In 2015, the world was shocked after news surfaced that an American dentist had paid US$50,000 to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe. The lion, it turned out, was 13 year old Cecil, Zimbabwe's most famous lion. The reactions on social media left nothing up to the imagination, and the outrage was global.
Recreational hunting is one thing I still fail to warm to, and I would probably spend the rest of my life wondering how it's even remotely possible that such a well-off individual needs cruelty to satisfy his needs if I'd let it. Having said that, I'm not toning down the act by saying the following, but this is clearly an example of "irresponsible tourism."
Irresponsible tourism comes with a multitude of gradations, and indeed, flying to another country with the intention to pay a local $50,000 before hunting, wounding and shooting a specimen of that country's wildlife certainly qualifies as the apotheosis of irresponsible tourism. But there are so many gradations that you and I are, most likely, also guilty of it: from tossing a cigarette butt on the street to swimming with captive dolphins and from riding ostriches to driving fuel-consuming motor-homes through pristine nature - none of it is responsible, human(e) behavior.
My latest sin is that I got out of a car to have a better look at a small black bear and approached it up to thirty meters. It was an act of selfishness, and although the bear looked like he couldn't care less, goodness knows how scared he might have been. A few years ago, on my road trip down the Western-Australian coast (which I describe in my book In Australia), I had an eye-opening experience when I drove out to Monkey Mia, where they feed wild dolphins every morning for the entertainment of tourists. The dolphins come to the beach, get their fish out of human hands, and are off again within ten minutes. This seems innocent enough, but they ate their breakfast out of human hands.
Any interaction between human beings and wildlife is irresponsible, from feeding to hunting, and it goes without mentioning that irresponsible tourism is something that happens all the time, all over the world. While the outrage on the internet was fierce, I do wonder how many of those angry commentators put their actions where their mouth is, and will from here on out practice Responsible Tourism.
Are you a responsible tourist?
This question dips not only into the ecological aspect, but also entails personal treatment and the cultural differences that require our attention. One can shoot a local lion, but one can also mistreat the human locals, or ignore local manners and customs. Why go to a country and demand toilet paper in your hotel room when the locals use a water hose and their left hand? That means that you're de facto insisting on your own culture, which in turn means you're disrespecting and insulting the culture you're visiting. One of the results can be, in this instance, that the local population will view you (and the culture you represent) as a dirty individual because you don't use water to clean yourself.
Here are the five golden rules to Responsible Tourism:
- You are a guest
At home, people are generally well-mannered because they don't want to upset their neighbors. On holiday, people feel free and act accordingly, often to the annoyance of the local residents. No matter where you go, you're always someone's guest. Behave like one.
- You represent your own culture
If you're an American, you may want to know that Americans before you have been to that same place, and have created expectations for the next American. And if you're a Brit... Exactly. Local people will look at your behavior (not your character or personality, but the way you act) and attach that behavior to the label that's also known as your nationality. Be aware that you represent your culture, and therefore you do not want to insult the culture you are visiting. When, metaphorically, it's time to put the knife and fork down and pick up the chopsticks, you pick up the chopsticks and learn to eat with them.
- Leaving footprints can be a trace too many
Even though it's a crowded world where we all go on holiday to the same destinations, many people want to feel as though they are the first ones ever in that spot. Banff, where I until recently resided, is filled with office-workers who seem to genuinely believe that they are some version of Indiana Jones now that the office has been left behind for two weeks. It's in our nature to be explorers and we all want to "discover" a place untouched. So if you are somewhere and you feel like you've just discovered the next Machu Picchu, make sure you leave no traces, not even footprints, in order for the next person to fully enjoy the same experience.
- Create an economy, not dependency
One of my biggest issues currently (I always seem to have one or two before moving on) is that people go for recognizable brands. We go abroad and sleep at the Hilton, or the Travelodge, where we expect the service to be on a certain level. But if your man outside is sleeping in his bamboo hut with a roof of corrugated iron because the economy in the country you're visiting is not on a more or less Western level, then we need to ask if it's fair. The world isn't fair, but your money can at least support the local economy. Don't eat at McDonald's or sleep at the Travelodge, but eat and sleep locally. Cockroaches in your room? That's just another local experience! Why else did you leave home?
- Get off the beaten track
Imagine you're on a train, and your destination is thoroughly described in the Lonely Planet. But then, on the way, you come across the quaintest of villages. The train slows down, and you wish you could spend some time here. Just have a look around, engage in a conversation with the locals, ask where they would take their visitors. This happens to me all the time. I'm right now traveling down to Cape Horn as part of my journey across the Americas, and there were plenty of towns where I wished I got off the train or bus. I was recently in Guatemala, and ended up being the only one at a Maya ruin site, while all the tourists were at the famous one, Tikal. Perhaps it wasn't as overwhelming as Tikal, but it was one of the most rewarding things I did while in Guatemala. So, get off that train, and explore. Also, locals always seem to be friendlier in places where they aren't used to many tourists.
All this comes down to one word: Engage!