development issues facing the indigenous people with whom you work?

DM: As you can see from this conversation, there is a real need to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tourists, tour companies, development agencies, even the World Bank needs to recognize the fact that Indigenous Peoples have made tremendous progress in the past few decades to regain control of their territories. Many development agencies are uncomfortable with concepts like sovereignty and self-development. Unfortunately, many people still view these communities as backwards and isolated, rather than part of a very real, very strong progressive effort. Even the ability to say “no” to tourism is not acceptable to many. Why go somewhere when you aren’t wanted? On the other hand, communities themselves need a lot of support. When their lands and cultures are exploited and turned into cultural amusement parks, everyone looses. Sometimes it comes down to community versus community, or even family versus family in an effort to move into the global economy. There must be a lot more support for Indigenous networking and self-development. This way decisions are made that support the overall goals of the local people and ultimately develop good tourism products. We hope that the fair trade movement will continue to support Indigenous tourism.

SS: You give countries like Costa Rica the thumbs down on ecotourism development. In this issue we feature Bhutan for its exemplary tourism policy. Are there other examples we should be aware of?

DM: From what I understand from people who work there, the Costa Rica sustainable tourism program is basically a shell. There are some local programs that seem very good, but as far as government programs, they don’t seem to really have it together. Several South African and European countries are promoting interesting tourism products and services, such as fair trade, eco-agrotourism, and initiatives like this. Canada’s various territories are also making exciting progress in Aboriginal-owned tours and development.

SS: You see tourism as a potential tool for organizing, establishing links between diverse sectors of people, and for actively working against an exploitative global industry. How can travelers returning home affect positive changes in tourism? Are there particular resources you recommend?

DM: Get involved! Stay connected through efforts in your own community. Share your travel experiences with friends and family. Offer to give workshops at high schools, colleges and churches. Blog. Exchange information. I am hoping to set up a web site in the near future, with guidelines and support for ethical travel, where travelers can contribute information about their travels: what worked, what didn’t? The Internet has been a tremendous technology for planning, learning, connecting, and staying in touch. It’s also a great way to communicate while you are traveling.

Join international organizations. Some well-known travel groups like Global Exchange and Oxfam have long offered insightful tours to places like the Bush in Australia or alternative spring breaks to Brazil. Seek out responsible tour agents. Cutting edge companies like exodus or Himalayan High Treks team up to support projects in the areas they visit. For example, they do tree planting, donate clothes for porters on Himalayan treks, and even support community education efforts.

Learn more about international alliances that are working on tourism issues. For example, last year a gathering coordinated by Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT) and Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) delivered a declaration on tourism and terrorism that should be mandatory reading for all international travelers. TEN: Third World Tourism Ecumenical European Net and naturefriends, an organization sponsored by the Austrian government, are networks composed of development agencies, aid agencies, church-groups, solidarity groups and individuals who are active in the field of tourism and the effects it has on the people of the Third World. There are movements like this in India, Latin America, South Africa, and other places. Google “responsible tourism” or “community tourism.” Read Transitions Abroad and visit web sites like Universities and colleges offer a lot of alternative travel (the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis is well known). Learn more about the places you visit before you go, so you can connect in advance—not just briefly while you are there. Buy books on this topic, and support publishers that are willing to promote books and magazines that provide a critical perspective. A nice resource is Tourism Concern’s The Good Alternative Travel Guide, which provides information on how to choose a destination.

My own Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel book has been used by numerous universities, travelers, the media, even communities that are interested in learning about tourism, globalization, and alternatives. I love talking with students, researchers, and travelers around the country about these issues. Subscribe to newsletters published by tourism organizations that provide information to engage in campaigns for social and ecological justice in tourism and development. Third World Network has plenty of good information and links.

SS: What are a few simple starting points for responsible travel that all of us can practice when visiting a country?

DM: Many of the organizations I have already mentioned offer thoughtful guidelines for both tourists and tour operators. The International Center for Responsible Tourism has a good website. The best advice I can give anyone is to go as yourself, understand why you need to travel wherever it is you are going, and connect long in advance to organizations and people in your destination. It is difficult to ever achieve real friendship and insight as a “guest” in a place where you have no connections, no past and most likely no future…where you will likely never achieve equitable relationships without working to build them realistically. Learn about the political realities most people are facing in the place you want to visit. Are there existing boycotts to that area? Be respectful—of yourself and of the local people and culture. Go in peace and hope to learn more about the world. Do your homework. Pay a fair price. Avoid situations where you could be promoting human rights abuses, like low wages or exploitation of child workers. Forget the old thinking “at least we’re paying them something” and recognize they might have different choices and perspectives about their own development. Find out if local communities or regions have established grassroots tourism networks and services. And don’t burn out! Avoid being a road warrior and take care of yourself. Choose destinations where you can learn as well as rejuvenate. Practice a healthy lifestyle and concern for your community, and take that with you wherever you go. You will find yourself among friends.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism: An Interview

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