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Defending the Tourists

Photo: Julian, Laredo Sign (Some rights reserved)

From the archives, early 00s

All too often, travelers are taken for granted.

Tourist or traveler — does it matter which term is used? My current favorite term is the neutral ‘visitor.’ Chances are that during any trip, the visitor (by any name) has an opportunity to play multiple roles.

What seems strange is that, despite the rhetoric and costly policy meetings, we find few attempts among specialists to actively listen to visitors. Tourism development thus is developed from those who understand the supply but rarely the demands of visitors. During the International Year of Ecotourism the traveling public were largely ignored as valued players during official policy making events. For example, the Quebec Ecotourism Declaration did not include travelers as stakeholders. A serious omission, n’est-ce pas?

Who is the tourist? The tourist is more than a consumer and plays the various roles. Travel is something amateurs do very well. For those making a journey, the limited amount of time makes any interaction significant, if not sacred. Travelers visit churches, markets and parks with an understanding that the opportunity may not present itself again. While crucial stakeholders, travelers are generally poorly-served by most tourism campaigns. Further confusing the issue, many countries continue to equate ecotourism with being outdoors. Whether such misdirection reflects naivety or intentional obfuscation remains to be seen. If we consider ways in which tourists can be respected, we need to look no further than the guest book that visitors are asked to sign in tourism offices. Too often officials neither consult this information or develop any framework to incorporate the compliments into action.

MET Conference During the Media, Environment and Tourism Conference, journalist Susan Cunningham described class prejudice as a root problem: “Elites regard tourists that go off camping, riding bicycles, staying on islands sans TV, sweating, walking in forests — as akin to peasants and thus ‘bad’ cheapskate tourists. ‘Good’ tourists, such as rich Thais, consume conspicuously and extravagantly. The latter — say, about 10 million — are what the government strives to attract. This is something that well-meaning foreign tourism professors and donors can’t grasp.”

Myth of the Monolithic Tourist Visitors are curious beings, and they frequently do not aim for consistency. Times spent ‘living healthy’ are mixed with parties and reventón. Mixing up ones activities is a way of experiencing as much as possible and reacting to ever-changing stimulus. It’s time to take a look at the term ‘tourist’ and to dismiss the myth that tourists are easily categorized. Many travelers practice responsible tourism without proclaiming to themselves (and others) that they are a “responsible tourist” or seeking “responsible tourism.” Likewise, many proponents of ‘responsible tourism’ display behaviors that others would question. In the Devil’s Book of Culture, anthropologist Ben Feinberg writes about multiple relationship roles in rural Mexico. “My relationship with the Sierra Mazateca can be characterized as a succession of different modes of travel and not just as a prolonged dwelling. I have come to Huautla as a backpacker, an anthropology student, a seller of discount sneakers from the Nike factory outlet store in San Marcos, Texas, as a godfather visiting my compadres, as a college professor leading a group of undergraduate students on a travel immersion course, and as the sponsor of a quinceañera ceremony.”

Virtuous Circle Travelers need to be educated before their journey and locals need to know what is expected. In the best of all possible worlds, there is a mutually beneficial experience. Said Clay Hubbs, founder of Transitions Abroad in his essay on the 30th anniversary of the publication: “Outside our own country we are all seen as tourists; even we use the word tourist to describe the ‘other guy.’ What distinguishes one tourist from another is how we travel, not where or even why. What distinguishes Transitions Abroad readers from the other guy is a desire to learn from our hosts and openness to change.”

What do visitors want? It is not instructive to think of travelers, particular eco travelers as a homogenous group. Visitors want their expectations satisfied. Some will be demanding, some not. But most will be very pleased if the bathrooms are clean. Some travelers are comforted by moving out of their comfort zones and others need substantial hand-holding throughout the journey. In most cases travelers wish to figure out how to interact with locals that is not exploitative. Visitors have different information demands. Eco travelers want to know where the water comes from, what is growing in the fields. Many are interested in language and want to know the names of the trees.

Independent Travel Seriously lacking is an accurate count of independent traveler market, those traveling alone or in small groups. “Foreign Independent Tourists” (FITs) are often ignored by all except the individual operators who depend on this target group for their livelihood.

For many tourism developers, backpackers are not a priority market — due to their being seen as not contributing financially. But is this truly the case? Many backpackers carry credit cards and are willing to spend in the rural countryside. How much do independent travelers contribute, compared to those taking a packaged tour or participating in a conference? So far, few studies have been conducted. Rural communities are often advised by consultants to raise prices to reflect the “value” of what’s offered. Price inflation usually ensues. If prices are raised to levels that tourists do not wish to pay, the travelers stop coming, leaving operators or communities with low occupancy rates and eventual bankruptcy. The only one who profits from such an exercise is the globe-trotting consultant.

Recommendations Most visitors do not wish to be interlopers, so here are a few recommendations for travelers, locals and everyone inbetween:

Travelers — Share your impressions with tourism boards and media, particularly that which you consult during the planning stage of your trip. If there is a guest book, sign it. Use online forums not only to research your trip but to post feedback for future travelers. Travelers seeking a responsible educational trip need to ask the organizers how the trip benefits the visited communities: Are locals involved in the trip creation? How does the organization follow-up with local contacts? Does the operator demand exclusivity, and if so, why?

Locals — Educate travelers about local rules and customs before they arrive. These efforts will help resolve problems before they occur. And when they arrive, treat travelers not as clients, but as friends.

Local Government — Install or improve clear signage at local transportation hubs, including bus stations and airports. Explain to visitors how to find timely tourism information. Don’t forget group tours. Make sure there are dignified places for large buses to park.

Tourism Boards – Use correspondence (including email), social web interactions, and the tourism office guest book (!) to develop public summary reports of what your office does well and what you are encouraged to change.


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