The sun is just rising over Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s ancient temple complex. After years of reading about its beauty, I am excited to finally experience this moment for myself. As a hint of orange breaks through the clouds, I can see the reflection of the grand temple in the nearby water lily pond. It is everything I had imagined — at least until the buses arrive.
Each luxury coach represents a different tour group, yet somehow they are all the same. There are guides identifying themselves with a variety of miniature flags, and expensive camera equipment everywhere, along with loud voices that bounce off the temple walls. This phenomenon is not unique to Angkor Wat. From historic castles in Europe to ports of call across the Caribbean, few destinations are left untouched by the outstretched arm of mass tourism. Unfortunately, sharing a temple with a few hundred visitors is the least of our concerns.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, over 1.1 billion people travelled internationally in 2014, roughly 4.7 per cent more than the previous year. Export earnings from international tourism totalled US$1.5 trillion in the same time frame. That kind of money can go a long way towards bolstering local economies, creating jobs and supporting the preservation of traditional sites and customs. However, host communities — especially in developing areas of the world — rarely benefit on such a large scale because of the way that mass tourism is structured.
Popular ventures like all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships tend to be run by multinational companies. They build the rooms where visitors sleep, import the food and drink served at every meal and populate their staff with many non-resident employees. In so doing, these companies insulate their guests in ‘enclave economies’ and redirect profits out of the host country, thereby limiting the trickle-down impact of visitor spending.
But that’s not the only reason why the explosion of mass tourism over the last 50 years has become unsustainable. As more and more people pour into vacation destinations, host economies become increasingly dependent on the seasonal swings of the tourism industry. The cost of living grows without a corresponding rise in local wages, while unregulated development forever transforms the physical environment and cultural identities that attracted tourists in the first place.
There is no shortage of cautionary tales when it comes to mass tourism. Venice, Bali and the islands of southern Thailand are just a few examples of destinations that have seen their ecosystems and longstanding traditions altered significantly in the course of hosting millions of visitors. While there are plenty of reasons to vilify the mass tourism industry, there’s also a simple explanation for its existence. Tourists sign up for all-inclusive stays and other mass ventures because they want their limited, hard-earned vacation days to be relaxing and convenient. Many of them don’t have the time, the motivation or the know-how to address the needs of host communities.
Luckily, alternative travel models have sprouted in recent years. These start-ups in subfields like ecotourism, geotourism, sustainable tourism and ethical tourism reflect a shift in consumer tastes, even if the industry juggernaut that is mass tourism still reigns supreme. Although each initiative carries its own set of merits and nuances, they can largely be interpreted under the umbrella of ‘conscious travel’, an inclusive model based on connecting host communities with individuals interested in more sustainable, culturally sensitive practices.
Anna Pollock, founder of the Conscious Travel website, has written extensively on this subject. In her 2013 discussion paper, Conscious Travel: Not More but Better, Better for More, she notes that the partnership of guest, host and destination is essential to contesting the mass tourism model, in which each party seeks “to win at the cost of the other” and at the ultimate expense of the environment. Conscious travel, therefore, represents “a fundamental shift in values and beliefs” — a shift “away from money and economic wealth to ‘wellth’ as in ‘well-being’.”
This new movement manifests in numerous ways. It can involve partnerships between conscious travel companies and local organisations, projects that contribute to the preservation of the environment and cultural heritage, or educational programs that highlight relevant issues within the host community. Unlike mass tourism, which depends on large numbers of customers and a fixed itinerary, conscious travel is driven by small groups of people, flexibility and a commitment to collaboration. It doesn’t have to involve uncomfortable stays in makeshift huts and long days in the jungle, while many individuals choose to proceed incrementally before committing entire vacations to the cause.
My first conscious travel encounter came during a hostel stay in the Philippines, when I was introduced to an organisation called True Manila, which aims to help visitors understand the daily struggle of local residents. Run by Edwin Nombre, a self-professed street kid turned community activist, my 12-person group started our afternoon by meeting families living in a cemetery and inside a narrow tunnel. We distributed homemade care packages — funded by the donations of previous tour groups — before riding in a ‘jeepney’ to Nombre’s neighbourhood, where we took part in a community basketball game and an impromptu dance contest. There was an opportunity to contribute to an ‘Education for Street Kids’ program by purchasing True Manila T-shirts, and a traditional Filipino lunch that we cooked together with items bought from local vendors.
Conscious travel is not a panacea for the problems of the world: we certainly didn’t pull anyone out of poverty that afternoon. However, we gained important insight into a host community, contributed directly to people in need and created some priceless memories in the process. It’s possible that some members of my group turned into advocates for the Philippines in their hometowns, but that wasn’t the expectation. Rather, conscious travel initiatives like True Manila revolve around interconnectedness and presenting the opportunity for change, both internal and external.
The unique nature of my time with True Manila, ironically, symbolises an interesting development for conscious travel in the years ahead. While mass tourism’s formulaic makeup and pre-existing demand enables all-inclusive vacations to be duplicated throughout the world, conscious travel can only offer alternatives on a destination-by-destination basis. That’s because each host community maintains a singular identity as well as a specific set of logistical obstacles. There is no universal recipe to ensure qualitative, long-term benefits for stakeholders, only relative frameworks for reference. In other words, the elements of my positive experience in Manila do not guarantee a similarly rewarding afternoon if replicated in Mumbai.
Locating and partnering with agents of change, fostering symbiotic relationships, and implementing a viable, responsible tourism program takes time, capital and participants willing to trade short-term convenience for personal fulfilment. This is no easy feat. Conscious travel also requires due diligence on the part of potential guests, as there are myriad companies that falsely claim to be environmentally friendly — a practice known as ‘greenwashing’ — and programs that prey on human kindness, such as phoney animal sanctuaries and fraudulent orphanages.
Although conscious travel certainly has some challenges ahead of it, these are exciting times for the burgeoning movement. The internet has helped connect individuals interested in sustainability and cultural exchange from Australia to Zimbabwe. There are more opportunities than ever to volunteer for several weeks in a rural village or spend a morning learning about traditional weaving techniques. Busloads of tourists will still pull into Angkor Wat tomorrow, but the sun has risen and it is a new day for the tourism industry.
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