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.