Better to travel cheaply? : TRAVEL

Hilary Bradt writes guides for backpackers, yet argues that they, not package tourists, are the unacceptable face of tourism
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The Independent Culture
TEN YEARS ago, few people considered the harm tourism might be doing to the developing world. Cocooned in the belief that we were travellers (good) not tourists (bad), we developed an archetype, the Rich Tourist, responsible for such crimes as pushing the prices up and spoiling "our" corners of the globe.

Recently, however, people have started looking at the effects of tourism from a less self-centred perspective. For the first time the points of view of those who live in the host country are being considered and the harmful consequences of tourism have become an issue. Organisations such as Tourism Concern have made us aware of the displacement of local people to make way for beach resorts or game parks, and have reported the existence of luxury hotels which use up the scarce local water supply to keep lawns green and swimming pools full. The equation has remained large-scale tourism bad, independent travel good.

When the organisers of the Independent Travellers World fair asked me to take part in the debate "Independent travel is more damaging to the host country than package tourism", I had to consider which side I was on, being professionally involved in both independent travel and package tourism - which of course includes any holiday organised through a tour operator, whether it is a fortnight on the Costa Brava or three weeks trekking in Nepal. I chose to speak up for organised travel which, I believe, is now mostly beneficial in the developing world, and against the independent traveller.

It is not easy to consider the issues objectively. By coldly examining the impact of the independent traveller, I seemed to be condemning myself and other travellers. "I hope they tear you to pieces and boycott your books," was the reaction of one friend when I told her of the debate.

So, to the arguments. Let's begin by considering the badges of honour of an experienced independent traveller:

4 Get by on £10 a day.

4 Use local transport.

4 Carry all your belongings on your back.

4 Bargain successfully for all goods and services. Be constantly on your guard against rip-offs and hassle. Get away from the crowds and find new places.

Now look at these points from the host country's point of view:

4 Get by on £10 a day. That eliminates all services such as taxis or guides, chambermaids, washerwomen, or waiters. It eliminates the opportunity for a local person to earn some money.

4 Use local transport. On the desperately crowded buses and trains of the developing world, that means competing for the limited numbers of seats or standing room; a local person may have to wait for the next bus.

4 Carry all your belongings on your back. On a trek, porters and pack animals are not needed - so one of the few ways open to rural people to earn money is denied them.

4 Bargain successfully for all goods and services. It is a matter of pride for all "real travellers" to walk away from the market having bargained the vendor down to half the asking price. We tell ourselves this is the way of the country, that the people will not respect us if we don't bargain. How many people do you know who are upset at receiving more money than they expected? Is it really fair to pay £5 or £10 for an article which will have taken days to produce? Is it reasonable to shout abuse at a taxi driver because he is hoping to get a "tourist" fare out of you?

4 Be constantly on your guard against rip-offs and hassle. This means being constantly on guard against the local people, particularly if they are trying to sell you something. Is this good for the host country? It also means complaining if the tourist admission price for a museum or national park is higher than that charged to the locals. Shouldn't we be pleased that local people can see their heritage at an affordable price and that tourist revenue will go towards the upkeep of the museum or reserve?

4 Get away from the crowds and find new places. This is where the independent traveller can do the most harm, by blundering into a culturally sensitive area without knowledge of the language and customs of local people.

Now take the same points with the package tourist in mind:

4 He/she spends about £100 a day; between 50 per cent and 95 per cent of this stays in the host country.

4 He/she uses tour buses with a driver and local guide who receives a salary plus generous tips and presents.

4 Porters handle luggage at hotels, and receive tips, and rural porters and the owners of pack animals deal with the luggage on a trek. A party of 10 trekkers will employ a camp crew of at least eight people plus the guide.

4 The package tourist makes no attempt to bargain for services or goods. He or she hands over twice the going rate, and feels happy about it. Package tourists buy lots of pricey souvenirs.

4 Sheltered by the tour guide from the danger of rip-offs, they believe all the locals are charming and act accordingly.

4 Package tourists stay in designated areas. If the place has hitherto received few tourists, the tour leader will brief the group on appropriate behaviour and ensure that these rules are kept.

Consider again whether it is the traveller or the package tourist that is doing the most good - or, conversely, the most harm? The problem is that one "bad" independent traveller can do a lot more harm than one "bad" package tourist, because the former is free to misbehave where he or she likes. And at least the package tourist is spending money while behaving badly.

What sort of bad behaviour am I referring to? Over the years travellers have proudly recounted their exploits to me: solving the problem of auto parts by dismantling the car of a "neo- capitalist parked in the compound of a luxury hotel"; tricking their way into getting a discount in a hotel; beating up a youth who demanded a watch as a present; hitting a child who was ill-treating a lizard; knifing a man in response to sexual harassment; and sneaking into national parks or archaeological sites without paying. Few travellers can resist the opportunity to save money, and hardly any can avoid responding to a situation from their own cultural standpoint.

Those may be extreme examples, but how many of us have abused hospitality when on the road? Travellers love staying with local people. Sometimes they stay and stay, eating food that is in short supply and disrupting the day-to-day lives of their hosts. They call it getting close to the people.

Nevertheless, travellers' attitudes are changing. For me the turning point was in the mid-1980s when I received a letter from a Zambian woman criticising the coverage of the black market and disagreeable officials in my guide Backpacker's Africa. She wrote: "To justify the black market on the grounds that it makes your trip cheaper in fact also justifies, to me, all the hardships you encounter at borders. The officials know that you are out to screw every penny out of the countries you travel through, and avoid foreign exchange regulations ... so why do you complain when officials treat you badly? To travel cheaply is your maxim, regardless of the laws you break, the insulting attitudes towards the people who live there, and the underlying arrogance that makes you believe that Africa only exists for you to travel across. You are therefore surprised that there are countries (with laws) and people (with their own lives and priorities) in the way."

This was an individual's voice, but governments say the same thing throughout the developing world. Without exception it is package tourists they want, not independent travellers. These days they prefer "ecotourists", those who pay high prices to visit wildlife reserves and natural areas. Ecotourism has been hailed as the potential saviour of threatened habitats - for without tourist revenue, many governments would give over nature reserves to the needs of their growing populations.

Some countries discourage independent travellers. Botswana has put the price of visiting wildlife reserves beyond the means of most backpackers. This method of restricting the number of visitors to the wildlife areas without reducing tourist revenue has benefited conservation. Bhutan has taken this a step further by banning independent travellers altogether, and only groups of four or more can enter. The country now earns more money per head and minimises damage by controlling visitors and where they go. For example, religious sites are out of bounds to tourists.

Contrast Bhutan with Nepal, where the number of independent trekkers has brought a proliferation of lodges in areas on popular routes. Pasture has been destroyed for new buildings, trees used for firewood, and rubbish not properly disposed of. Most trekking groups and their tour operators are more aware of their cultural and environmental impact. They sleep in tents, cook on kerosene stoves, and carry rubbish away with them. They also provide jobs for local people as porters and cooks.

The world is out there and many of us will continue to explore it as independent travellers, but we need to recognise that we are beneficiaries, not benefactors. Hopefully, we will continue to return from our travels with a greater understanding of different cultures, with the ability to withstand hardship, tolerate long periods of inactivity and short periods of heady excitement and, possibly, able to speak another language. We will have changed. But the best thing we can hope for is that the "host country" will not have been changed by us.

! Today is the last day of the Independent Travellers World exhibition taking place at the Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London N1. It is open from 10am-6pm.

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