Visitors to developing countries often want to
do something about the poverty they’re exposed to. But the mere act of
travelling can make a difference.
The number of international travellers reached one
billion for the first time in 2012 – and that means more money for the
industry. According to the United Nations’ World
Tourism Organization, tourism makes up 5% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product;
it accounts for one in 12 jobs worldwide; and it’s either the number one or
number two export earnings for 20 of the 48 least developed countries, including
Tanzania and Samoa.
“Tourism has been described as the world’s
largest transfer of resources from rich to poor, dwarfing international aid,”
said Salli Felton, acting chief executive of the Travel Foundation, a UK-based
charity that works with the travel industry on sustainability issues.
But getting tourism money to the poor can be
easier in theory than reality. Many times, tourism dollars – such as those
spent at foreign-owned resorts or tour operators – don’t stay in the traveller’s
destinations. In addition, Felton explained that “developing countries often
also import equipment, food and other goods from abroad to meet the
expectations and standards of holidaymakers”. That means hotels and restaurants
aren’t buying goods locally and supporting jobs and businesses in their home
Still, experts see progress – and potential.
There are many examples of small, local projects that have helped lower-income communities.
For example, travellers can take part in Maasai
village tours in Kenya, where nearly all of the tour fees once went to outside
guides instead of the villagers. But the Travel Foundation helped develop a
ticketing system that redirected fees to the community, who used the money to
invest in education and sanitation.
Micro loans to local entrepreneurs have also gotten
a lot of attention in recent years. Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies
at The George Washington University in Washington DC, said there are many
examples of local people just needing the capital to get a business off the
ground – giving the example of a woman in the Dominican Republic who received a
small loan to start a juice stand, later expanding to six stands and 12
employees. And there are also community-owned enterprises, such as the Chalalan
Ecolodge in Bolivia, which was set up with financial help from the US-based
environmental organisation Conservation
International. Chalalan has been fully owned by the local community since
2001, providing income to 70 families and employment alternatives to logging
But large travel operators – such as major
hotel chains – are increasingly playing a role as well. Small-scale tourism
development is good, Lamoureux said, “but we also need to be focusing on the
big players”. And the news there is fairly good: “10 years ago those hotels
were encouraging guests to re-use their towels; now they’re talking about
instance, Ritz Carlton has a Community
Footprints social and environmental responsibility programme that, among
other initiatives, has hotels and their staff partnering with local organisations
on children issues, hunger and poverty through mentoring, volunteering and
youth training programmes. Guests can also participate through half-day “voluntourism”
opportunities, such as planting trees in Atlanta, Georgia, with a local
initiative that aims to bring more trees to urban communities, or sorting
donated food items for a hunger relief organisation in Philadelphia.
The big hotels and major attractions also have
“a greater awareness that just creating jobs doesn’t necessarily mean you’re
creating economic alternatives for the poorest of the poor”, Lamoureux said.
There’s more attention to educating and mentoring youth so that they can work
in a professional environment, and also grooming those employees to move into
middle and upper management. “I really think that will be a major initiative of
the tourism industry… in the next 10 to 20 years,” Lamoureux added.
Travellers also can take action themselves.
Felton recommended asking travel agents about a hotel’s ownership or whether
it’s affiliated with a sustainable certification program, such as Travelife, which awards hotels
that meet social and environmental responsibility criteria. Lamoureux suggested
asking what tourism providers’ social responsibility policies are and how many
of their employees and managers are local residents. Travellers should also “get
outside of the walls of the hotel and try to use their purchasing power”, Felton
said. Eat at local restaurants, shop local and use local guides. “You’ll get
more out of your holiday and ensure local people benefit from your stay.”
Lori Robertson writes
the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to email@example.com.