We’ve been asking travel and tourism experts whether travel can be a force for good? This week we interview Uncornered Market founders Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott.
Husband-and-wife team Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott run the website uncorneredmarket.com, offering resources, tips and inspiration to travellers. They’ve been travelling the world together since quitting their jobs seven years ago.
WTTC: What positive impacts do you feel travel makes on the world?
Dan & Audrey: In general, the positive impacts of travel are the economic benefit to the community when tourism money stays local, social, and cultural connections that break down barriers and stereotypes, and environmental protection through investment for education and conservation programs that involve the local community members.
When we think of this question, we also think of the concept of the two-way transformational power of travel — where the traveller is transformed by the experience, as is the community he visited through the benefits of economic development and cultural exchange.
And the negatives?
What we’ve sadly seen in many places is that tourism development has led to an erosion of local culture, overdevelopment, economic imbalance (a few people benefit while most in the community don’t), depletion of natural resources (e.g., water, trees, etc.). In these kinds of places we find that interactions between locals and travellers are more dehumanized, as if each looks at each other as a transaction instead of a human being with shared humanity and needs.
How aware are you of the impact you have on the places you visit?
When we travelled to Myanmar in early 2008 tourism was down an estimated 80% because of fears from the recent Saffron Uprising. When we went out to get dinner in Bagan, a big tourist site, we saw rows of restaurants all decked out for travellers, but with either no one or 1–2 people there. After choosing a restaurant we began talking to the owner about how things were going. He had to close down 2 restaurants in other parts of Myanmar because there were no tourists, thereby making redundant close to 20 people in the process. In the restaurant where we were eating he had to reduce staff already in order to make ends meet. We knew that by choosing to eat at his restaurant we were helping to keep those jobs alive, but we were also aware that the restaurants where we didn’t eat were still suffering. So, each night we were there we ate at a different restaurant. And throughout our journey in Myanmar we tried to frequent as many places as we could so that our money could help support the struggling businesses.
What else do you do to make sure you have as positive an impact as possible?
When we travel we try to stay conscious of the impacts — positive and negative — that our actions can have and try to proceed with respect for the local economy, culture and environment. What this means is to make deliberate decisions on how we spend our money with local businesses, take tours with providers invested in the community, engage respectfully with local people, and try to limit the resources we’re using (e.g., take short showers, turn electricity off, etc.).
As travel writers, do you feel a responsibility to promote more positive or ‘responsible’ tourism?
Yes, we do feel a responsibility to promote positive or “responsible” tourism because we know that the tourism industry will only continue to grow. We hope to impact the actions of travellers, as well as have an effect on travellers demanding more responsible experiences.
Do you have any personal experiences of how travel and tourism is having a positive impact on the world?
We’ve been fortunate to see quite a few examples of the travel industry’s positive impact including job creation, economic/social development, educational development, cultural exchange and more. A few examples:
Job creation/economic development: Kyrgyzstan has a strong community based tourism organization called CBT Kyrgyzstan that trains families to be homestay hosts and local horse handlers to be horse trekking guides. Through this program, families have been able to work as hosts and guide, thereby increasing their income and also allowing opportunity for language learning and cultural exchange.
Investment in education: In Bangladesh we spent a few days at a rural homestay. The program was started by a local NGO that had been offering educational classes (e.g., English, computer skills, etc.) as well as training families in clean stoves (and building a clean stove together) and recycling. After learning how to cook Bangladeshi food with the mother, we sat down over dinner with the children who spoke more English. What we learned was that the money from this homestay program was going to fund the daughter’s university program. She was studying political science and wanted to be Prime Minister one day. We got her autograph, just in case.
Cultural exchange: We love the philosophy behind the Zikra Initiative in Jordan — that “everyone has something to share” and “we exchange to change.” In this experience, local woman share their knowledge and skills — crafts, cooking, etc. — while the tourist gets to share his/her culture and language. And then everyone comes together over a home-cooked meal. How much better can you get?
What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen?
It’s hard to pick just one story here, but we’ll try:
Shashi’s Cooking Class in Udaipur in Rajasthan, India: This is Shashi. She is a widow of the Brahmin caste with two sons who live downstairs from a restaurant popular with tourists. When her husband died, she had to follow strict Brahmin caste regulations which means she wasn’t supposed to leave her house or work for the mourning period (about a year). But as her own parents had died and her in-laws ignored her, she had no choice but to send her young sons out to collect laundry before dawn from hotels and guest houses for wash at home in secret to be able to support her children.
Once she exited the mourning period, she began to greet the tourists who were on their way to the restaurant upstairs; a few came inside to drop off bags, drink tea and have snacks with her. An Irish tourist told her, “You’re an amazing cook. You should teach cooking classes. But you’ll need to learn better English.”
Shashi took this to heart and taught herself English, studying with her sons and really practicing with the travellers she met. After a while she had the confidence to print up flyers advertising cooking classes. These are placed in the restaurant upstairs, too.
When we met Shashi her cooking school was several years old. She was teaching, on average, two groups a day from her small kitchen. The classes were personal, instructional, and just a great experience for the traveller.
And for Shashi, she not only earned enough to cover the basics for her family, but when we met her she was able to pay to send her sons to private medical schools and university to study. This was something no one in her family had been able to do. And she did it thanks to tourism in her area.
And have you come across any particularly negative impacts?
Sadly, yes. On the island of Koh Samui in Thailand we saw all of the above — blatant sex tourism, destruction of the environment with resorts built on top of each other close to the beach, cultural erosion as locals were displaced by business people and foreign businesses moved in, and just general overdevelopment. It was quite sad to see, especially as one could see more and more parts of the island succumbing to this style of mass tourism & resort development.
With our blog and social media channels, we encouraged travellers to stay in the non-overly developed part of the island and provided suggestions for locally-owned guest houses and restaurants.
What can governments can do to make sure tourism has as positive an impact as possible?
Governments can enforce zoning laws to be sure that hotels and other tourism companies are not building where they shouldn’t build (e.g., too close to the beach, on forested land, etc.) and that there is balance between the community population and tourist populations, ensure that foreign companies hire local people, incentivize businesses to buy local products/food.
Do you think there are there any parts of the world that should be off-limits to travellers?
Areas that should be off-limits travellers are places with incredibly sensitive eco-systems that travellers could easily destroy by their environmental footprint. Areas that are dangerous — war zones or places that have just experienced environmental disasters — should also be off limits, not only because of the danger to the traveller, but because he would be taking away precious resources from local people.
Does independent travelling have a more positive effect than package tours?
We’ve seen positive and negative examples of both, so it partly depends on the actual traveller. With independent travel one has the ability to spread travel money around to many different businesses, as well as the money is given directly rather than through an intermediary (as is sometimes the case with tours or resorts). Additionally, with independent travel there is usually more one-on-one engagement and interaction with locals. However, packaged tours and resorts can have a larger impact on the local economy because they are bigger — e.g. more people hired, more local food sourced, etc.
Are there are any countries, destinations or travel businesses doing things that particularly inspire you?
The partnership between G Adventures and Planeterra is a good example of bringing sustainable funding sources to local organizations through a steady stream of travellers that contribute to the organization. For example, in northern Tanzania there is a project that works with a local organization that works inside Maasai villages to install clean stoves. With a new partnership, every G Adventures tour that goes to the Serengeti will have a portion of their tour fees go towards buying and installing a new clean stove for a family and the travellers will have a chance to see the installation of a stove and meet Maasai families in an non-tourist village situation. Every group benefits — the NGO gets a source of sustainable funding for activities, more Maasai families receive clean stoves (thereby improving health conditions), and travellers get an experience that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Are there any other travellers or travel writers doing things that particularly inspire you?
Shannon O’Donnell from A Little Adrift and Grassroots Volunteering has been an advocate for deep cultural exchange and role social enterprises can play to bringing together travellers and community organizations.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are the writers’ opinions and do not represent the views of WTTC as an organisation.