Loving it to Death: the Tourist’s Dilemma

But I’m not a tourist! I hear the chorus. I’m not getting into that debate. Some days, I’m a traveller, some days a tourist. It depends on the day, and the definition.

On the way to the Green Beach, Hawaii

The other day my kids and I hiked to the Green Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. Tough hike because of the wind and the irregular terrain, but worth it. However, the rough terrain was caused mostly by the multitude of off-roaders who had ripped up the countryside driving their 4X4s to the beach. People still drive there.

At Machu Picchu earlier this month my first glimpses, in the early morning after hiking the Inca Trail to get there, were eerie and mystical. But a couple of hours later there were so many people on the site, despite the timed entry tickets, that at times I was in a queue, walking the paths single file in one direction only. An average of 2500 people visit every day, on a site designed for at most a few hundred residents. The earth itself is sinking from the weight of the visitors, and there is talk of a cable car to go over it, with no visitors allowed inside.

Floating islands in Peru

At Lake Titicaca a week later, we visited the Islas de Los Uros, floating islands made from reeds, that have been inhabited by the same peoples since the Incas ruled here. We heard an interesting explanation of the history and how the islands were constructed. Yet when we split up to visit individual houses, the interiors turned out to be souvenir stalls, with few of the items actually crafted on the islands. Our “hosts” were obviously upset when we didn’t buy. On a ride on a reed boat, a young girl, 5 or 6 years old, was put on the boat by her mother, and she proceeded to sing to us, and then held out her hand for money. We had been told by our guide that we had no obligation to buy, and we should not give money or items, particularly to children who should be in school. The community had already been paid for our visit, but it was awkward. It reminded me of the children begging in Egypt, or selling chiclets on the beach in Mexico.

And there is the tourist’s/traveller’s dilemma. We travel to these amazing places, but our very presence changes and damages them. And as more and more of us travel, as flights become more like buses in the sky than luxury trips, in our great numbers we have more and more impact.

In many tourist sites around the world, locals rebel at the hordes who irreparably change their homes. They bring money, yes, but they bring more harm. In other places, outsiders come to prey on the tourists.

Sign at the surf shop in Keauhou

We snorkel and surf and our feet break the coral, our sunblock poisons the fauna. Even at home in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, salmon runs have been impacted by the sunscreen ingredients of the tubers who float down the river. National parks have asked Instagram influencers to not geotag that perfect, pristine nature spot, as it then becomes trampled by hordes trying to get the exact same photo.

We fly, travel on ships, drive, and add to the carbon load causing climate change.

So how do you reduce your impact on the world you are so amazed to see? Some of the ways are those that make you a traveller rather than a tourist.

Be aware of your impact and work to minimize it. Hike instead of ATV. Conserve water, avoid single use plastics, open the windows instead of turning on the air conditioning. Spend longer at each location, instead of frantically trying to cover as much ground as possible.

Think of yourself as a guest in the communities you visit, instead of the visitor pointing at the strange creatures in the zoo. Accept differences and be aware of local standards. Yes, see the iconic sights- there’s a reason why they are so popular. But try to get off the beaten track as well.

Traveling with groups and doing local tours, I look for companies that respect local values. Gadventures and National Geographic are my favourites as they support local communities in ventures that showcase their cultures without exploitation.

Some of the varieties at Potato Park. They send seed to the seed vault in Norway.

I would still have gone to Machu Picchu, despite the crowds and the possible degradation of the site. But nearby I also went to Parque de Papas, where local farmers showed us 400 varieties of potatoes, and how they grew them. I have eaten meals in family kitchens, in Peru, Palestine, Germany and Egypt. Worldwide, I rarely stay in international chain hotels, preferring local accommodation. I eat local cuisine. I carry a water bottle and a coffee travel mug.

Travel is so worthwhile, changing our perspective, opening our minds and maybe our hearts. I love to see the world, but I try to lessen my damage to it on my brave travels.

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