Today (November 7) Is Responsible Tourism Day: Resistance Is Futile

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 7 November 2012
Penan villager standing near tree in Borneo

This Penan villager is descendant of the original jungle dwellers in Borneo. The practice of responsible tourism is essential when visiting. Photo courtesy of flickr/Moving Mountains Trust

In the year 2000, I discovered something called the Viridian Design Movement (VDM). Not quite about traditional environmentalism, it had been founded two years earlier and hooked into ‘bright green‘ ideas that emphasised changes in technology and design, as well as social innovations, as a means to achieve sustainable ends.

I discovered the VDM through Bruce Sterling, the well-known cyberpunk author, but lost sight of it after a time, only to re-engage in 2008, right about when Sterling officially announced the end of the VDM. The reason: the world had become a different place.

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism,” wrote Sterling. “Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Instead, Sterling sees “Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.”

And so it should be with responsible and sustainable travel.

Stop Making Stupid Excuses

I am writing this on Election Day in the US. It’s a day when everyone should proudly add to the tally in determining the leadership of this country for the next four years. Unlike in too many other countries, where people must brave the threat of physical violence to wait for hours to vote, here in the US we can choose if and when to stroll to the polls. But it’s considered a great turnout if only 60 percent of eligible voters face a ballot.

What are the other 40 percent doing? Most are making sucky excuses that no one should have patience for. Let me be blunt: they can be roundly blamed for having been an inconsiderate part of the problems we face as a nation.

And so it should be with responsible and sustainable travel.

Your Lack of Action Is a True Reflection of What You Believe

I was trying to describe to my inquisitive five-year-old son why transformative leaders are so venerated. From amongst the multitude of reasons I gave, he was most transfixed by the courage these leaders show in bucking trends – sometimes even breaking unjust laws – to marshal popular movements in the quest for a better quality of life in a more virtuous society.

But ethically minded influencers willing to risk their lives, limbs, reputations and earning streams in the interest of the greater good are sadly uncommon. We need lots of people in leadership position to step up or step aside.

And so it should be with responsible and sustainable travel.

Wait, What Does This Have to Do with Responsible and Sustainable Travel?

Well, first off, today is World Responsible Tourism Day. In long anticipation of this day, back in late February I wrote an essay, republished on this blog, called Why Aren’t More Bloggers Writing About Responsible Travel? In it I lamented inertia in the travel industry that has fed the apparent unwillingness of many leading travel writers to, well, to lead.

And by leadership I mean thoughtful and transformative example-setting actions that inspire a whole new generation of content creators to do something other than promote bad practices and sorry stereotypes.

Specifically, I asked why “the new generation of penmen and -women [isn’t] stepping into an expanding vacuum? Why aren’t more of you – buttressed by blogging skills and vocal in your frustrated desire to be recognised for your craft – helping to drive the kind of change that positions you as leaders? More nimble, more imaginative, more bold and less reliant on traditional revenue sources, you have little stopping you.”

I was heartened by the great many positive responses to my piece, but I was also taken to task on my admonishment of people unhappy writing about something under a label they might not want or agree with. “Bloggers needn’t feel obligated to write about ‘responsible tourism’ or anything else unless the topic interests them and they feel that they have something to contribute,” commented one.

The thing is: I agree. My point wasn’t necessarily that people should write about the idea of responsible tourism (although I encourage that as well), but that they write whatever they like and include smarter choices about what they cover and how they cover it. Despite what many people believe, for every large-group bus tour there is a small-group walking tour. For every tour operator who shows no interest in the communities put on display, there is another that can share the unique qualities of a destination in a way that incorporates community interests. For every foreign-owned agency keeping profits off shore there is a local agency reinvesting in immediate community needs. In all cases, the alternatives are often cheaper and more immersive.

So what’s holding people back from taking a more active leadership role in redefining the industry, in choosing to spotlight mindful tourism practitioners (with or without any special label) at a time when the mainstream industry isn’t? Usually stupid excuses. After all, if identifying ethical showcase material is really quite easy, then complaints about limited time and extra effort are completely unfounded. Anyone who complains of this is showing just how lazy they are.

Think about it: by making responsible and sustainable travel product so ubiquitous that there’s no longer a sense of it as ‘alternative,’ its champions are doing as Sterling has observed – helping “sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space.” We’re adding oomph to the fair travel crusade by giving consumers what they want and, just as critically, rejecting what is wrong with irresponsible travel.

Responsible and sustainable practices are now increasingly mainstream across many industries. And well they should be given modern preoccupations. Unsustainable practices in tourism are being replaced too, but with the evolutionary speed of a beast aware of its own imminent extinction. When will we all just accept that resistance is futile?

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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2 Responses to “Today (November 7) Is Responsible Tourism Day: Resistance Is Futile”

  1. Len says:

    I enjoyed reading this Ethan. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoyed Obama’s acceptance speach ….where passion and a vision were front and centre.

    I would really like to see “The Travel Word” become more of a platform for people with a vision and a message.

  2. Ron Mader says:

    Sterling essay, Ethan!

    What will it take to carry Responsible Tourism onward and upward? How about a campaign that calls for an official UN-mandated ‘International Year of Responsible Tourism?’ How about a country-by-country overview of which tourism portals even mention the words ‘responsible travel?’ How about a call for innovative grassroot events, talks, tours during Responsible Tourism Week (Feb 11-17, 2013)?

    I’m only responsible for the last bit but I’d love to collaborate with optimistic visionaries who are compelled to put into action the ethos that responsible travel is better than irresponsible tourism, that sustainable travel is better than unsustainable travel, that ecotourism is better than … you get the idea.

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