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EXPLORING ECOTOURISM

Defending the Tourists, I mean Visitors 1 - 2
by Ron Mader

VISITORS WIKI

You have visitors in your house, not tourists.
- Language Notebook

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FLICKR ALBUM: Visitors, aka Tourists
SLIDESHOW


All too often, visitors are taken for granted.

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?

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.

Tourism development thus is developed from those who understand the supply but rarely the demands of visitors. What seems strange is that, despite the rhetoric and costly policy meetings, we find few attempts among specialists to actively listen to visitors. There are few attempts to create social bridges that connect locals and visitors.

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.

Until recently, travelers rarely thought much about the environmental or social impacts of their journeys. In fact, most view a holiday as a way to escape 'cause-and-effect' logic. After all, trips are made to escape the routine.

THE MYTH OF THE MONOLITHIC

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.

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, a virtuous circle.

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."

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."

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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

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:

VISITORS -- Ask questions and share your impressions from the planning stage to the trip itself and afterward. If there is a guest book, sign it. Use online forums not only to research your trip but to post feedback for future travelers. Check in if you'd like via geolocation services including Facebook and Foursquare.

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) and the tourism office guest book to develop practical summary reports of what your office does well and what you are encouraged to change.


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


FEATURES

g Defending the Tourists, I mean Visitors, Part 2
g Review of "The Tourist"

FLICKR

g Visitors, aka Tourists
g Let's watch every drop
b Warning to tourists
ONLINE FLICKR

WIKI

g Toward Effective Communication in Responsible Travel and Ecotourism
g Visitors
ONLINE WIKI


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