What can ‘local travel’ learn from responsible travel’s chequered past

‘Local travel’ describes what many independent travellers have known for years - get off the beaten track, choose local, choose small and invariably you will choose well. But will the new ‘Local Travel’ Movement survive and prosper?

The concept of ethically responsible travel (deeply interwoven with local travel) has been around for many years now. Yet it is clouded in myth, misinterpretation, misunderstanding and tarnished reputations.  It has failed to go mainstream in anywhere near the same way as fair-trade tea and organic bananas have done in our local supermarkets. It seems responsible travel means different things to different people and is misunderstood by most. The problem has been partly caused by the media who over-simplify the issue, partly by companies who piggy back the movement without proper attention to standards and in the main due to a lack of international kite-marks by which consumers can easily judge operations.

As a result we have a situation where companies throw around terms like eco tours and ecolodge and community tourism initiative without ever being held up to real scrutiny – A lot is very much for show (including the hastily typed responsible travel policy). So as consumers, instead of being able to rely confidently on labels such as organic or fair trade, we have to to consider our own choices and make our own minds up, for instance:

  1. Just because it is green we can’t assume it is good. A composting toilet doesn’t guarantee that the owners are paying fair wages to local staff.
  2. Just because it isn’t green doesn’t mean it isn’t ethical. The social impact of travel is independent of the environmental impacts of travel and focussing on one is better than focussing on neither.
  3. Volunteering isn’t always ‘good’. Short volunteering stays can sometimes do more harm than good. 
  4. The same principles of independent judgement must be applied to ‘local travel’. Small, local and independent doesn’t guarantee quality nor does it guarantee ethics. There are many successful large international organisations offering thoroughly locally-rooted travel experiences that are better for the customer and better for the local community than the local alternatives.

The point is, travel is an experience without any hard and fast rules and not an easily defined physical product. In the absence of a common global standard (don’t hold your breath) travellers need to make their own judgements and companies need to do their best to make improvements.

Any companies that make efforts to provide or promote local travel or ethical or green travel experiences should be applauded. The net effect in most cases will be good, more operators will behave responsibly and more customers will choose responsibly. But there is a worrying danger when those same companies market their product or website as ‘responsible’ or ‘green’ or ‘eco’ or ‘local’ without thoroughly and fairly assessing themselves against these labels – it simply undermines the whole movement. 

We live in a complex multi-coloured world where white-washing, green-washing and blacklisting only serve to simplify a matter to banality. As a travel company, we should agree to treat the issue with respect, acknowledge the complexities of the issue and avoid the temptation to simplify for the sake of a good marketing slogan.


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