05.11.2016 - 19.11.2016
This was really a new term for me- one that I just learned a few weeks ago, but that has since made its presence (or lack-thereof) very obvious. A picture from the New York Times of tourists posing with sea turtles in Costa Rica brought tears of rage to my eyes as I read about people taking selfies with these gentle beasts and placing their kids on their shells. Of course these tourists completely interrupted egg-laying this season, possibly even scaring the turtles off for good. Who'd go back after being treated like that?
While I haven't seen anything that heinous on any of my trips, the idea of low-impact tourism apparently isn't a concern even in supposedly eco-friendly Costa Rica. So what is low-impact, anyway? It's not like any of us (my good readers) purposely stride up in our Merrell/Croc/Converse clad feet and kick off a rock from the pyramid, do we? But what if our good intentions, our desire to know new cultures, see new things and people, make our friends jealous on Facebook, is actually doing more harm than good?
Although tourism is overall very beneficial (job and income creation, community pride, funding for environmental projects, etc.), we also know that tourism can increase crime, extend our carbon footprint and so on. Some of our lesser offenses, such as overwhelming local populations and resources or interrupting local customs and wildlife, are not as discussed.
So how can we participate in low-impact tourism or modify our company so that our travelers don't create such an obvious presence?
At Casa HOY we strive to educate our participants on how to blend in with the local population. Since I'm taller the average local woman and blonde, I understand that this isn't so always easy to do. Here are 5 ways your group can minimize its impact in on a local community:
1) Eat local food. Don't visit McDonald's. You will last a week without a Big Mac. Come on, you don't actually even eat that back home, so why are you craving it now? Tacos, churros, tamales, and chiles rellenos are so much better anyway. Besides, supporting local cooks instead of chain restaurants provides jobs and income and fosters the creation and spread of local cuisine.
2) Take public transportation. As enticing as it may seem to rent a cushy tour van, no one else does that. You are not experiencing the real Mexico if you're in a vehicle with seatbelts and air-conditioning, with soothing classical music playing on the radio.
3) Travel in small groups. If possible, go off in pairs. Nothing like a big tour group in matching neon T-shirts to disrupt local daily activities. Consider capping off your group size and dividing into smaller numbers to work on projects.
4) Don't touch local art and architecture even if locals do. This is kind of a weird one, but in many countries there aren't as many precautions in place to protect art or architecture (glass, tape, marked-off areas). Although I've never seen someone walk up and touch a painting here in Mexico, I HAVE seen people take stones from archeological sites or give statues a quick rub down. Unless you are five-years-old, do your part to preserve these treasures.
5) Finally, like the case of the poor sea turtles in Costa Rica, respect pets and wildlife even if locals don't. While I truly believe when you visit another country you have to respect their customs, there is no reason for you to go take a picture with the baby puma sprawled across your legs. Travel is part of a cultural exchange- if you treat animals nicely and avoid establishments with chained up miniature horses, people will see that. You don't have to criticize anyone, but it is definitely a conversation that can be held over a couple of chelas with some of your new friends.
This is just the beginning, and even though it may seem obvious there are still people who do it. What advice do you have on how to minimize tourism impact on a community?