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.

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