December 27, 2006

Irresponsible Travel

Who is responsible for Travel?

It’s hard to imagine how burning tonnes of fuel in a jumbo jet en-route to a holiday in Thailand’s hill-tribes could qualify as Responsible Travel, and yet the RT branding applied to many adventure holidays are designed to make you think you might even be saving the planet. If you were a little confused about the true intention of Responsible Travel then you’re not alone, issues of greenhouse gases aside the cultural impact of thousands of tourists on the once remote villages is impossible to ignore.

Some companies have demonstrated a desire to find answers to what levels of tourism is harmful to local communities, and what styles of travel impact the least. But the eagerness to fund such research has been replaced with the desire to make more profit. A few years ago there were only two companies running hill-tribe adventures in 1990, catering for just 5 groups a year. Today there are over ten of them, and the big names are operating 52 departures a year – that's a new group of people every single week.

It’s turns out it’s very difficult to assess the footprint left by travellers, and a tour operation in one part of Thailand bears very different impacts to a tour elsewhere in Thailand. It’s an inexact science that demands diligent research to find even the most tentative of answers. Unfortunately the motivation to understand these impacts has been trampled underfoot along with the very cultures that are being marketed to travellers.

A few years ago I travelled to the UK to meet one of the better known organisations that champion the cause for responsible tourism. It was a one-man team, based in an outer suburb of London with a computer desk jammed next to the bed. The fellow wasn’t all that interested in talking about how he assessed the RT value of a company or its tours, given that he has a real job elsewhere in London only travels abroad once a year. Instead he showed me the revenue model for his website and it seemed obvious to me that the priority for handing out awards bore a striking correlation to the amount of commissioned being paid out.

The take-home message is simple; next time you see a company promoting their awards in responsible travel ask yourself who is handing them out and why.

The meaning of the words “Responsible Travel” have been so consistently abused in recent years that they have lost almost all value. It’s easy to imagine a game of buzz-word bingo being played out in managerial meetings across the country, as travel operators seeking to expand their market grasp at straws for something to differentiate their product.

The irony is that even those companies who got into the concept in the early days have all but abandoned the genuine philosophy in favour of aggressive brand association and marketing – they spend millions of dollars on appearing to be green while tossing a few pennies at charities in order to stay legitimate.

The very nature of travel is in direct conflict with both cultural responsibility and reducing greenhouse emissions.

December 12, 2006

Skin Deep

Today I learned a lesson in why racism is such an issue in Australia. If you're white then you have no place judging people by their colour. If you're a recent migrant however, the rules are a little different.

I was appauled to see two dark African men get involved in an incident in Footscray today. A white pedestrian was hit by a parking car, but the outrage of the victim was greeted with violence from the dark skinned by-standers who had nothing better to do.

Had the pedestrian been a fellow immigrant then the attitude of the idle onlookers may have been different. The key to the racial nature of the African men was their repeated use of race in their abusive language.

When the victim started taking photos of the scene, in case required for a legal defense, the forementioned by-standers got violent. When police finally arrived they didnt act to determine the culpability of the attackers, they instead interogated the pedestrian for inciting trouble.

White police officers have been well trained to avoid stereo-typing the public, so they intentionally ignored the full scope of facts. Despite pleas to verify the events with a credible witness, the account of the dark skinned attackers was the only corroboration headed by police.

The police had to overlook a fair weight of obvious fact to come to the wrong conclusion, and between them they seemed more concerned to avoid filling out paperwork than arresting two thugs who beat a defenceless man. Dishonesty and violence is part of every community, but we expect better from our police.

I had seen this pattern once before, while eating a kebab in Carlton. I witnessed a car run a red-light and nearly kill two of the occupants in another vehicle in the impact. The owner of the kebab shop came out after he heard the noise. He hadnt seen the incident but quickly took sides for the fellow middle-eastern man, and even tried to influence my opinion on what happened.

So it seems that racial factors can be subtle in general, but profound in application. Why would a kebab man defend a drunken-driver? Had a police-man asked me that question I would not have an answer, I just know that he did. And so it was today that the police wanted to know *why* two dark skinned by-standers would attack a white-man for "no reason". Once again, I just know they did.

Alas that was not good enough for the police today, they got the wrong end of the stick and failed to protect a man who had been beaten and attacked.

Ignorance takes many forms, and so does racism. Neither are the privilege of the white.

October 14, 2006

Cover Me

This month I have to say goodbye to a lovely little girl in China, but soon she'll be seen all over the world.

I don't acutally know her name although we have met twice. I took her photo on my first visit to Ping'An, a small town in the Longji Rice Terraces about two hours north west of Guilin. She is the daughter of a Zhuong family, one of the ethnic groups that populate the cool climes of these hills and grow rice.

She's important to me because I picked her smiling face and happy wave to represent my photography tours. It has been her face that graced our website and helped show potential travellers what joys awaits them in China should they join us on a photo tour.

On my second visit to Ping'An we saw her again, and gave her a copy of this photo. It was a special moment and the shy little girl was very surprised. Her mother was delighted however and we took a few more photos of the family so we have something to give them on our next trip.

But this lovely little girl can no longer appear on my photography website, and cannot be used in my travel writing. I have sold her to Travel Indochina for their next China brochure. While I will miss seeing her face when I visit my website, it seems likely that a great deal more people will be blessed with her smile once the new brochure comes out.

It's a great policy to make return trips and share the photos from our previous students, but in this instance their is a little more joy to share. The plan is to visit the school and ask about what they might benefit from. The Zhuong people are different to the neighbouring Yao, for they freely offer themselves to photographers. The Yao harass tourists for photos in exchange for money and are frankly annoying to excess. I am keen to reward the people of Ping'An for their kindness and demonstrate a direct benefit.

The little girl on the Travel Indochina brcohure will live on my bookshelf alongside a Cheetah mother in the Masai Mara (Peregrine Africa brochure), a golden Buddhist statue from Hanoi (Peregrine Asia brochure), and the Samburu people of northern Kenya (Geckos worldwide brochure).

And in case you're wondering, my photography tour website will be enhanced by a photo of the Great Wall of China. It's a lovely photo, but second to our young friend in the rice terraces.

September 12, 2006

Equality Packed

Women and girls of the Zhuong ethnic group crowd around our bus to porter our bags and packs up to the rice terraces. One lady was smaller than the wheelie-bag strapped on her back.

A visit to such a remote village in China is a treasured memory for all our travellers during the photo tour. On this instance we have taken a morning flight out of Shanghai and the temptations four-star pampering in a truly unique city. We spent hours driving through increasingly picturesque countryside and find ourselves at the threshold to Long-Ji and the rice terraces of Ping'An.

Ahead of us lies half a kilometre of steps leading up through the valley and into the lower reaches of the terraced gardens. A good thing we don't have to carry our bags!

I feel a little guilty because I have a few extraneous items in my kit. A replica Ming Dynasty bronze urn from Beijing and a generous bottle of rice wine from the historical town of Wuzhen. Both are souvenirs of the highest calibre. I need not have worried too much of course, for my fellow passengers will cast the greater burden. At least the women will.

It seems a cruel irony that these miniature ladies of the Zhoung tribes will be burdened with the task of carrying excess baggage for the excessive ladies of our tour. The average check-in weight of our four men on tour is 16kg. The figure for our seven females is 23kg. Decades of fighting for women's rights in western countries has created the right for tourists to add another 7kilos onto the backs of diminutive porters.

I guess neither Germaine Greer nor Shire Hite wrote books about travelling light.

When we all reached the guest house, several minutes behind our luggage, the breath-taking views were suspended for a moment while we filled our lungs with air. A pile of backpacks, wheelies and tote bags covered the entrance while our liberated women headed for the viewing deck.

So the four of us men got to work on getting our bags upstairs to the rooms :)

April 01, 2006

Spring in China

After just a week in China I have discovered that there is more to this country that delicious food and an abundance of bicycles. I wonder how well the west really understands the ways of our Chinese brothers and the capacity of these people to take big strides forward.

I have been travelling with a group of photographers, starting in Beijing and heading south to Hong Kong, and have enjoyed the character and friendliness of people in China immensely. They are not always modern in their thinking, but neither is the west and our so called democracies.

My impressions of China are of a place where great personal freedom is enjoyed under a strict and powerful government, where natural beauty is respected and where cultural heritage is held dear. They have a natural flare for style that is struggling to cope with the flashy toys of modern lifestyles. These are people who ride a tinky beat-up bicycle to work, but carry a mobile phone worth many times more than the bike. This is a nation that doesnt always get things right, but when they do it's done on a grand scale that cannot be ignored.

And there's a lesson here for us all to observe. Do not be fooled by the loud-mouth rhetoric of western leaders. China is a threat to the economic power of the United States, and that's what all the fuss is really about. China is moving forward and will be one of the greatest and most relevant players on the international stage. These are a people who have travelled to every corner of the globe and proven successful in every venture they elect. They are not to be ignored, and they should never be type-cast by the roles of western politics and US foreign policy.

China is not just a nation, it is a collection of people and races. The time must come soon for the insular refractiveness of 'deomocratic' nations take note and demonstrate suitable respect.

The writing is on the Great Wall.

March 22, 2006

Oriental Penang

I picked my hotel in Penang through an online service, and booked the second cheapest option that offered air-conditioning. The location was the real attraction, right in the thick of good eating, cultural icons and an ample supply of trishaw riders. I couldn’t afford the luxury and indulgence of the Eastern & Oriental, but there’s not that much to differ between one hotel and another – is there?

On the corner of Penang Road and Chulia Street the worlds of India and China blend together with the unique flare and moderation of the Malay. This is why I chose the location. Food is being cooked along the sidewalks at all times of day and night. Indian roti, tandoori, curries and dhal. Chinese noodles, congee, koay teow and fluffy buns. Malay laksa, nasi lemak, loh bak and panggang chicken. For $3 you can get a meal and a drink and a second meal. With a full tummy I head for the hotel to try and finish some writing.

The best thing about the Oriental Hotel in Penang (not to be confused with the Eastern & Oriental Hotel) are the little signs on display to promote the first floor drinks lounge. They promote the salubrious atmosphere of friendship, chit-chat, togetherness and a happy hour that lasts ‘all nite long’. The buzzword however is “Cheefulness”. It’s possible that this is no misspelling, but rather a local phrase that translates into “abundant selection of prostitutes”.

On my way out of the hotel one afternoon I was propositioned by a Mali lady-boy who is convinced that all my fantasies can be made real for the small sum of $40. I didn’t have the heart to explain to him, or her, that my plane ticket from Kuala Lumpur only cost me $20; plus I can take that ride as often as I like without breaking any laws of a moral or legal nature.

Returning to my hotel at night the same bunch of trishaw riders are lying about the footpath sleeping or talking. A couple have broken out the checkers boards and use beer caps for pieces. One suspects that these lads could be busier if they didn’t charge three times the equivalent taxi fare. Most of them are skinnier than an Australian soldier in Changai Prison, so maybe its better they remain mostly idle in fear of shortening their life span.

Once inside my home away from home I am greeted with friendly smiles, my room key and the marvel of air-conditioning. I step inside the elevator and take note of where the emergency-stop is located, suspicious that seven floors may be too much for this old tin box. As the doors close I thought I could hear the faint echo of Air Supply singing "You’re every woman in the world". But maybe it was just the fumes from cheap cleaning solvent overwhelming my senses.

March 11, 2006

Page Twelve

I sat in my local coffee shop and read a few choice bits from the day’s papers. The cafe had recently changed hands and so had the brand of coffee - the rich and full experience of last week now replaced with a cheaper substitute that will be tolerated by the majority of patrons.

It's a similar scenario in the media.

The market appeal for genuine quality and full bodied analysis of issues is waning. I flick through the pile of weekend papers sitting idly on the table and find the optimistic words, and intelligent smile, from a profile piece on Maxine McKew. For my way of thinking her style of journalism is a standard by which others can judge themselves. She's not high profile, just high quality. The story suggests Maxine has an underlying enthusiasm for the future of this country and our ability to achieve greatness. I look for tones of desperation in her words but wonder if the sub-editor has removed the evidence i had expected to find between the lines.

Far more satisfying to my mood are the words of Phillip Adams, who offered some sharp and comical pretence to paint a vivid picture of the fantasy world we live in. He writes of an imaginary world where the police and politicians target the drug barons who kill Australians with fervour and zeal - not illicit drugs of course, but the legal varieties that claim thirty times the number of deaths each year compared to teenage tripping rave enhancers and the like. Cigarettes and alcohol simply do it more slowly... and have a better lobby group to keep the government and the political parties funded.

The most pathetic piece of media discussion this week goes to the debate over Qantas closing down 480 jobs in Sydney. The PM proudly talks of 'saving jobs' from overseas competitors. Pure double-speak. While 71 new jobs might be created, with an outsourced company in Melbourne, 480 positions and their entitlements have been axed. That's not a saving, that's a devastating collapse.

A Liberal right-wing think tank member suggested, during a radio interview, that effected workers (at Qantas and across the entire country) face the 'challenge' of retooling and competing better with international resources. He was incensed by the alternate notion that consumers should pay a higher price so that these men could keep their jobs. Or so the theory goes. The relationship between the price of an airfare and record profits for Qantas (not to mention record salaries for executives) seemed unimportant to him - only the alleged blood sucking greed of workers got him sufficiently emboldened to speak up.

But this man has never stepped in the shoes of these semi-skilled workers that he feels need to face-up to the 'challenge'. This man has a professional career that has never asked of him the same. The men he refers to do not have his education, wealth or self-congratulatory confidence. The challenge in question is more of a nightmare for such individuals, men who have been stripped of opportunity and face an uncertain future.

Why is it so difficult for compassion to enter into a discussion where people's lives and livelihood are concerned?

The same right-wing spin-doctor quite liked the tone of Senator Nick Minchin this week, and believes that it's ridiculous to support a system of arbitration because it 'creates' a division between employers and employees that wouldn’t naturally exist. He thinks we all can live in a utopian world where the Haves and Have-nots co-exist without adversarial intentions. That's a remarkably blinded viewpoint even for someone who has never had to negotiate work conditions with 1,000 equally semi-skilled men standing in line behind him waiting to apply for the same job. He readily admits that he believes executives should not be held to the same standard of competitive negotiation - management level jobs bring value to the company and hence you shouldn't go cheap on them. The workers however enjoy no such consideration, it is they who must bear up to the 'challenge' and be glad for the privilege what’s more.

As an aside; there is a very simple reason why the arbitration commission was setup in the early 1990s. It was because employers did not want to pay a living wage, not if they didn’t have to. Nothing has changed since 1904. Absence of arbitration simply translates into giving all power to the party who holds the most leverage. This is usually the employer, except for those few really big unions who may not be able to act with integrity; and hence give all unions a bad name.

Earlier this week the ABC's premier current affairs program, Four Corners, presented an insightful story about the pervasiveness of marketing in our culture and the final frontier of targeting infants. Cradle-to-grave consumerism. The group of people trying to highlight the dangers made a lot of sense and any logical analysis of the situation would ring alarm bells. We are creating a problem by allowing un-feted corporate culture dictate the terms of our society. But what I saw from this story was the revealing nature of how we as adults in a 'democratic' society simply stop learning.

If the right-wing think tank was made up of people who continued to learn about the real world, instead of dedicating their lives to increasing their own wealth, then a very different style of conservative doctrine may become evident.

When do people stop learning? When people understood issues they make better decisions, especially where the democratic process is concerned. But these days we stifle critical thinking, we cut finding to education and we stop the process of learning in our adult lives. News is not about knowledge, it's just entertainment.

Ten years ago the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister was told of systems to utilise wheat transportation payments to redirect funds to Iraq and it's government. This made page twelve in the Herald Sun. What does this say about our society and our willingness to know the truth? There should have been thousands upon thousands of people protesting on Canberra. But there wasn't. Because it's futile. We've all given up. We just don't care anymore.

Or is it because the media has stopped reporting the news?

Entertainment is cheaper.

February 26, 2006

Pencil in the Sand

Why do writers write and who do they think they are writing for? Is there a greater purpose to the life of a travel writer than just their own aggrandisement and the pleasures of privilege?

A recent discussion on the banality of columnists raised the question, "What makes someone think that their spin on life's trivial occupations is worth printing in the paper so that millions of other people can read it?" And the reply from such a columnist came, "I don't understand why anyone would find my weekly analysis of urban perspective to be even remotely interesting. I'm just glad they do because it means I don't have to get a proper job."

But I want more than just to avoid getting a job. That's not enough for me. Realising that fact I suddenly found myself a little confused about what were my true motives for being published. Somewhere, mixed in with my aspirations of utilitarianism and a basic love of the greater world, a hint of revenge had crept in.

In recent years I had experienced a bad trot with one travel brand and still feel a deep sense of resentment: they owe me a good deal of money and an even larger measure of respect. There is a voice inside my head that says, "Become really well known for your travel writing and make sure you never print a word about them again! Better still; let's just hope they go broke - which can’t be too improbable given the principles by which they currently operate." Hardly an admirable motivation for writing and publishing.

No, there is far more behind all of this, because it started long before I got my fingers burned. Mine is a craft of creation, not reduction.

I have a desire for photo-journalism; a chance to report on the real faces of the world, to give a voice to the little people and a human dimension to the globalisation of the planet. So how does travel writing fit in here? Isn’t travel just a cop out, a step sideways into the world of fluff and nonsense? Not always. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. Not if it's done well.

In my mind there are two objectives for writing on travel. The first is the readers desire to momentarily escape into a different world and leave their own behind. Why else is the word 'escape' so synonymous with travel? The second is for me to experience more closely the cultural perspectives offered by those more wise than myself. The task of reporting on the world brings me deeper into it.

These two objectives set very clear guidelines for my writing, as I move forward and try to develop my skills. I am seeking to offer an immersion into travel through my words and pictures, but with a very strong flavour of human respect, deeper understanding, and affectionate recognition.

This may take many forms. Highlighting how they are not so different to us, and enjoying that which makes them unique to us. I want to give room for the contemplation of those differences so that I may benefit on a personal level, and reflect upon my own footprints as I study theirs.

In this way the realm of travel becomes a foothold into the greater arena of journalism, all the while serving a justified and valued role. Travel with heart: To enjoy the journey, not just the destination.