Can tourism and travelling be sustainable?
How travelling and tourism has evolved
. Modern (mass) tourism
. Bad information attracts inexperienced travellers
. Incomplete and wrongly informed tourists
. Consequences of too many tourists
– Are Eco tourism and Volunteer tourism sustainable?
. Eco Lodges
. Volunteer work
– Tips to make tourism more sustainable:
. Travel responsible
. Mentality and expectations while traveling
. Respect the local culture
. Respect the local laws and rules
. Be careful using bookings websites for places to stay
. South American or foreign companies
– How tourism can maintain/ improve its destination
. The future of traveling
Sustainable tourism is currently a very hot topic and companies who want to improve their sales are eager to use the word “sustainable”.
Unfortunately in tourism the word “sustainable” is often abused to promote a relatively new and very popular form of tourism, referred to as: “Feel Good Tourism”.
This means that many tours around eco-tourism, volunteer tourism and visiting (poor) local communities are designed to stimulate the “Feel Good” feeling of the clients and provide a higher sales rate. Often clients don’t even mind paying a little more for “Sustainable Tours”, because they think that they’re paying extra 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.
Sustainable tourism isn’t necessarily the same as “Eco Tourism”, or “Volunteer Tourism”. In particular, volunteer tourism is often the opposite of sustainable. So then what is sustainable tourism? Unfortunately this question isn’t easy to answer, since it depends on your starting point and objectives. No matter what we do, tourism will always have an impact on its environment. So the three most important questions we have to ask ourselves are:
1- Is there a need for tourism, for example to provide an alternative income opposed to cutting trees.
2- Can tourism actually improve the local situation and how?
3- If tourism isn’t going to improve the local situation, how do we limit its negative impact?
Modern (mass) tourism
How a leisure activity like tourism has turned over the past decades into a multi-billion dollar industry, generating around 10.2% of the global GDP and 10% of the employment around the world: Economic impact of tourism and global tourism and what the consequences are of mass tourism…
In the early days most people only travelled to find food, for work, or to escape a dangerous situation. Travelling for fun as in tourism was something exclusive for the rich, or the real adventurers.
It wasn’t until 1924 that a UK company published the first mainstream guide book for business travellers, the South American Handbook. In the seventies their focus moved towards people who travel for fun and in 1996 they changed the name of their books to Footprint Travel Guides.
However, the start of ‘mass tourism’ for fun might have been with the “Hippie Trail”.
In 1955 a group of British students decided to travel along the Silk Route of Marco Polo.
Exciting stories about their adventures slowly reached the young society of Europe and sparked the interest of the ‘rebelling youth’ from that generation. Looking for more freedom and inspired by the adventure, several young Europeans started in the sixties with their own travels from London and Amsterdam over land towards Asia.
In 1973 The Wheelers published their first mainstream guide book for the low budget traveller, Across Asia on the Cheap, followed in 1975 with their first Lonely Planet.
New stories about pristine beaches, spirituality, colourful cultures and cheap drugs soon started to attract many alternative minded travellers from all over the world to travel from Europe to Asia and the Silk Route soon received the nickname “Hippie Trail”.
The impact of these travellers along the Hippie Trail can be described as the first consequences of ‘mass tourism’.
More and cheaper international flights, a good economy, more free time, the rise of the Internet and social media in combination with a change of mentality over the past decades has made travelling and tourism abroad even easier and more accessible.
Because of this higher accessibility, each year more and more people decide to travel abroad and the general type of traveller has changed once again.
Worldwide tourism has become a huge industry and is still growing. This massive new growth comes with new problems and responsibilities.
The huge increase of tourism is responsible for a huge increase in rubbish, damage the environment, shortage of water and the damage of cultural sites.
In order to limit these negative effects of tourism, it is now important for tourists and the tourist industry to think and plan ahead and to make sure that tourism is well organised in association with the local authorities.
When tourism is well organised, it has the potential to actually help the local economy, protect the environment and preserve the culture and old traditions.
Besides that, travelling in itself can have a positive influence on the people who travel. When people travel consciously and responsibly it increases the perception of people about the world around them and provides more understanding and acceptance about different cultures and customs around the world. More acceptation means less fear and resistance towards others.
Ill-informed and inexperienced tourists
Nowadays the Internet and other social media provide an almost unlimited source of information. Unfortunately most of the information on television, the Internet and other social media is focused on drawing attention, rather than actually providing information. It is especially important for travel agencies and blog writers to quickly attract as many clients and followers as possible. In order to do so they tend to use many different ways, for example by enhancing either positive or negative information and altering pictures with Photoshop.
Google, Yahoo and other search engines show the most popular/ visited pages, or pages that pay them to be listed higher up, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that this information is up-to-date, or even true. It mostly means that it is the most popular information. A huge supply of mainly positively coloured information about exotic destinations at cheap prices has caused people to believe that travelling to another country is almost just as easy as going to the supermarket.
People who used to be too scared to travel to a foreign country are now more likely to decide to travel to a faraway continent like South America.
These modern travellers are often not really suited, fail to take their own responsibilities and are badly prepared to start their journeys to South America.
They often don’t speak Spanish, don’t know anything about the local culture, customs and security situation of the country, bringing too much luggage and not enough money.
This lack of budget, knowledge, experience and flexibility isn’t good for the local economy and can cause unnecessary friction between the different local cultures and travellers.
Misguiding information about tourist attractions
A clear example of companies spreading incorrect information and avoiding responsibilities are the low budget tours to “Las Montañas Arco Iris”, the so-called Rainbow Mountains in Peru.
Pictures of these mountains were first altered by tour agencies from Cusco whom wanted to sell their tours and later by tourists from all over the world who liked to show their public/ followers on social media how amazing their tour was.
Unfortunately many of these coloured 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 coloured.
The altered pictures also caused an explosive growth in tourism. The amount of tourists visiting the Rainbow Mountains went in only three/ four years’ time from about six a day to sometimes even over 300 a day! This sudden high demand prompted local agencies in Cusco to try to be the quickest to organise the cheapest tours to this new attraction and gain a place in the market. Suffice to say that the local infrastructure was not and is not prepared for this sudden growth and unorganised crowds of tourists are now damaging the environment around the Rainbow Mountains.
Furthermore, many local agencies fail to inform their clients properly about performing exercise at high altitude (5100 m), so several of them end up suffering from altitude sickness.
Consequences of too many tourists
Peru is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South America, offering many different archaeological and natural attractions. Its tourist activities are the fifth most important economic activity in the country and generate more than 10% of Peru’s GDP. Tourist revenues continue to rise, which is good for the economy of Peru, but bad local management and greedy people also continue to cause an increase of the negative impacts.
Every location or activity that becomes a tourist attraction can support a maximum amount of visitors without too many negative consequences.
When tourists are well informed and their arrival is well-organised, the attraction can receive more visitors with less negative impact. But when too many tourists are badly informed and their arrival isn’t really structured, their arrival causes more damage than benefits for the location, activity 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 can all at the same time benefit and suffer from the arrival of tourists, depending highly on the level of communication and organisation.
Whilst the problems at the Rainbow Mountains were mainly caused by the explosive growth and bad organisation of tourism, the famous archaeological site of Machu Picchu suffers from greed. The current problems around Machu Picchu are a good reflection of similar historical attractions all over the world.
Because of its popularity, its enlistment with UNESCO and the resulting worldwide fame, Machu Picchu attracts more and more visitors each year. According to an inside source who used to work for UNESCO, the archaeological site of Machu Picchu should not receive more than 1750 visitors a day, because the ground below the site is not sufficiently stable.
In 2011 UNESCO and the management of Machu Picchu came to an agreement that the archaeological site, which was currently receiving more than 3000 visitors a day in high season, wouldn’t receive more than 2500 visitors a day anymore.
However, on the first of July 2017 greed really took over from the historical importance of Machu Picchu. From this date the daily amount of visitors went up to 5940 a day, an amount that was justified by splitting it up into a morning and afternoon group!
Regardless of Machu Picchu’s inability to support this, rumours from the Peruvian government suggest that in 2019 they might even start with three visitor groups a day.
The main reason for the concerns of UNESCO is a geological fault line that goes right through the archaeological site of Machu Picchu. According to several scientists one side of the fault is slowly moving downhill.
The daily weight and movement of too many visitors can provoke this landslide to move faster, or even break completely taking half of the archaeological site of Machu Picchu down into the valley!
Scientists have now tied a special thin cable across the main plaza of Machu Picchu to be able to register even the smallest movement of the earth and warn the authorities in case the earth starts moving faster.
Another negative impact from too many tourists visiting Machu Picchu is their impact on the environment.
Between 1900 and 2018 the access town to Machu Picchu, previously called Aguas Calientes (hot water/ springs) town, went through different stages. What started as a farmer’s settlement, turned into a small lodging town for railroad workers when they built the railroad from Cusco to the hydroelectric plant and later into the most chaotic tourist town of Peru. Even the name Aguas Calientes has officially changed into Machu Picchu Pueblo, which means village of Machu Picchu.
A single railway track is the only way to reach Machu Picchu and belongs to the Peruvian government. Controlling this railroad makes it possible to regulate the amount of visitor to Machu Picchu and its town, but the rights to run this track have been sold to two huge (foreign) companies, which are more interested in making high profits. Peru Rail now belongs to the joint venture of the Peruvian Acres Investment and the British Belmond, while Inca Rail has recently been bought by Carlyle (USA).
The huge amount of tourists has not only changed the quiet village into a busy, noisy town, but also brings in so much rubbish that the authorities haven’t found a good way to deal with it. To complicate the situation, the rubbish will have to be transported back with the commercial trains and the owners prefer to transport passengers.
More actual information about Machu Picchu and the new visitor rules you can find at our Machu Picchu info page.
Are Eco tourism and Volunteer tourism sustainable?
To improve the image of tourism, more and more companies try to sell their products with the words “Eco”, “Fair” and “Volunteer”. “Protect the environment and give something back to society while traveling”, makes a very good sales pitch. But is it all sustainable?
Is Eco Tourism really sustainable?
Where people and nature come together there is often a battle between comfort and survival. As humans, we always try to alter our surroundings 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 for 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 are still no official regulations about when a business is allowed to be called “environmental friendly”. As if paying a few US$ extra for Eco Tax on your flight ticket suddenly makes your flight environmental friendly… Some good ideas about Eco Tourism you can find at: Golden Backpacker Rules
Eco Lodges are one of the new products in tourism and the following website gives some ideas about how they might work: Worldwide eco lodges
Their intention is good, but also for Eco Lodges official laws still don’t exist. There are not even official regulations about how they need to manage their lodge to be able to call themselves Eco Lodges.
An important fact that most people forget, or prefer not to talk about when it comes to Eco Lodges is the simple fact that most of them are build right into the Amazon Rainforest…
So to build these Eco Lodges, they first needed to cut rainforest for infrastructure, then construction and after to transport the tourists and supply the provisions.
Some ‘Eco Lodges’ even 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:
For starters, such a lodge will have to be built at the edge of the rainforest, where no trees have to be cut and the infrastructure is already present. The lodge would have to be built 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, which means there will be more mosquitos. The lodge has no wild animals as pets and they also don’t feed the wild animals (not even the (humming) birds) to animate their clients. The use of electricity is reduced 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.
Preferable the lodge provides 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 kilometres.
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 completely bad, but it is 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 behaviour 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.
Volunteer work while travelling
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.
But if the volunteer work that’s been sold is actually sustainable is a difficult question to answer…
Before you decide to offer your help as a volunteer, it is good to first ask yourself the following questions:
– The most important question you have to ask yourself is why you want to do volunteer work? Do you really want to help, were you encouraged by friends or society, or is it to improve your C.V.?
– Which of your skills can be useful for the volunteer project? Are you a teacher, a vet, a carpenter, an accountant, a manager, a marketing specialist, a doctor, or do you possess any other skill that can be useful for the volunteer project?
– Do you speak the language of the country you want to work in?
– Do you have enough time?
A very common mistake that volunteers make is that they travel to another country and suddenly think that they’re skilled teachers.
I am sure that you’ve seen the advertisements: “Come to Peru and teach English to poor children. Minimum requirements: one month and basic level of Spanish.”…
Not only do you potentially take jobs away from local teachers, but do you really believe that it is that easy to be a teacher? That teachers didn’t have to follow any studies to become a teacher?
Just think back about your childhood and imagine that each month you got a different inexperienced Spanish teacher from Mexico who didn’t speak much English…
Not only is this way of teaching very un-sustainable, there are even studies which prove that short term volunteer work causes mental damage to young children because they feel abandoned time and time again when their teachers keep disappearing…
More info: teaching orphans
If you really want to teach and be sustainable, make sure to have at least a year time and instead of teaching children, train their teachers to become better.
What are sustainable volunteer projects?
In many South American countries it is relative easy to start a volunteer project and most of the projects are set up with good intentions. However many of them are managed 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 these projects end up doing more damage than good.
Some common mistakes in volunteer work that cause more damage include:
* While there is a special website for known sex-offenders and paedophiles, many volunteer projects just seem to be happy to receive more and more volunteers and don’t seem to care too much where they come from and who they really are. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon that volunteer projects have unconsciously allowed paedophiles to work with little children.
* Inexperienced animal refuges on the other hand tend to make the mistake that all wild animals that look healthy can be released back into nature. Unfortunately this often isn’t the case. Besides the fact that many animals are likely not to survive in the wild, some might actually be immune for a disease they carry which then can infect the wild population.
Because volunteer work is still mainly considered to be ‘a good deed’, there’s worldwide and especially in South America still not much independent supervision on the quality and sustainability of volunteer projects.
Another problem is that volunteer organisations and travel agencies which sell volunteer work, 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.
Several organisations, even the bigger ones often fail to properly manage and support their volunteers abroad.
According to the following article it is proven that since the inception of the well-known Peace Corps in 1961 at least 279 volunteers have died ‘in service’ while one went missing in Bolivia.
Of course this isn’t all to blame on the volunteer organisation, 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 organisation 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 significant personal effort.
A lesser- known negative side effect from volunteer projects occurs when they start to become more commercial and selling tours to their volunteers. However part of this money usually 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 the local businesses which need these clients to make a living.
On top of all, many local volunteer projects don’t work together and there are even cases known where they compete to receive more volunteers, like two orphanages in Peru and some animal refuges in Ecuador that I know of personally.
The examples above might sound a bit extreme and surely I have also encountered several very professional and well organised volunteer projects and organisations. But how do you recognize a good volunteer project?
Volunteer organisations which charge a high fee to participate usually have more money to spend on advertisements and are therefore easier to encounter online. However, if you want to know if a volunteer organisation is worth your time and money a good test is to ask them to provide you with their annuals from last year. This way you can decide for yourself if you agree with how they would spend your money. Each official volunteer project/ organisation is obliged to make their annual statements public, so if they don’t want to show you, then there’s a good chance that they’re badly organised, or have something to hide.
If the volunteer organisation passes your test, then make sure to spend some time to ask them as many questions as you have about the project and the work you will be doing.
More information about doing volunteer work in South America you can find at: volunteer work at responsible volunteering, the negative impact and at ways to volunteer where you can find a short resume of an interesting book written by Judith Lasker about working as a volunteer in another country.
Tips for increasing sustainable tourism
There is a long way to go before sustainable tourism might actually work.
Because most tourists continue to prioritise convenience and comfort and most tour companies prioritise earning money, there first needs to be a change in mentality.
Tourists not only need to be better informed about the countries they visit and the impact they have, but also willing to make a difference. Only if tourists are really willing to change their way of travelling, expect less luxury and maybe even pay a little more, sustainable tourism has a chance to work.
Change the mentality and travel expectations
How do we change the general mentality of modern travellers?
To start it is important to consider why you want to travel. This sounds obvious, but really isn’t always clear.
The biggest problem is that the expectations before and the experiences during travelling do 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 contains many mosquitoes, spiders and heavy rain showers, the Nazca desert is hot, altitude sickness causes headaches, people around you speak a different language and as a foreigner you have to watch your luggage extra carefully. You also have to keep in mind that you’re not the only tourist. At most locations and attractions you visit in South America you will meet other tourists and at some popular attractions you will even meet too many other tourists.
All of these inconveniences are also part of travelling through South America and add to the experience and adventure of travelling in general. If you don’t like to experience these inconveniences, then you might have to consider not travelling at all.
Respect the local culture
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, circumstances and customs of the people. Of course learning at least a few Spanish words (Portuguese in Brazil) will also be very helpful.
Most South Americans will not complain to you easily, but many of them, especially the elderly ones, don’t like the view of foreigners in their streets, who are dressed like hippies and behave extravagantly.
Behave naturally: 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 is you who visits their ‘home’ and often without an invitation, so it isn’t their obligation to speak English, but yours to speak at least some Spanish.
Knowledge and respect for the local culture and language will help you to integrate better and leave less of a social footprint. Try not to get upset when people show up a bit later, or when things don’t go as planned, as unfortunately this is still quite common in South America.
When you stay calm and show respect for the people you meet while travelling, you will usually also gain respect back and improve your overall travel experience.
Respect the local laws and rules
Despite the fact that many police officers in South America still like to earn some extra money 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 tourists who think that when they’re travelling, the local laws and rules don’t apply to them. I’ve seen tourists throwing cigarette butts in the street, getting completely drunk in public, peeing against a church wall, climbing on top of a local monument, passing the “Don’t Pass” signs on archaeological sites and ignoring the “Please don’t feed the animals” signs.
Ignoring the local laws/rules will 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.
Think twice before using booking websites
Not only does the Internet provide an almost unlimited source of unfiltered information, it also provides many tools for travellers to be able to book their whole trip online. Travellers can now book their trip from their living room, arriving in their hotel in an unknown city with absolutely no knowledge of what to do and what to see.
Websites like Booking.com, Expedia, Hostelworld, Trivago, Tripadvisor, etc. haven’t only make it much easier for the modern traveller to book their entire trip in South America online, but often also provide a cheaper rate, below the market price.
Many hotels have a general occupation rate of let’s say 60%. Expedia offered them a way to be able to sell the other 40%, but at a very steep discount up to 50%.
Let’s say that a hotel has 200 rooms and that a normal hotel room is sold at 100 US$. The manager knows that he usually sells about 120 rooms and Expedia is offering to buy the other 80 rooms, but at half the price. The manager now has the choice to accept this steep discount and get his hotel full with a smaller profit rate, or decline the offer and try to fill up the 80 rooms at full price; how booking sites made money. This was a win-win deal for everyone involved.
Booking.com started with a different business model. They provide all the information and make it easy to find, compare and book hotel rooms, but without making any previous payment; how booking sites make money 2. Booking.com is basically just helping hotels to sell their rooms, without any guarantee. Because clients don’t have to pay anything before they actually arrive at the hotel, it gives them more flexibility. This adjusted business model turned out to be even more popular than the model of Expedia and with a lower risk for the clients and the booking website. Expedia started to lose clients and had to make some changes. They followed Booking.com bought fewer rooms, relying more on earning money from selling hotel rooms and gaining a commission rate.
Although this new business model is less beneficial for the hotels, at first it was still convenient enough to continue to collaborate with the booking websites. The commission rates were low (5%) and the booking websites do provide hotels with a much higher occupation rate.
But then the online booking sites became very popular and quickly grew bigger and bigger. Companies like Priceline (which includes Booking.com) and Expedia bought most of the smaller booking websites and their dominance on the internet nowadays make it very difficult for hotels to represent themselves online and to survive without ‘the help’ of these giant booking websites.
For independent hotels who still want to be found online, it has become almost impossible to do so without the help of Booking.com, Expedia, Tripadvisor, etc.
Unfortunately these booking websites now abuse their position, going from websites to provide independent information about hotels and facilitate the booking of rooms, to entities that try to sell as many rooms as possible, while the hotels are paying extra for their services.
If hotels want to (continue) work(ing) together with the online booking sites, they now have to pay a commission between 10 to 30%. The more commission they pay, the higher their hotel will rank. On top of this, the booking sites demand from the hotels to receive the lowest sales prices for their hotel rooms. When a hotel is caught offering a lower price to their direct clients, the booking website will end their contract, or even fine the hotel for breaking the contract rules.
Ironically the lower prices make it even more attractive for travellers to book their rooms with a booking website, instead of directly with the hotel.
Because of this the actual quality of a hotel and its services has grown less important than its position online. Many good established hotels suffer from the power of booking websites, while new inexperienced hotels that have special contracts with booking websites gain quickly in popularity.
Another consequence of hotels paying more to the international booking sites is that their profit percentages goes down and they pay less tax money to the local community.
Many hotels now earn their money with selling more rooms at lower rates, while other hotels actually try to use the booking websites to gain publicity meanwhile selling part of their rooms independently.
It can be that a hotel with 20 rooms offers 10 rooms at a cheaper rate with Booking.com, while they still sell the other 10 rooms through direct booking at a normal rate, without having to pay commission on the prices.
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 would be nothing wrong with that if the competition were fair. However in most South American 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 typically have much lower operating costs than hotels, they can be offered at a cheaper price than the rooms of local hotels and can potentially be less secure in case of an emergency.
Most Airbnb places in South America don’t pay anything to the local municipality and take clients away from local hotels. In the worst 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…
I like to recommend using the big booking websites to search for information and then book your hotel directly online through their own website, or by Whatsapp.
Local tour companies versus foreign tour companies
When is it better to book your excursions/ tours with foreign owned local businesses, instead of locally owned businesses?
While travelling it is important to distinguish the difference between traveling by yourself and using the local infrastructure, or traveling pre-organized. If you decide to use public transport, or go to a local shop, you will have to respect the way the locals work, because you’re sharing their daily life.
However, if you decide to go on an organised holiday and book organised tours with foreign or local tourist companies, you should be allowed to look for the best price/ service combination available on location and according to your preferences.
If any business decides to offer services to tourists it is their decision to try to gain money from tourism, so they should also take the responsibilities that comes with this decision and provide the appropriate service.
Of course there are exceptions, but unfortunately many local Latin American travel businesses are not yet used to the Western standards of service. Besides the often lower quality of the tour, it is also important to know that spending money at a local business isn’t always better for the local economy…
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.
But many of the local Latin owned businesses still pay less taxes and less salary to their employees than local foreign owned companies do. Especially tour agencies, hotels and restaurants from big (well known) Latin American families often pay their employees (way) below the minimum salary. Those families get away with this because of their political contacts and because their employees don’t dare to complain.
Workers in South America are officially protected by law (if they have a contract, because some don’t even have one), but often really need the job to feed their family. They know that when they complain to/ about their Latin boss, they often not only lose their job, but there is a good chance that they don’t find any other job in town anymore.
Local companies that are owned by foreigners usually do not have this (political) 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.
For example, if an employee who works for a foreign hotel complains about his/ her working conditions, then they are more likely to be heard and get help from the local government. I personally know about at least three situations where employees got fired, because it was proven that they had stolen from the hotel they worked for. They got upset, sued the hotel for losing their job and won their case against the hotel.
Because of these regulations and strict control, foreign owned hotels, restaurants and travel agencies pay all their taxes and tend to take better care of their employees than Latin owned businesses.
The best way to help the local economy is often to spend your money with the small or medium businesses that are both locally and foreign owned.
How tourism can maintain/ improve its destination
Tourism is often used as an alternative income to protect nature. Instead of only once gaining money from cutting trees and extracting minerals, a pretty natural location could be turned into a reserve and earn sustainable money by charging its visitors.
You can witness another good example of how tourism can actually be helpful in preserving a culture from disappearing, at the floating Uros Reed Islands in Lake Titicaca.
Many tourists complain that visiting these islands is a very touristy activity. But because these visits are well organised, 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 Incas.
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 arthritis. Because of these tough living conditions and because there is no reason for hiding anymore, more and more people, especially the younger generations started to move to the mainland of Puno.
A big storm in 1986, causing heavy damage to the floating islands and its inhabitants, made the Uros decided to move their islands closer to the shore. They anchored the remaining floating islands in the bay of Puno, where they’re better protected from wind by the bay shores and the reed growing around them.
This new location suddenly made the islands more accessible for travellers who visit 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 search for better life conditions, causing their traditions to be lost for ever…
The future of traveling
Sustainable tourism in South America still has a long way to go, but at least there is a start. It is mostly up to us travellers and tourists to try to make a difference and demand the same from the tourist industry.
I would like to invite everyone to come over and travel to South America to discover its beautiful history, culture and nature, but please go prepared. Try to travel responsibly, learn from your experiences and the people around you, help in spreading authentic information and of course enjoy your travels!