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Fair-trade travelling

Complex issues

by Harald A. Friedl
50 days to Timbuktu – enough time for tourists to experience the “desert silence”

50 days to Timbuktu – enough time for tourists to experience the “desert silence”

Ever since the early days of organised long-distance travelling some 50 years ago, the question arises whether tourism is beneficial to those “visited” in developing countries. Opinions on the topic differ widely. [ By Harald A. Friedl ]

Those in favour of tourism say that culturally interested and wealthy travellers bring foreign exchange to remote areas and help create new jobs by buying regional services and products. Tourists, it is argued, support economic and social stability in an environmentally friendly way – perfect for developing countries.

Opponents, however, see masses of gawking, culturally uninterested tourists enjoying themselves at the expense of the “visited”. They leave behind dirt and disappointment – which is counterproductive to sustainable development.

Both positions are oversimplified. Neither does tourism bring showers of gold, free of investment and charge, nor are most travellers cultural zombies. To start understanding the complex effects of tourism on development, one needs to start asking: “How?”

Culture clashes

In development discourse, the history of tourism shows a big yearning for simple solutions to “change the world”. In the 1960s, air travel became a fast and comparatively cheap means of mass transport. That was the beginning of a historically unparalleled boom of long-distance tourism as anyone with enough money could quickly reach “exotic” destinations.

Modernisation theory assumed that those “visited” would almost automatically benefit: modernisation would be stimulated and people would start companies, guiding their country onto a path of growth like the industrialised countries.

At the time, development aid in tourism basically meant support for big hotel complexes. The beneficiaries were usually Western building and operating companies as well as the local elite. The needy and unqualified lower classes had to put up with menial jobs. Unpleasant side effects, such as waste and sewage, however, had to be borne by society at large.

Moreover, tourist culture was sometimes offensive. Tourists took photos of whatever they could and went shopping half naked, without ever communicating with the local population. Such attitudes reinforced the cliché of tourism as a new form of colonialism.

Complex phenomenon

Clichés are important, as they contain a grain of truth and provide a sense of orientation. But beyond that, differentiation is called for. It makes sense to ask how tourism can be made beneficial to development.
The social system of tourism is a complex phenomenon with many different interacting elements:
– a culture of curiosity,
– a media system that stimulates yearnings,
– means of transportation and hotel chains,
– culture-mediating tour operators and tourist guides as well as
– travel destinations with natural or cultural attractions.

To put it in extreme terms: tourism corresponds to the entire world being permeated by Western culture. Accordingly, sound tourism is quite difficult to achieve.

In Austria, the myth persists that a bed under a roof will do: German tourists will always come, because of the beautiful landscape, the good food and the Austrians “Gemütlichkeit”. Yet today’s “adventure tourist” is quite different from the past’s loyal “summer vacationist” at Wörthersee. In Austria, many hotel beds stay empty these days. Even rich nations struggle to attract tourists, and the effort is not always rewarding in business terms.

Big investments in infrastructure, companies, human resources and attractions are needed to make tourism profitable. Travellers are not looking for nature itself, but for their idea of nature. Tourism operators have to understand the needs of their potential customers and keep innovating if they want to stay in business.

Package tourism is no panacea for underdeveloped regions. In fact, specific types of products depend on specific legal environments. Each tourist is different, moreover. More and more people are not just looking for a mise-en-scène holiday. They are after an “authentic” experience of a foreign culture, ready to abandon five-star comforts. For these clients, travel has to be environmentally acceptable and must fit socio-cultural norms. Moreover, they want people at the destination to be remunerated appropriately.

All these issues matter ever more as tourist programmes are increasingly based on local resources, such as
– environmentally friendly building materials,
– regionally produced food,
– local transportation and
– traditional know-how.

Whenever tourists consume something from the region they are travelling in, they are contributing to demand and thus to the creation of jobs – be it on farms, in handicrafts, among donkey drivers or elsewhere.

Fair-trade growth

A holistic concept of fair trade tourism can be profitable, as is shown by the Graz-based company Weltweitwandern, which has been certified for its corporate social responsibility (CSR). Weltweitwandern organises environmentally and socially friendly trekking tours all around the globe. Customers are guided by regional guides. They stay in local hostels and eat typical regional food.

In exchange for the cultural and environmental surplus, the host families get a fair remuneration. In the fashion of “fair trade” products, Weltweitwandern also supports social projects: a solar-powered school in Lingshed, Ladakh/India, for instance, or intercultural training for Himalayan and Moroccan guides, which is provided in cooperation with the Respect Institute for Tourism and Development.

Most fair trade customers belong to the LOHAS segment. This acronym stands for “lifestyle of health and sustainability”. LOHAS people have enough money to consume authentic, healthy and ethically acceptable products. And they are willing to pay more for the “luxury” of not feeling guilty.

The LOHAS target group consists of highly educated people between 30 and 60. Their incomes are comparatively crisis-proof. Thanks to this group – approximately 15 to 30 % of the Western population – the market for fair trade, ethical and organic products is growing fast. The trend also applies to tourism and explains Weltweitwandern’s success. This company has grown substantially since its foundation, even during the economic crisis. Ethical standards seem to pay off, after all.

Compared with the giant market for conventional long-distance travelling, fair trade tourism is undoubtedly a mere niche. But it is growing exceptionally fast and contributes to disseminating a more responsible corporate and consumer culture.

Social standards

Forumandersreisen provides more proof of the growing relevance of this kind of tourism. This association of alternative tour operators was founded in 1998. It subscribes to strict environmental and social criteria. Nonetheless – or perhaps as a result? – the number of members has grown to 150 in the past 12 years. Altogether, the member companies serve more than 120,000 travellers per year.

On average, members’ revenues amount to € 1.7 million per year. The trend is upwards. The same is true of membership. In cooperation with tour operators, the Centre for Ecology and Development (KATE), Germany’s Protestant Church Development Service (EED) and the trade union federation UniEurope, “forumandersreisen” has established a range of simple and inexpensive instruments for reporting on the implementation of CSR programmes and other sustainability issues.

Replacing traditional livelihoods

Tourism is particularly important in places where it substitutes for old livelihoods that are becoming un­viable. Tuareg craftsmen in the Central Sahara, for instance, lost their traditional Nomad clients due to social change. But thanks to the arrival of tourism, they found a new big-spending clientele.

The craftsmen live a freewheeling life on the fringes of society. They adapted quickly to the taste of their new customers, transferring Tuareg motives to items popular among Western tourists, such as letter openers or teaspoons. This is a fine, though rare example of innovation triggered by cultural and commercial exchange with tourists.

It is certainly good for craftsmen to make a living as producers and vendors of souvenirs. But the decisive challenge for tourism as a developmental strategy is to redistribute tourism revenues to local people.

In the Tuareg region of Central Sahara in Niger, the economic dynamics are concentrated on the urban centre of Agadez. This is where travel groups are accommodated, equipped and supplied with artisan craftwork. Some tour operators also subsidise neighbouring valleys, where residents can no longer make a living from animal husbandry and horticulture.

Typically, villages only benefit if they are situated along the classic travel routes. In Timia, for instance, tangerines, oranges and grapes are produced for the Agadez market and also sold to passing travel groups. However, tour operators often deliberately bypass these villages. Officially, they do so because they do not wish to spoil their clients’ experience of desert “silence”. In truth, they want to save additional accommodation costs.

This isolation strategy forces some people to take most inconvenient measures: young jewellery merchants, for example, walk long distances in order to intercept travel groups at the edge of the Ténéré desert.

Value adding camel treks

In the Tuareg region, the highest regional value added comes from camel trekking. Nomads rent out their camels and use the money to purchase further animals. The bigger a camel herd, the more profitable and attractive a caravan – and the better the chance of survival for a Nomad family. At the same time, traditional handicraft benefits from the demand for camel saddles.

Many trekking routes pass along remote settlements, supporting respectful contact between tourists and the Tuareg. Local people, moreover, have an opportunity to sell their products. In this way, tourism contributes to supporting the traditional economies of remote places and linking them to the mainstream. Furthermore, tourists pay Nomads to take photographs of shepherds in indigo clothing on proud camels, which many Nomads view as both acknowledgement and advertising.

Become engaged

Tourism can also help to get development projects started. For instance, some tourists returned to the Timia oasis to help, and a French pensioner founded the society “Les Amis de Timia” in 1997. This society organises projects to support the traditional economy as well as healthcare and educational services. It also promotes an orderly development of tourism.

Of course, there are always some drawbacks. However, tourism to remote areas cannot be prevented. Therefore, development cooperation must make efforts to make use of and to keep environmental and social damage in check. Preferably, tourism as we know it would give way to sustainable tourism. This is a huge challenge for post-modern development cooperation.