In our new podcast, Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the world of ethical travel in a friendly, accessible—and dare we say—fun way. Every other Thursday, beginning on June 16, 2022, join us as we answer your ethical conundrums from how to engage with animal tourism (“I know I shouldn’t ride an elephant, but can I swim with dolphins?”) to travel that doesn’t harm the Earth (“What is zero-waste travel—and is it even possible?”). Here’s the transcript from our first episode.
Like most people in the world, I spent most of the past two years hunkered down at home. And now I’m traveling again. A couple of weeks ago, I got back from a fascinating trip to Israel and Palestine, which reminded me of just how magical and eye-opening travel can be.
It seems like so many of us are in the same boat, right? We’re so eager to get back out there, which is amazing and something to celebrate. But that said, there’s one aspect of our return to travel that I’m having mixed feelings about.
Revenge travel. Maybe you’ve heard of this? It’s a term that first appeared in 2021, and it’s been spreading ever since. Revenge travel is about people making up for lost time. Maybe they’re rushing to take a vacation just because a destination finally opened up—or because they finally feel comfortable traveling overseas again. It’s the idea that travelers want to “take revenge” on COVID—or at least the time we lost to it—by jumping on a plane and rushing off to all those places that we’ve been dreaming of for so long.
Now, I can certainly empathize with that impulse. There are just so many places I want to go! But there’s something about the phrase “revenge travel” that, you know, I could do without.
Here in France, I live with my family in a little Alpine village that is hugely reliant on tourism. We get tons of hikers in the summer, skiers in the winter, and cheese lovers year-round. Believe me, it’s always cheese season in this part of the world. Living here over the past four years, I’ve seen just how much the presence—or absence—of travelers affects people in our community, in ways that are really good, really bad, and everything in between.
So when I think about traveling right now, I don’t like to think about “getting revenge” for time lost. I want to take time to understand what’s at stake in the communities that I’m going to visit. Especially given that, coming out of the pandemic, some of these places are more vulnerable than ever. And, at the risk of sounding naive, I want to do my best to do some good while I’m out in the world.
So come along with me in this episode, as I explore how we can all support the communities we visit and have those fulfilling travel experiences we’ve all been craving. (And I promise it’s possible to do both.)
Harold Goodwin: We define responsible tourism primarily as ways of traveling which make better places for people to live in, and better places for people to visit. And the order of those two objectives is quite important because if you’re going to make tourism better, it’s really got to be better for the host, and better for the guest.
Harold: The main negative impacts there would be crowding in places that the local community wants to use. So crowding is one issue. The behavior of tourists who are at leisure in a place where other people are working. The people at leisure perhaps have a tendency to consume more alcohol than when they’re working. There are impacts on the sites themselves, just in terms of physical damage from trampling and people brushing things, all of which have an impact. Crowding on public transport.
In some ways, perhaps, the worst thing in Barcelona was the impact it had on the ownership of property, so that a lot of what had been rented accommodation went to Airbnb or was converted to licensed flat rentals, all of which squeezed out local communities, who then cannot necessarily find somewhere to live.
Paige: Oh yes, the old Airbnb dilemma. Last summer, I traveled to Barcelona to write a news story about the city’s efforts to regulate Airbnb, which is a topic that inspires a lot of strong opinions in the city. I interviewed the deputy mayor, city planners, Airbnb officials, as well as locals who rely on the income they earn as hosts to be able to pay their own rent. In doing that reporting, I was struck by just how hard the local government was working to respond to their citizens’ concerns.
Harold says that’s one of the key factors in making sure that travel is good for everyone. Citizens need to speak up. Governments need to listen. He pointed to a great example of that kind of civic engagement in Kerala, in southern India. So this part of India is known for its palm-lined beaches, mangrove forests, and tea, coffee, and spice plantations.
Kerala is also home to a vast network of lagoons and barrier islands —similar to the bayous of Louisiana—where visitors can spend the night on a houseboat or go exploring by canoe. Kerala is so beautiful that it attracts more than a million foreign visitors each year—and a whole lot more from within India. But for a long time, tourism wasn’t working for the local communities.
Harold: There were two issues. One was the pollution that came from large numbers of tourists going out on boats on the backwaters. But the bigger issue was the fact that the communities were not benefiting economically. Because although some of the locals had got employment in the hotels, there was a lot of bringing in of labor from outside. But also they weren’t purchasing locally for their supplies.
So they weren’t purchasing from local farmers, they weren’t purchasing local crafts for the soft furnishings of the hotels, and they weren’t providing any opportunity or encouraging the tourists to leave the sort of hotel resort and go out and spend money in the local community.
Paige: In 2008, local leaders decided to take action. They designed four projects in four communities. Each project tested a different way to make tourism better for the people who lived there. One of those pilot projects, in a village called Kamarakorum, was a huge success. So over the past several years, local leaders have expanded the lessons from that village to communities across the region.
Harold: Now that’s been completely turned around in Kerala with a big statewide initiative. What happened there was that the State Government of Kerala worked very closely with the village councils across Kerala.
Paige: So what was the secret to that village’s success? Harold says there were three key elements. First, they created cooperatives made up of farmers and artists who would supply resorts and hotels with food, furniture, and art. Second, they created something called Village Life Experiences. The program invited residents to earn an income by teaching visitors to weave with coconut leaves, to fish in the traditional manner, or to take part in whatever the locals wanted to share. And finally, local leaders created restaurants and markets where locals could come together to sell their food and crafts directly to tourists.
That’s a pretty impressive turnaround. But hearing Harold describe all of this, I wondered: What lessons or principles from those experiences can we apply to all of our trips?
Harold says that, first, we should choose a destination that is ready to welcome travelers: It has to have the infrastructure to manage tourism. So that means maybe looking for a place that has a tourist board or where the natural areas have parking lots and bathrooms and marked trails. It means trying not to get too far off the beaten path. Then, we should think about how we’re going to get there and the impact that our travel will have on the climate. By taking fewer, longer trips, Harold says, we can get more bang for our carbon buck. But it doesn’t end there.
Harold: So now you’ve arrived at the destination. Now the question is how do you maximize your benefit to the local economy? And I say there are basically three things: Choose to stay in locally owned accommodation, where you can. Choose to purchase things which are being produced locally—what’s available in the local market is often a very good guide to that. And in terms of your behavior, don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t want your mother to know about. So it’s a matter, really, of just trying to make sure that you fit in, that you don’t conflict, to remember that it’s their place, not yours.
Paige: That sentiment really rings true for me. As a resident of a village that gets hundreds of thousands of travelers every year, I know what it’s like to feel as though your home has been taken over by visitors! On the flip side: I’m also really grateful for tourists who come to our area, because the money and energy they bring is exactly what makes life possible—and fun!—in our remote little corner of the Alps.
Harold also reminded me how important it is to be respectful about how and when we take photos. (Asking permission never hurts!) He also says he likes to read about local politics, history, or culture before he goes to a new place. It’s like that old NBC slogan: The more you know.
So yes, understanding our impact on a place takes some work. But it’s not like we have to write a thesis before we go. We can simply ask ourselves: Does the hotel I’m staying in hire people from the local community? Does its restaurant source its ingredients from the area? Who’s benefiting from the canoe trip or market tour I’m about to take? How do residents feel about Airbnb here? Even if we just pick one question to explore before we go, that can make a big difference.
Welcome back to Unpacked by AFAR. OK, bear with me. After a quick stop in Barcelona, then down to southern India, we’re heading now to East Africa—specifically Kenya. And we’re going to talk about a change in the world of safaris—one that makes sure that the land set aside for wildlife benefits the people who live there too.
Judy Kepher-Gona: The biggest opportunities for communities in safari tourism is when the communities own the land that has been put under conservation and where safari happens. These spaces are called community conservancies.
Paige: That’s Judy Kepher-Gona, of the Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, a consulting firm based in Nairobi, Kenya. Judy works in Africa, and around the globe, to create immersive travel experiences that also bring wealth into host communities. Historically, most land in Kenya has been owned by the government or by private landowners—many of whom are descendants of white British colonials.
Judy says that, in recent years, more communities in Kenya are coming together to set up conservancies that they manage themselves. That means that it’s the locals who get to decide how and when they can use the land to graze their livestock—an activity that’s critical to many rural communities in Kenya. It also means that they can earn money—sometimes a lot of money—directly from tourism.
Judy: When the community owns the land and earns from the land, then the safari tourism has great impacts on the community because they earn a lease fee for their land and they can negotiate a percentage of the bed night fee from the tourism operators.
Paige: Judy also says that community conservancies make sure tourism jobs go to people who are actually from those rural communities—instead of being given to Kenyans who move to the area from Nairobi or other big cities.
Judy: Any other safari where a protected area is owned and managed by the government, even if these areas are in communal lands, can only offer the best of employment to the community, and that employment is shared by all other Kenyans who have the same qualifications and therefore there is no affirmative action to prioritize communities. So in this particular case, where safari happens in areas where land is owned privately or by the government, the impacts and benefits to communities is very low.
Paige: Judy says that in Kenya today, about 11 or 12 percent of the country’s land is managed by community conservancies, a big increase from just 20 years ago. She also says that in those community conservancies, up to 85 percent of jobs go to people who are local. Community management also means that local farmers can still access the land for grazing at certain times of the year. When the land is owned by the government or an individual, that access isn’t guaranteed.
But, Paige, you might be asking, how can I tell who owns the land I’ll be visiting in Kenya or beyond? It’s true that it’s not always obvious, but a little homework can go a long way. If you’re going through a tour operator, they should be able to tell you. Or if you’re booking directly, call or email the managers and ask them about their ownership structure and how they interact with local communities. You can also do a quick Google search to see if the lodge or ranch that’s hosting you has any history of conflict with its neighbors.
Of course, there are a lot of other things to do in Kenya. There are modern cities to visit, mountains to climb, and sandy beaches to explore along the coast.
Judy says that safari tourism has long been Kenya’s “signature product,” and there wasn’t much effort put into helping travelers have other experiences, including in cities like Nairobi, Mombasa, and Eldoret. But that’s changing.
Judy: A new tourism strategy was launched two days ago for Kenya and it is trying to promote culture and heritage apart from the safari. It is also big on adventure and domestic tourism.
Paige: This is an important thing to keep in mind as we venture out into the world: What parts of a city or country are heavily marketed to travelers? How can we explore less-talked about sides of destinations? And how does understanding how countries manage tourism help us make choices?
For example, Kenya’s travel industry is a major contributor to the economy, and the country wants to bring in even more international travelers in the years ahead. Judy says that it’s important that the people promoting travel use the right measures to figure out if the industry is actually helping the people of Kenya overall. Because aiming for growth of the wrong kind of tourism can end up doing more harm than good.
Judy: And we’ve been saying this for a long time as an organization: It is only sustainable if the metrics show us that the biodiversity has been protected and the well-being in the tourism destination has improved because of tourism. Then we will say that this is truly responsible tourism. It protects the environment. It respects the culture of the host communities. It respects the communities and their lifestyles, but also it makes a difference in their well-being. Those are the things that are critical for responsible destinations.
Paige: Before we go, let’s look back at what we’ve learned.
Takeaway number one
Pick one community-oriented question to explore before your next trip, whether it’s asking who profits from a tour you’ve booked or asking where your hotel restaurant sources its produce.
Takeaway number two
Take fewer, longer, trips.
Takeaway number three
Treat a new city like your own hometown. (And don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your parents to know about!)
Takeaway number four
When looking at outdoor-oriented experiences, look at who owns or benefits from the land you’ll be visiting—and who might be excluded.
Takeaway number five
Consider how a country manages its tourism. Do they keep in mind the needs of the community?
And our final takeaway
Remember we’re all in this together—and there’s no need for perfection.
So yes, we may be traveling to make up the time we lost to COVID. But it’s so good to remember that we have the chance to do some good at the same time. As for revenge? I think we can save that for the movies.
Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of Unpacked. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work—including my own show, The Better Travel Podcast—you can sign up for my newsletter by stopping by my website. Take care and I really hope to see you out there!
Ready for more unpacking? Visit us online at afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, we hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And please be sure to rate and review us. It helps other travelers find the show.
This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Postproduction was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhoades. Music composition by Alan Carrescia.
And remember: The world is complicated. Being an ethical traveler doesn’t have to be.