The world is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page (St Augustine)
Walking through browning fields of sun baked corn yearning to be harvested, I questioned my Palaung guide on the benefits of tourism to his village and people. I was on a three day trek in Shan State in Myanmar, staying two nights with home-stays (our guide’s family) in villages of the Palaung ethnic group. Where does the money go, I inquire? The money goes to the trekking company, the guide, our home-stay (which included several meals) and to others who cooked us tasty Shan noodles, accompanied by locally grown tea for lunch, he responds.
The money is very important he says, it provides many opportunities, things like solar panels and other home improvements. And are there other benefits, non-monetary ones, I probe? Well, he explains, this area has historically been plagued with conflict (our journey took us past several currently peaceful Shan Army checkpoints), and tourists encourage peace, as military do not want to involve tourists in their battles. I was thinking about the joys of cultural exchange, the curiosity of interacting with others with a different way of life, but these were omitted from his list. Perhaps this is just a Western tourist aspiration?
This was one of many instances during my most recent sojourn to Myanmar which made me think about what it means to be an ethical traveller. As a person who strives to live a responsible life – both environmentally and socially, is it possible to continue this as a tourist? While on holiday, these aspirations don’t disappear for me, but the challenges are sometimes different and the boundaries between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ become blurred. I find this particularly confronting in a place like Myanmar, a country economically poorer than my native land, and wrought with many on-going and simultaneous conflicts between various ethnic and military groups.
Is ethical travelling about supporting local people, businesses or charities, I wondered? Or travelling lightly, aiming to leave minimal environmental impact? Is it about travelling slowing, utilising land-based transport options with lower carbon emissions? Or reciprocating good-will to those who help you along the way? Is it about respecting and honoring local culture and traditions, even if they are puzzling or strange to you?
Should I succumb to the constant hassle to buy souvenirs I don’t want (or need) so as to potentially help local people? Should I give money to street beggars, or is my money best spent elsewhere – to people who provide great service or cook me delicious meals? And when is taking photos of locals appropriate – some people seem receptive, while others shrink from the camera, glaring at your invasion into their lives. As a blonde, tall, white person, I’ve experienced the reversal of this, posing for numerous photos with Myanmar people who shyly or giggly approach me for a selfie or group shot.
I guess the question is, do local people need tourists? From a purely economic perspective, the answer would generally appear to be yes. However, if we are to view travel through a sustainability lens, we must also consider the wider social and environmental impacts of tourism. Watch out for my next blog which discusses this and provides some suggestions for how one might be an ethical traveller.