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Truth and Travel: Alternative tourism isn't always responsible tourism


As travel to the Third World has expanded, so, too, has concern about the damage wrought by mass tourism on the people and places that play host to wandering North Americans and Europeans. This sensitivity is generating a different kind of tourism, an alternative that goes by the names of peaceful travel, eco-tourism, ethical travel, and responsible travel - to name just a few.

It's easy to understand the popularity of alternative tourism. As the awareness of the existence and rights of indigenous peoples grows, more and more peoples seek ways to assist the members of small threatened societies. Many travelers would even like to think of their vacation as a way to directly assist indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, "alternative" isn't always the same thing as "responsible." Many factors determine how a particular type of travel affects a host culture, and all too often tours are labelled and marketed in ways that are misleading and ultimately destructive.


During the early 1970s, trekking tours to the mountains of northern Thailand started attracting young travelers to Chiang Mai, the nearest city. Six ethnically and linguistically distinct tribes - the Kaen, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu, and Akha - live in this region.

When only a few adventurous youngsters traveled beyond Chiang Mai in the late 1960s, their quests were usually benign and didn't significantly impinge upon the lives of the tribes. Indeed, only a handful of travelers got beyond Chiang Mai each year until the early 1970s, when a number of companies began offering treks into the hill-tribe region.

The growth of tourism came at the same time as the tribes themselves were changing. According to Erik Cohen, an anthropologist and sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, many native inhabitants had already started modifying their traditions and customs - building roads, incorporating Western agricultural technology, and introducing market crops to replace opium. Writing in Annals of Tourism Research, Cohen notes that because the growing alternative tourism paralleled these changes, a paradoxical consequence resulted.

Trekking companies market themselves as an alternative to mass tourism and, in many cases, as an alternative form of economic development. "We will take you into the jungle away from the normal trekking areas," says one ad in Chiang Mai. Another ad invites travelers to "see these people living in their natural environment, virtually unchanged for hundreds of years."

Yet since the 1970s, jungle companies have helped alter the face of northern Thailand. As companies proliferated, more travelers required food, transportation, and expertise about the hill tribes. The newer tourists are especially dependent on such services, as tour companies capitalize on the fact that companies capitalize on the fact that Westerners only rarely venture into the hill-tribe region on their own.

On the other hand, people will often only join a tour if the experiences are "alternative," if the trip heads off the beaten track. Thus the competition is fierce among local companies is fierce among local companies to offer authenticity. Throughout the 1980s, over 20 companies offered treks into the hill-tribe region. The surviving firms have lasted only because they claim to go where no other tour does.

Trekking companies strive to market authenticity in all aspects of the operation. The offices in Chiang Mai tend to be small, simple, and unadorned. To enhance the image, the ads in front of the offices are usually hand-written in broken English. In addition, the companies often misrepresent native inhabitants to enhance the image of authenticity, such as this 1977 ad that Cohen quotes: * Come and experience these amazing people. Primitive hill tribe villages that are totally untouched and in their natural surroundings. See their culture and live among them in their timelessness.

Authenticity is sold through a variety of images. Trekking companies talk up the number of tribal people they employ or the types of food clients will eat during the tour. Among the most common words in ads are primitive, remote, simple, unsophisticated, exotic, traditional, natural, and unspoiled.

Contrary to such images, the peoples of the Chiang Mai region are neither "totally untouched" nor "timeless." Jungle companies mask the cultural changes that began among the hill tribes with road building and the transformation of indigenous agriculture. Tourism itself has hastened these developments, as natives encounter and interact with Western travelers. Local entrepreneurs can succeed in presenting such misleading images because most travelers depend upon jungle companies and because, on the exterior at least, native people do appear to have changed very little from their contact with industrial society.

Portrayed as timeless, the hill tribes appear that way to tourists because tour operators design the trek to avoid aspects of native life that clients might construe as less-than-authentic. Tour operators don't actually manipulate how natives present themselves, but rather structure the trek so tourists see only a veneer of indigenous life. For example, trekking fliers often imply that the guides know tribal life intimately, although many guides no longer live in a tribal setting or know how hill-tribe peoples live. Similarly, Cohen quotes an ad describing the food served during one tour as "especially prepared hill-tribe cuisine." In fact, few trekkers eat the same foods hill-tribe natives do.

Moreover, Cohen suggests, natives end up serving one primary function: to validate to travelers that they have had an authentic experience. Jungle trekkers tend to seek their own fulfillment, and this motivation can undermine, or even conflict with, a genuine attempt to learn about native peoples. Ironically, the six hill tribes invariable come to learn more about how these indigenous peoples adapt tradition to the modern world.

Worse, for Chaing Mai to attract income from travelers, operators must continue to portray the hill tribes as primitive and timeless. In The Politics of Tourism in Asia, Linda Richter argues that this has invariably produced a confused self-identity, as native people also try to adapt their customs to fit into a cash economy. During a period of enormous changes, the natives of northern Thailand present themselves as if their lives were static.

Nevertheless, enhanced cultural understanding lies at the heart of responsible tourism. Jungle trekking tours fall short of achieving that objective.


A few thousands miles closer to home, and offering a product better deserving of the title "responsible travel," Florida-based Amazonia Expeditions leads trips from Iquitos, Peru, to three communities in the Peruvian Amazon - Jaldar, Porto Miguel, and San José de Paranapura. Founded in 1982 by Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver, Amazonia Expeditions' main goal is to benefit two groups of native people in the region, the Cocama and Cocamilla, by enhancing traditions through tourism.

During each expedition, Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver strive to convey to travelers the fact that conditions in the Amazon jungle are often difficult for natives. At the same time, the Beavers emphasize that the region's inhabitants maintain a viable and valuable culture. Paul Beaver has conveyed to me that the Cocama and Cocamilla "have the kindest, gentlest, warmest souls in all of the world. Through all their tragedy and more, the natives socially resist defeat. Their spirit remains buoyant; their love of life evident."

David Novick, who travelled with Amazonia Expeditions in 1991, feels the owners show a genuine sensitivity and concern for facilitating responsible interchanges between tourists and hosts. "The natives liked us," he says, "because they viewed us as friendly people who saw us as their guests, and appreciated how they lived." Going to the heart of the matter, before each trip Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver candidly make travelers aware of the real conditions of many natives lives. As the brochures clearly and accurately tell prospective clients, "During our expedition we visit poor native villages."

Amazonia Expeditions also offers a way travelers can assist the people they encounter and can assist the people they encounter and get to know during the two-week expedition. Indeed, travelers are not only exposed to the real-life conditions of the Cocama and Cocamilla, but are asked to give something in return for permission to venture into someone else's homeland. The Beavers suggest in pretrip materials that travelers who want to help the Cocama and Cocamilla should bring such items as clothes, school supplies, fishing gear, medicines, sewing supplies, even a soccer ball. While these items hardly promote real economic development, at the very least they indicate a degree of mutual exchange. Novick believes that natives value gifts of fishing line or T-shirts.

Compared to the jungle trekking companies, Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver have little economic incentive to present Peruvian native peoples inaccurately. Undoubtedly, this approach to business has much to do with the fact that there is little competition for tourism in the region, and that Millie Sangama de Beaver is a native of the Amazon. She and Paul Beaver haver developed close ties to the Cocama and Cocamilla over the years, and they have come to view tourism as a positive way to offer North Americans a realistic sense of how others live.

Indeed, a love for the jungle and its peoples drives Amazonian Expeditions. Paul Beaver insists that "our presence in the region is always geared to benefit the people in a nonintrusive way." Similarly, Novick describes "a feeling of mutual respect between the tour group and the native inhabitants. Natives realize that tourists don't travel with Amazonia Expeditions for any reason other than to learn about the remote Amazon jungle and its people."


The comparison of hill-tribe trekking tours and Amazonia Expeditions suggests that responsible travel is characterized, at least in part, by a particular economics and scale. Amazonia Expeditions is a single operation whose principal objective is to engender greater understanding about the cultures of indigenous peoples. By contrast, entrepreneurs in Chiang Mai display no particular drive to help travelers gain a meaningful, let alone accurate, knowledge of indigenous cultures. In fact, such tours might not be financially viable in northern Thailand, since many small companies vigorously compete for a still limited clientele. That may be why jungle trekking companies seek to capitalize on the relative ease with which prospective travelers can be deceived.

Amazonia Expeditions can also operate more responsibly because Paul Beaver and Milli Sangama de Beaver are not in business mainly for money. They want to aid communities and see tourism as a visible means toward that end. The questions arises, what might happen if a number of competitors began selling expeditions into remote areas of the Peruvian Amazon? Indeed, Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver haven't yet encountered many of the complex choices surrounding profitability and ethics precisely because there is little competition for their service.


While Paul Beaver and Millie Sangama de Beaver run an ethical business, Amazonia Expeditions lacks what might be the most important attribute of a true cultural and economic alternative - indigenous control. By contrast, Capirona, a small indigenous community a two-hour walk from the Napo River in Ecuador, has established a unique experiment in tourism. Rather than cut down a relatively intact and diverse tropical rain forest, the people of Capirona decided in 1989 to use it to attract visitors.

Tourism was not unfamiliar. The river port of Misahualli, about three hours away, has long served a as jumping-off point for tourists going to Ecuador's rain forest. Many Indians had worked as day guides or at the jungle lodges that are the main attractions to foreign and Ecuadoran visitors.

While the residents of Capirona were mindful that other indigenous communities had, in effect, become tourist zoos, they felt that tourism could be a viable economic and culturally sensitive alternative - if they controlled and managed the project themselves. Unlike other indigenous participants in tourism, the people of Capirona design and run the tours themselves. Moreover, benefits occur to the entire community, not just to those working as guides or cooks.

The people of Capriona started small, relying only on their own resources. Together, they built a palmthatched guest house with forest materials. The house lies on a river bank a short distance from the village center and houses tourists for six-day tours. Visitors join in communal work parties, and Indian guides teach visitors about native uses of forest plants and animals, about their beliefs and traditions of the forest, and about the reality and challenges of daily life. Through a cultural-exchange program, the people of Capirona share not only their own traditions but also learn about the experiences and lie of the visitors. Guests come by word of mouth and are often scheduled through the offices of regional and national Indian organizations.

From the beginning the people of Capirona developed the community project in association with the Federation of Indian Organizations of the Napo (FOIN), the regional Indian federation. They slowly learned to take care of visitors and manage and administer a small business. With the help of an Indian botanist working with FOIN, the residents of Capirona laid out trails and labeled trees with scientific, Spanish, and local Indian names.

As the project has become better known, achieving some fame in Ecudor, neighboring Indian communities have begun to express an interest in joining the effort. Through FOIN, Capironans now teach people of other communities to start similar project and coordinate planning with them to receive visitors.

Capirona purposely focuses on smallscale tourism that complements daily activities. Most people in the community continue to hunt and fish, grow a few cash crops, and raise their own food in garden clearings. Tourism provides guides and cooks with a surplus income, and it also produces profits for the entire community, which help finance school projects and health care.

At this level, tourism is an experiment that minimizes economic and cultural risk. If it fails, people can continue to subsist on agriculture. If it succeeds, incomes will rise and the community will benefit. Most important, the people of Capirona will retain both control and dignity in determining the outcome of alternative tourism.

Resources: Hands-On Help

If you have time, energy, and resources, you can learn about and affect indigenous, issues here and aboard through volunteer work or travel. Keeping pace with the growth in interest in alternative travel, dozens of organizations and guides now offer tips and advice on how to travel responsibly in the Third World. A number of other groups provide volunteer opportunities.

Before embarking upon your adventure, take some time to investigate the multitude of possibilities. Consider your goals and be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any given situation. Choose organizations carefully, paying attention to how tell your goals coincide with theirs. Ideally, both you and those whom you meet or work with will gain from the experience. Before deciding to go aboard, inquire and consider how indigenous people might receive your presence.


The North America Coordinating Center for Responsible Tourism is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing awareness about Third World tourism and educating tourists and travel agents about the importance of responsible interaction with other societies. The center maintains a library of print and audio-visual resources on alternative tourism. Among is offerings are The Challenge of Tourism, Tourism, Tourism: Cultural Diversity and Adversity and its quarterly newsletter "Responsible Traveling." Videos, slides, and filmstrips are available for one-work loan for a $20 contribution. Among these are Third World Stopover, Pacific Tourism, and Don't Fence Me Out - a slide show about the impact of tourist development in Bali.

The center works cooperatively with the Ecumenical Coalition on third World tourism, one of the first organizations to explore options for alternative tourism in Asia. The coalition provides information about the down-side of Third World tourism and devises strategies for tourism-based sustainable development. The quarterly journal, Contours, updates the status of tourist development in various parts of the Third World and comes with a membership.

One World Family Travel Network, a membership organization, links individuals interested in traveling responsibly with organizations. It sells Directory of Alternative Travel Resources and Directory of Environmentally Responsible Travel Resources. Both are excellent sources for learning about socially responsible travel opportunities.

Another valuable resource is Handle With Care: A Guide to Responsible Travel in Developing Countries. Written by Scott ZGraham, this new book is available from Noble Press for $8096.

Global Exchange seeks to build ties between people of North America and the Third World. It will run an information-exchange tour to South Africa July 1-22, 1992. The objective will be to raise awareness about and potential remedies for South Africa's many environmental problems. Global Exchange also publishes The Peace Corps and More: 114 Ways to Work, Study, and Travel in the Third World, which comes free with a $25 membership contribution.

Transitions Abroad offers a Guide to Oversees Opportunities and the Educational Travel Directory free with an $18 annual subscription to its travel magazine.


Rather than tour, you might opt to work abroad for an organization based in the United States. While fewer volunteer opportunities than tours are available, they generally give a better sense of how indigenous people live. Most volunteer positions require a commitment of at least a year, and the application process is often legnthy.

Seek additional information about the organizations before applying. You want to be confident that their priorities match those of the indigenous people their projects are intended to help.

One of the best of these organizations is Volunteers For Peace, which has work camps in 37 countries. Work-camp programs last two to three weeks and cost about $125. They offer an opportunity for people from diverse cultural backgrounds to live and work together and learn about the political, social, and economic conditions of the host country. Volunteers do a variety of work including construction, restoration, and maintenance. The 1992 International Work camp Directory lists over 800 opportunities in North and West Africa, Asia, the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Commonwealth of independent States. This 112-page guide is revised annually, and is available for $10.

One of the largest organizations that places volunteers in the United States and around the world is Habitat For Humanity. Volunteers at the International Headquarters in Georgia must be at least 18 year old and make a three-month commitment, a year or more is preferred. These volunteers assist with accounting, computer systems, language translation, and other office tasks. To work abroad, individuals must be at least 2 years old and have experience in administration, construction management, or community organizing. Proficiency in a foreign language and experience overseas are desirable. Overseas volunteers serve in urban and rural locations, helping native people help themselves by building better housing.

WorldTeach sends recent college graduates to teach secondary school in Namibia, Thailand, Costa Rica, China, South Africa, and Poland. They teach English, math, science, and sports in both urban and rural schools. Volunteers must make a commitment for one school year (10 to 2 months), after which they can apply to the school for a second year. WorldTeach provides housing and a small stipend, though volunteers must pay their own air fare and insurance. Knowledge of a foreign language is not required, but those accepted must either take a course in English as a second language or spend 25 hours teaching or tutoring English. Programs begin throughout the year; apply at least four months before you would like to work.

WorldTeach is similar in some ways to perhaps the most well-known organization for oversees volunteer employment, The Peace Corps. A somewhat lengthy applications process is required for those who are interested in making a two-year commitment to working on a grassroots level in a developing country. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

American Friends Service Committee runs summer work camps in Cuba and Mexico for people ages 18-35. Volunteers help local peasants with construction and agricultural work. Construction skills and fluency in Spanish are required.

For those interested in volunteers opportunities in Africa, Visions in Action offers a variety of one-year internships. Volunteers work for non-profit development organizations in cities in Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. In 1993-94, programs will be added in West Africa as well. Applications are received until April 1 for July programs, May 15 for August programs, and October 15 for programs beginning in January.

Amigos de Las Americas offers internships in Mexico, Brazil the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Paraguary. Volunteers usually work on health-care and education projects, providing crucial services such as community sanitation, dental hygiene, and latrine construction. Volunteers are trained and monitored by people with previous experience in the field. The minimum age is 16 and participants must have completed the equivalent of one year of high school Spanish or Portuguese.

Global Volunteers works on development project selected by rural host communities in Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica, India, Paraguay, and Western Samoa. No special skills are required, but volunteers pay their own costs.

The National Central America Health Rights Network sponsors the Maternal/Child Health Project and the Mental Health Program for Central American refugees. Volunteers must be fluent in Spanish and pay their own costs.

The Overseas Development Network exposes college students to grassroots development strategies that indigenous people employ. Volunteers are placed in agencies throughout the world managed by indigenous people for three to six months. Spanish proficiency is required for Latin American programs, and students pay their own costs.

International Voluntary Services recruits technical assistance for rural development in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ecuador, Zaire, and Zimbabwe for two to three years of service. Volunteers must have a college degree and two years of work experience in a developing country.

Those with a degree or experience in public health, nutrition, community development, or education might be especially interested in Concern/America. Volunteer programs emphasize training members of impoverished communities in these areas. Volunteers serve in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Sierra Leone. Concern/American provides room and board, health insurance, round-trip transportation, and a small monthly stipend. Fluency in Spanish is required, except for the project in Sierra Leone, which is for physicians only. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old. Field experience is desirable, and a one-year commitment is required.

The World Council of Indigenous Peoples, based in Canada, advocates economic self-sufficiency and self-determination for indigenous people. The council has a regional office in Costa Rica that places a few people each year in volunteer positions with indigenous development organizations in Central and South America. Internships are also available in both offices.

Earthwatch seeks volunteers to invest time and money in the planet's future by serving in an environmental "EarthCorps. Volunteers gain hands-on experience working with scientists for two to three weeks on 140 research projects around the world. No specific skills are required, but technical experience and talent in photography or cooking are helpful.


You can work on behalf of indigenous people without committing the time and money to going abroad. Cultural Survival is just one of many human-rights organizations that offers internships.

Rainforest Action Network seeks volunteers to assist on projects, membership, research, publicity, and other office tasks. Interns must commit to at least 12 hours per week for 3 months. Applications for summer internships are due May 1. At other times of the year, internships begin the first of the month.

South and Meso-American Indian Information Center seeks interns to assist its efforts to build links among Native peoples of the Americas and to educate the public about Native American struggles for land rights and self-determination. About six interns can be accommodated at any one time.

Arctic to Amazonia Alliance seeks to promote communication and understanding peoples. Interns help with ongoing projects, and the organization attempts to match internships with the interests to each volunteer. There are two to five internships available, and a minimum 3-month commitment is preferred.

Conservation International is dedicated to saving endangered rain forests and other ecosystems worldwide. Interns are occasionally needed to do research on conservation policy and clerical work.

Greenpeace has initiated a rainforest campaign to promote indigenous land rights and protect extractive reserve rights for indigenous peoples. Internships are available year-round. Submit a letter of intent, resume, and writing sample.

The Natural Resources Defense Council offers summer opportunities for law students. Each summer, four to six interns work with NRDC attorneys on lobbying and legal research. Interns also participate in seminars and lectures about public-interest legal careers, No stipend is provided, but some funds are available for those who demonstrate need. To supply, submit a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and references by December.

Sierra Club, a member of the campaign to reform multinational development bank projects that often harm indigenous peoples and their lands, offers 10 ongoing internships that generally last two to three months. Interns who are full-time students receive a small stipend.


Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism

P.O. Box 24, Chorakhebua, Bangkok 10230 Thailand 510-7287; fax: 510-7287\

Global Exchange

2141 Mission St., Suite 202, San Francisco, CA 94110 (415)255-7296; fax: (415)225-7498

Noble Press, Inc.

213 W. Institute Place, Suite 508, Chicago, IL 60610 (312)642-1148

North American Coordinating Center for Responsible Tourism

Box 827, San Anselmo, CA 94979 (415)258-6574; fax: (415)454-2493

One World Family Travel Network

Lost Valley Center, 81868 Lost Valley Lane, Dexter, OR 97431 (503)937-3357

Transitions Abroad

Dept. TRA, P.O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834


American Friends Service Committee

Hilda Grauman, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102-1479(215)241-7295

Amigos de Las Americas

5618 Star Lane, Houston, TX 77057 (800)231-7796


2024 North Broadway, P.O. Box 1790, Santa Ana, CA 92702 (714)953-8575; fax: (714)953-1242


P.O. Box 403N, Watertown, MA 02172 (617)926-8200

Global Volunteers

2000 American National Bank Building, St Paul, MN 55101 (612)228-9751

Habitat For Humanity

Habitat and Church Streets, Americans, GA 31709 (912)9246935; fax: (912)924-6541

International Voluntary Services

1424 16th Street N.W., Suite 204, Washington, D.C., 20036 (202)387-5533

National Central Americal Health Rights Network

853 Broadway #416, New York, NY 10003 (212)420-9635

Overseas Development Network

Internship Program, P.O. Box 1430, Cambridge, MA 02138 (617)868-3002

Peace Corps Recruiting Services

1990 K St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20526 (800) 424-8580

Visions in Action

3637 Fulton St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20007 (202)625-7403

Volunteers For Peace

"International Workcamps", 43 Tiffany Road, Belmont, VT 05730 (802)259-2759; fax: (802)259-2922

World Council of Indigenous Peoples

555 King Edward Avenue, Ottawa Ontario, Canada KIN 6NS (613)230-9030


Harvard Institute for International Development, 1 Elliot St., Cambridge MA 02138 (617)495-5527


Arctic to Amazonia Alliance

EricVan Lennep, P.O. Box 73, Stratford, VT 05072 (802)765-4337; fax: (802)765-4262

Conservation International

Julie Michonski, 1015 18th Street N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20036 (202)429-5660


1436 U Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009 (202)462-117 fax: (202)462-4507

National Resources Defense Council

Doug Wolf, 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011 (212)727-2700

Rainforest Action Network

Sally Kaufman, 450 Sansom, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94111 (415)398-4404; fax: (415)398-2732

Sierra Club

Internship Coordinator, 730 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (415)398-4404; fax: (415)398-2732

Sierra Club

Internship Coordinator, 730 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (415)776-2211

South and Meso-American Indian Information Center

Nilo Cayuqueo, P.O. Box 7550, Oakland, CA 94707. (504)834-4263; fax: (510)834-4264.

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