Sustainable Tourism and Traveling in South America
. More travelers in South America
. Inexperienced and badly informed travelers
. Consequences of incomplete or wrong information
. Avoiding responsibilities
. Consequences of too many tourists
. Travel responsible
. Mentality and expectations
. Eco Tourism
. South American or foreign companies
. Eco Lodges
. Volunteer work
The rise of internet, cheap flights, a good economy and change of mentality over the past years made traveling and tourism abroad easier and more accessible. Because of this higher accessibility, now each year more and more people decide to travel abroad and the general type of traveler has changed.
The tourist industry has become a strongly growing industry with the potention to be able to help the economy of developing countries in South America. With good guidens and organization tourism can also help to protect nature, cultural history and traditions.
Besides that, traveling increases the perception of people about the world around them and provides more understanding and acceptation about different cultures and customs.
So it is good when more people are able to travel and explore the beautiful and exciting world around us, but there are also negative influences.
In this article we give some examples about the positive and negative influence of tourism in South America, with the focus on Peru, the strongest growing tourist destionation in South America.
More travelers in South America:
The sudden strong growth in tourism does not only improve the economy in several South American countries, but also comes with new problems, including trash problems, damaging of nature and cultural sites and a shortage of water when hotels and lodges use too much water to provide varios services to their clients (swimming pools, gardens, laundry, etc.).
In order to limit these negative effects and increase the positive effects of tourism, the United Nations has declared 2017: “The year of Sustainable Tourism”. More information: http://www.tourism4development2017.org
“Sustainable Tourism” isn’t only important, but also very popular in many ways. It’s a popular subject for researchers to write about, it has become a popular way of enjoying tourism while feeling good about yourself and as a consequence it has also become a very popular sales term in the tourist industry…
Tours around eco tourism, volunteer tourism and visiting (poor) local communities are mostly designed to stimulate the “Feel Good” feeling of the clients and have a high sales rate. Often clients don’t even mind to pay a little more for “Sutainable Tours”, because they think that they pay for a good cause.
However, unfortunately tours that are meant to be sustainable are often not as good for their environment as they pretend to be… The 3 most important reasons are:
Abuse of the concept “Sustainable Tourism” for commercial purpose, lack of knowledge from the traveler/ tourist and lack of motivation from the tourist to actually be willing to make a difference…
Inexperienced and badly informed travelers:
Far journeys used to be way more expensive and people who wanted to travel to South America first needed time to save up money. Earlier travelers tended to be better prepared for their long journey and often took fewer luggages with them. This was recommendable, because South America was a far continent with un-known travel conditions, where they speak a different language. Traveling light and well prepared, made the earlier travelers more flexible and able to deal with unknown and unpredictable situations. There were fewer of them, they were better in integrating and left less of a ‘footprint’ behind.
Nowadays, with much cheaper international flights and many internet sites that provide information about South America, people are less scared to travel. They don’t seem to see South America that much as an unknown continent anymore, but more as another place to take some great pictures.
Unfortunately the huge amount of information on internet also means that much of it is out of date, or even incorrect. For the unexperienced travelers it is very difficult to distinguish the difference between good and bad information and unfortunately Google isn’t always very helpful either. They show the most popular/ visited pages, or pages that paid Google to be listed higher up, but this doesn’t nesecarely means that this information is completely correct. It also doesn’t have to be wrong, but it is still good to keep in mind that it is important for travel agencies and blog writers to attract as many clients and followers as possible. They use different ways to do so, for example by enhancing either positive or negative information and altering pictures with photoshop to get more visitors.
So online you can now find all kinds of information, either good or not and book almost everything you want, with only very little knowledges of where you’re actually going. Who wants can just pick-up their smartphone, use a variation of internet sites and book hotels and busses online without even communicating with anyone in South America.
Websites like Booking.com, Hostel World, Trivago, Tripavisor, etc. also make it easier for the modern traveler to book their whole trip in South America online. However the problem is that they don’t inform their clients much about where they’re actually going. These big companies even prefer that their clients don’t know much about the countries where they go and that they don’t speak Spanish. The less their clients know, the easier it is to sell them what they want to buy…
Consequences of incomplete or wrong information:
A good (or bad) example of spreading wrong information are the colored pictures of “Las Montañas Arco Iris” the so called Rainbow Mountains in Peru. Pictures of these mountains have first been altered by tour agencies from Cusco who wanted to sell their tour and later by tourists from all over the world who want to show ‘their public’ how amazing their tour was. Unfortunately all these colored pictures now often cause tourists to be disappointed upon arrival at the Rainbow Mountains, when it turns out that they’re actually not that brightly colored…
It would be better if travelers and travel agencies were more honest with the pictures they publish. It is great if you’re good with Photoshop and able to make your pictures look amazing, but please don’t put these ‘fake pictures’ online and create unrealistic expectations for future travelers.
Companies like Booking.com and Hostel World also spread a wrong image about the prices of hotels in South America. The reason that these huge companies can offer cheaper prices is because they can offer huge amounts of rooms at relative low operation rates. Besides that they forse hotels who want to join them to receive the lowest prices on the market. For ‘their services’ they charge the hotels a 10 to 16% commission. There are even strong rumors that those hotels that pay a bit more reach higher in the rankings of Booking.com, Hostel World and even Tripadvisor…
Now you might wonder how these hotels are still able to earn money, when they sell their rooms below the price. Their trick is to only offer these booking websites to sell a part of their rooms. For example a hotel with 20 rooms, only offers 5 rooms on Booking.com at a price below the market value. The other 15 rooms they sell at the normal price. With this construction the hotels take adventage of the popularity of the booking wedsites, but don’t lose too much money. Because of this it also isn’t uncommon that a hotel that seems fully booked on a bookings website, still has plenty of rooms available when you try to book them directly. However, the price for a direct booking is often higher, because the policy of the Bookings sites doesn’t allow the hotels to offer lower prices to their clients.
A new Bookings website that’s causing problems for especially small hotels and the local economy is Airbnb… This popular rip-off from the classic couch-surfing is a good business model for people who have a spare room and want to earn something extra. There is nothing wrong with that, if the competition was fair. However in most South America cities these small ‘businesses’ are not registered, don’t pay taxes and don’t have to follow the standard hotel (safety) regulations… Because Airbnb rooms have much lower operation costs, they can be offered at a cheaper price than the rooms of local hotels and are potentionaly less safe. Most Airbnb places in South America don’t pay anything to the local municipality and take clients away from local hotels. In worse case, when there are several Airbnb places close to a local hotel, this hotel can’t compete anymore, goes bankrupt and leaves its employees without a job and money to feed their families…
Another consequence of all this ‘colored’ and altered information, designed to attract more attention and clients, is that people who used to be too scared to travel to a foreign country are now more likely to decide to travel to South America.
These ‘new travelers’ however are often less informed and less prepared for the actual travel conditions in South America. They often don’t speak Spanish and don’t know anything about the culture, customs and security situation of the country. This lack of knowledge can cause unnecessary friction between the different cultures and people.
Badly informed travelers now often also take too much luggage and not enough budget with them. This is detrimental for their flexibility and the local economy.
Badly prepared travelers also tend to be more demanding for things that aren’t very realistic in South America, like western services and permanently access to clean water.
Badly preparted travelers also often fail to be willing to take responsibility for their own actions, looking for someone they can blame besides themselves. This trend causes that everyone working with these tourists also tries to avoid as much responsibility as possible, to avoid that they might get sued. As a result it is more difficult to find neutral information about traveling safe through South America. Even, or especially governments try to avoid as much responsibility as possible. Therefore they tend to exaggerate local risks, make South America look more dangerous than it is and fail to actually provide enough useful recommendations to make your traveling safer.
Some travel guide books are suffering from similar problems. A writer from one of the most popular travel guide books told me a few years ago that now he has to be way more careful with what he writes about a business. For example he used to be able to write that restaurant X was good, but that their spaghetti has no taste. Now it is better not to mention restaurant X in the guide book at all, because writing that their food isn’t good could potentially cause the book to be sued by the restaurant…
Travel agencies are now also more scared to get sued, but this doesn’t mean that their services get safer. Sometimes this just isn’t possible, like trekking, biking, horseback riding, rafting, etc. all come with their own inevitable risks. The way that many travel agencies deal with this is not by looking for the safest local operators (which are often more expensive), but by just not organizing these potentional dangerous excursions anymore.
It sounds understandable and this way they avoid having to take responsibilities. The problem is that their clients still visit the same populair locations and still want to do the same tours. Now without the experienced help of their travel agency, they potentially book their excursions with cheaper, less experienced local agencies and compromise their safety…
These cheaper agencies often not just spend less money on the quality of their equipment, but also on protecting the local attraction and environment from (mass) tourism…
Consequences of too many tourists:
Every attraction has its own maximum amount of visitors which they can receive without too many negative consequences. When tourists are well informed and their arrival is good organized, the attraction can receive more visitors, with less negative impact. But when too many tourists are badly informed and their arrival isn’t really structurized, their arrival causes more damage than benefits for a location and the environment.
The Amazon rainforest, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the famous archaeological Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru, all of them benefit and suffer from the arrival of tourists…
Peru is one of the most populair tourist destinations in South America with many different archeological and natural attractions. Its tourist activities are the 5th most important economical activity in the country and generate more than 10% of Peru’s GDP. These revenues continue to rise, which is good for the economy of Peru. But bad local management and greedy people also cause an increase of the negative effects…
A clear example is again the tour to “las Montañas de Arco Iris”, the Rainbow Mountains in Peru. Mainly caused by pictures that were altered in Photoshop the amount of visitors went in only 3 years time from about 6 a day to sometimes even over 300 a day!
Tourists who want to visit the Rainbow Mountains are often badly informed and therefore badly prepared for the task that awaits them. To start they will have to depart from Cusco around 3:30 am and travel in about 3h30 min. from 3500 m to 4500 m altitude. Upon arrival they have to walk in 3 to 4 hours to the main viewpoint at 5100 m altitude.
A 600 meters ascent doesn’t sound so bad, but everyone who has ever ascended 600 m at an altitude above 4500 m knows that this is very tough and it is not uncommon that people suffer from high altitude sickness. The risks while visiting the Rainbow Mountains are also increased because the badly informed tourists often don’t drink enough and walk too fast. Many travel agencies don’t bring any oxygen and there’s not enough medical attention around to help those who suffer from Altitude sickness…
Besides the health risks for tourists who visit the Rainbow Mountains the lack of good organization in combination with the explosive growth in tourism also causes damage to the local infrastructure and environment around the Rainbow Mountains…
Were the problems at the Rainbow Mountains are mainly caused by the explosive growth and bad organization of tourism, the famous archeological site of Machu Picchu suffers from greed…
Because of its popularity, enlisting with UNESCO and the resulting world wide fame, Machu Picchu attracts each year more and more visitors. According to an investigation of the same UNESCO the archeological site of Machu Picchu should not receive more than 1750 visitors a day (Inside iformation from a person who used to work with UNESCO), because the ground below is not stable enough.
In 2011 UNESCO and the management of Machu Picchu came to an agreement that the archaeological site wouldn’t receive more than 2500 visitors a day anymore. Still too many, but at least less than the 3000 which it received during busy days.
However, on the first of July 2017 greed really overcame the historical importance of Machu Picchu. From this date on the daily amount of visitors went up to 5940 a day!
To justify this huge amount of visitors, the visitorstime has been cut in half. The first group of almost 3000 visitors can now visit Machu Picchu between 6:00 am and 12:00 pm, while the second group enters between 12:00 pm and 17:30 h.
As if this isn’t enough, the plan is to change the 2 visitos shifts by 2019 into 3 shifts a day, from 6:00 am – 10:00 am, 10:00 am – 14:00 u and from 14:00 tot 18:00 h…
You can find current information about Machu Picchu at Over Machu Picchu
As you can read above, however the concept of Sustainable Tourism is very popular, there is still a long way to go before it might actually work. For now convenience and commercial importance are still more important, so for sustainable tourism to make a chance, there first needs to be a change in mentality.
Tourists not only need to be better informed about the contries they visit and the impact they have, but also need to be willing to make a difference. Only if tourists are really willing to change their way of traveling, expect less luxury and maybe even pay a little more, sustainable tourism has a chance to work.
Below I will give you a few recommendations and ideas about how the negative impact of tourism can be reduced. This information is based on 14 years of experience in traveling, tourism and volunteering in South America, with a focus on Peru.
Mentality and expectations:
How to change the general mentality of the traveler? To start it is important to ask yourself why you would like to travel. This sounds obvious, but really not always is. The biggest problem is that the expectations before and the experiences during the traveling not always match. The beaches aren’t as white as on the pictures; the Amazon Rainforest isn’t just pretty Flora and Fauna, but also many mosquitoes, spiders and many rain showers; the desert of Nasca is hot; altitude sickness causes headache and who expected that South America is so big with huge distances to travel from A to B?
You also have to keep in mind that you’re not the only tourist. On most locations and attractions you visit in South America you will meet other tourists and at some popular attractions your will even meet many other tourists.
All of these inconveniences are also part of traveling through South America and ad to the experience and adventure of traveling in general. If you don’t like to experience these inconveniences, then you might have to consider not to travel at all.
When an attraction is very touristy, it might help to keep in mind that a well organized visit can help to preserve the future of this attraction and its surrounding.
A good example are the floating reed islands of the Uros civilization. Mainy tourists complain that visiting these islands is a very touristy activity. But because these visits are well organized, tourism actually helps preserving part of the ancient old culture from the Uros civilization. Scientists believe that the Uros, or Uru civilization belongs to one of the first inhabitants of the Altiplano Andes Highlands, more than 3000 years ago.
Different from other civilizations, the Uru weren’t farmers, but hunters and gatherers. When the Incas started to conquer the Andes Highlands, the Uru build floating islands from reed and escaped with their families to live on Lake Titicaca, far away from the shore and the Inca’s.
Life on the islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 3820 m is very hard. Food needs to be found or hunted, while the bright sun and constant wind are tough on the skin and the humid reed floors and houses cause arthritice… Because of these tough conditions and there is no reason for hiding anymore, more and more people, especially the younger generations started to move to the mainland again. Until a heavy storm in 1986 caused heavy damage to the floating islands and its inhabitants.
After this storm the Uros decided to move their islands closer to the shore, in the bay of Puno, where they’re better protected from wind by the reed around them.
This new location suddenly made the islands more accessible for travelers who visited Puno and a new tourist attraction was born.
Because these tourists provided a new and attractive source of income, the Uros suddenly had new motivation to stay on their floating islands. It is true that not many Uros actually continue to live the whole day and night on their floating islands, but during the day at least many of them keep part of their traditions alive. Without tourism, it is likely that all Uros would have left their islands, in seach for better life conditions and their traditions woud have been completely lost.
So before you travel to South America it is important to prepare yourself, learn more about the countries and places that you’re going to visit and read about the different cultures, customs and habits of the people. Of course learning at least a few Spanish words (Portugees in Brasil) will also be very helpful.
Knowledge of the local culture and language will also help with showing respect for and gaining respect from the people you meet while traveling.
Most South Americans will not soon complain to you, but many of them, especially the eldery ones don’t like the view of foreigners in their streets, who are dressed like hippies and behave extravagant. If you want to gain and receive more respect from the South Americans, then try to respect them and put some effort in trying to integrate.
Behave normal, show respect for your environment, don’t walk around with your big camera taking pictures of everyone without asking permission first and stay calm when communication isn’t very smooth. In the end it isn’t their obligation to speak English, but yours to speak at least some Spanish…
Try not to get upset when things don’t go as planned, unfortunately this is still quite common in South America. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to accept it when you pay money for receiving a certain service. No matter in which country you are, when you pay for a service, you should receive this service…
When traveling in South America, keep in mind that being punctual still isn’t very common. Different than most western people think, this isn’t because Latinos live a more relaxed lifestyle. Spend an hour in a local city bus, or wait for your turn in a busy local shop and you will know what I mean. Busses will not wait for people who get in to get to their seats, but rather take off the moment both feet of the last person are on board. And if you’re not a bit assertive in a shop, it is likely that many people try to go before their turn.
When you’re invited to arrive at a birthday party around 4 pm in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia, then it’s best not to arrive before 5 pm, or you will still be asked to help with the decorations…
Many Latinos are often in a hurry to get something done, because they start too late and in several Ecuadorian busses they now even have signs saying: “Don’t blame the driver if you’re late on your appointment, it isn’t his fault that you left too late from home”. This message says it all, in general Latin Americans are not good in managing their time, so when in South America kep this in mind and try not to get upset.
Despite that many police officers in South America like to earn something extra besides their salary and laws are often bended and not fully respected, this doesn’t mean that you can also misbehave and disrespect the local laws and rules.
Unfortunately I still meet toursits who think that when they’re traveling, the local rules don’t apply to them. I’ve seen tourists trowing sigarette buts in the street, getting completely drunk in public, pee against a church wall, climb on top of a local monument, pass the “Don’t Pass” signs on archaeological sites and ignore the “Please don’t feed the animals” signs…
Ignoring the rules can not only damage an attraction it also tends to spoil the fun for tourists who visit these places after.
Mainly because previous tourists disrespected the local rules at tourist attractions, each year these rules tend to get stricter and the freedom of tourists is more and more restrained.
Where people and nature come together there is often a battle between comfort and surviving. We humans always try to alter our surrounding in a way to improve our quality of life, which often comes with (high) costs for the environment. Luckily more and more people are becoming aware that it is also important to protect the environment, both for our own health and future generations.
The tourist industry is also picking up on this new trend and so called Eco Tourism is quickly becoming a popular business…
The problem however is that there’re still no official regulations about when a business is allowed to be called “Environmental friendly”… Some good ideas about Eco Tourism you can find on: http://theleap.co.uk/what-is-ecotourism-golden-rules-backpackers/
South American or foreign companies:
To the information above I would like to ad another recommendation, which can help you and the local economy. At first this might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t always good to book your tours/ excursions with local businesses…
Yes, if you stay at a small family hotel and book your excursions directly with them, then your money will go directly to this family and your excursion will likely be an authentic experience. However, the quality of this service can come with great variation, from high personal service, to terrible service, because their lack of experience.
Of course it is important as a tourist to support the local economy of the country you travel to, but it is also still your vacation and often you had to work hard and save a whole year to be able to travel this far. Unfortunately many local Latin American travel businesses are not yet used to Western standards of service. So I believe that we’re also allowed to look for the best price/ service combination according to our preferences and availability.
I know, this sounds like a contradiction to what I wrote above, but while traveling it is important to make a difference in the use of daily life local businesses and special tourist services. If you use public transport, or go to a local shop, you will have to respect the way the locals work, because you’re comparting their daily life. But if you pay for services in tourism, then you should receive these services. If a company wants to work with you as a tourist, then this is their own decision to work in tourism and it makes them responsible to deliver a good service.
Besides the quality of the tour, it is also important to know that local tourist companies in South America often pay less taxes and less salary to their employees than foreign companies do. Especially companies from big (well known) families often pay their employees (way) below the minimum salary. They get away with this, because of their political contacts and because their employees don’t dare to complain. The workers are officially protected by law (if they have a contract, because some even don’t have one), but often really need the job to feed their family. They know that when they complain they not only lose this job, but there is a good chance that they don’t find any other job in town anymore…
Foreign tourist companies however do not have this power. Unless the foreign companies are very big, local governments keep a close eye on them to make sure that they follow all official regulations and sometimes even more. If an employee who works for one of these foreign companies complains about his/ her working conditions, then they are more likely to be heard and get help from the local government. In other words, they have a good chance to even be able to fine the company they work for.
Because of these regulations, foreign owned hotels, restaurants and travel agencies pay all their taxes and tend to take better care of their employees than locally owned businesses. The best way to help the local economy is often to spend your money with small, or medium bushinesses that are both locally and foreign owned.
Also try to avoid using big internet companies like Hostel World, Booking, Trivago, etc., because they take away a big chunk of profit from the local business and economy.
I like to recommend using the big websites to search for information and then book your hotel directly online through their own website.
Eco Lodges are another new product in tourism. Their intention is good, but also for Eco Lodges still don’t exist official regulations and laws about how they need to manage their lodge to be able to call themselves Eco Lodges. The following website gives some ideas: http://worldwideecolodges.com/wp/ecolodge-exp-2/
However a few important things that aren’t mentioned include the simple fact that most Eco Lodges are build right into the Amazon Rainforest…
So to build these lodges, they first needed to cut rainforest for infrastructure and construction and after to transport tourists and provisions. Some ‘Eco Lodges’ use poison to protect their gardens and tourists from insects, others have monkeys as ‘pets’ and/or swimming pools full bleach to keep the water clear…
Keeping the above in mind, what would be a real Ecological Lodge, if such thing exists? Let’s try to give a few general ideas:
To start, such lodge will have to be build at the edge of the rainforest, where no trees have to be cut and the infrastructure is already present. The lodge lodge would have to be build with mostly natural construction materials that don’t have to come from far. They can’t have an artificial swimming pool and in their garden only grow local plants. Of course they don’t use poison to protect those plants and their clients. The lodge has no wild animals as pets and they also don’t feed the wild animals (even not the humming birds) to visit the lodge and animate the clients. The use of electricity is redused to a minimum, so no airco, tv. and internet. The use of water is also limited to the minimum, so sheets and towels will only be washed after the clients leave and before the new ones arrive.
Preferible they provide biodegradable soap and shampoo and their meals are prepared with food that grows in the area and doesn’t have to be transported for hundreds of kilometers.
Guides who work with Eco Lodges will also have to treat the Flora and Fauna with respect. This means that they cut as less Flora as possible and surely don’t pick up tarantulas, snakes, sloths, or any other animals that their clients like to take pictures with.
Do you think that a lodge like that would still be popular with tourists? Likely most tourists prefer to stay in a less Ecological Friendly Lodge. This isn’t bad, but it is also good to keep in mind that staying in an Eco Lodge doesn’t mean that you don’t cause an environmental impact. It just means that your stay has less of an impact on the environment.
Besides it is always good to try to adjust your own behavior while traveling and staying at a lodge or hotel. For example, try to use your towel more than once, avoid using plastic water bottles, don’t take baths, take short showers and try to avoid using the airco.
Right after ‘Eco Tourism’,selling volunteer work is probably the second biggest growing market in tourism…
Volunteer tourism is a win-win concept for both tourists and travel agencies. It is a popular ‘product’ that basically sells itself, because it makes the clients feel good about themselves.
If most of the volunteer work that’s been sold is actually sustainable is a difficult question to answer.
In many South American countries it is relative easy to start a volunteer project and most of them start with good intentions. However most of them are also set up by people who don’t really know what they’re doing. It takes a lot more than just good intentions to set up a volunteer project and sometimes they end up doing more damage than good.
Because volunteer work is mainly seen as ‘a good deed’, there’s world wide and especially in South America still not much independent supervision on the quality and sustainability of the projects.
Another problem is that volunteer organisations and travel agencies often don’t inform their volunteers/ clients properly about what will be expected from them and what they can expect to encounter, when working in South America.
On top of all several organisations, even (or especially) the bigger ones, often fail to properly manage and support their volunteers abroad. According to the following article: http://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/local/ci_17551094 (and other articles if you look further) since the inception of the well known Peace Corps in 1961 at least 279 volunteers have died ‘in service’ and one went missing in Bolivia. Of course this isn’t all to blame on the volunteer organization, but it does show that doing volunteer work in foreign, developing countries comes with risks that are not to be underestimated.
After personally meeting several poorly supervised Pease Corps volunteers I do believe that this organization has good intentions, but lacks (local) structure and frequently isn’t very sustainable in South America.
On a note, I also met some great Peace Corps volunteers who did make a difference, but this was often due to their own huge effort.
Two other unexpected negative effects from naïve volunteer projects include the release of a tame monkey from an animal refuge back into a group of wild monkeys. Because this monkey still wasn’t able to catch/ find all of its daily food, he needed extra food to be served outside his cage. After a groupof 24 wild monkeys past through the property of the volunteer project, they didn’t take the tame money with, but instead 4 monkeys decided to stay behind and enjoy the easily available extra food that was put out for the tame monkey. Now there were suddenly 5 semi tame monkeys around the animal refuge, instead of 25 wild monkeys rooming the forest…
When the tame monkey grew into an adult male, he was killed by the wild group, because he didn’t know how to fight for his position in the group. This incident was difficult to predict, but it shows how important it is to do proper research before trying to ‘do good’.
A sadder and still common mistake which can mostly be prevented with proper research is when volunteer projects allow pedofiels to work with little children… While there is a special website for registrated sexoffenders and pedofiels, many volunteer projects just seem to be happy to receive more and more volunteers and don’t care too much where they come from and who they really are.
Other negative side effects from volunteer projects occur when they start to become more commercial. Some volunteer projects start competing with other projects to receive more volunteers, while others start selling tours to their volunteers. However part of this money often does go to the poor people or animals supported by the project, they often forget that their sales can be negative for small local businesses. Volunteer organisations don’t have to pay taxes and therefore are able to sell their tours at a lower price than the official travel agency next door. This unfair competition can take clients and income away from local businesses that need these clients to make a living.
The examples above might sound a bit extreme and surely I also encounterd several very serious and well organized volunteer projects and organisations. But even if you join one of those, you still seriously have to aks yourself why you would like to volunteer and what you could mean for the volunteer project.
Again, this might sound logic, but I am sure that many people who want to be a volunteer will answer: “I would like to help poor children and I can teach English”. “Ah, that sounds nice, so you’re a teacher, speak Spanish and you can take a year off to help poor children in a developing country?” “Oh, no, I am not a teacher, I don’t speak Spanish and I only have one month.” Wow, that sounds great, so this unexperienced teacher will sacrifice one whole month of his vacation to teach some poor children..?
Sorry, but to me this doesn’t sound very convincing… You can argue that all help is welcome, but try to imagine that you go to school and have an unexperienced bad teacher and just when he starts to pick up, he is replaced again by just a new unexperienced teacher with even another method of teaching. How would you feel?
If you really want to help, then why not try to teach English to the local teachers, so they can really spend time in teaching the children a whole year long. That would be sustainable volunteer work…
Of course, even if you’re not a teacher, there are many other ways how you can help to do sustainable volunteer work in South America. Some general recommendations include that you learn Spanish and make at least half a year to a year available to work as a volunteer.
If you don’t have so much time, but you’re a professional in your job, you might consider trying to pass your own knowledge over to others. Many volunteer projects suffer from bad administration and adverticement, so if you’re good at that then your help can be very valuable. Other volunteer projects often can’t affort to hire professional construction people to fix their school and furniture, so if you’re a brick layer, or carpenter, then your help might also be very welcome. And like this there are many other skills that you can have and offer, besides just teaching English for one month…
If you want to know if a volunteer project is worth your time and money, then spend some time to ask them as many questions as you have about the project and the work you will be doing. Also ask them if you can have a look at their annual reports from last year. Each official volunteer project/ organization is obligated to make their anuals public, so if they don’t want to show you, then there’s a big chance that they’re badly organized, or have something to hide…
More information about doing volunteer work in South America you can find on:
Volunteer Work in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, negative impact and at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/05/23/6-ways-to-volunteer-abroad-and-be-really-useful/#1d61cdb961bd where you can find a short resume of an interesting book written by Judith Lasker about working as a volunteer in another country.
Sustainable tourism in South America still has a long way to go, but at least there is a start. Travelers and tourists have the most power to make a difference, like ‘demand and supply’. I would like to invite everyone to come and travel to South America and discover its beautiful history, culture and nature, but please go prepared. Try to travel responsible, learn from your experiences and the people around you and of course enjoy your travels!