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Alison Stein Wellner

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Will Your Vacation Destroy Your Destination?

Posted: 02/25/08 03:43 PM ET

There is a battle brewing in the Bahamas, involving all the Commonwealth's veins of lifeblood: its natural beauty, its economy, its people, and of course, tourism.

The controversy is centered in Guana Cay, an island where the San Francisco-based Discovery Land Company plans to build a 595 acre, $500 million resort. A citizens' group called Save Guana Cay Reef Association is suing the Commonwealth to stop it, fearing that leaching from the planned golf course will destroy the coral reef surrounding the island and that a marina that will be carved out of a mangrove swamp will also cause irreparable damage. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the island has previous experience with developers. "Disney's Big Red Boat cruise ship anchored off the island for five years, and the operators dredged a channel, damaging a portion of the reef before abandoning the project in 1993."

Someone cleaned up the damage though--the very developers who want to build their new resort project. "Discovery Land cleaned up the site, which is within its proposed development. That earned it the support of some Guana Cay residents."

It's a complicated matter, and the Commonwealth's Supreme Court will eventually decide it. (To follow this story in words and images, see Erik Gauger's project, Rise Up Sweet Island.) But the controversy, and all the arguments on either side, are by no means particular to the Bahamas. As just one example, I wrote a story about Roatán, one of the Caribbean islands off the coast of Honduras, for Men's Journal's February issue. A new cruise ship terminal is under construction there, which will bring one million tourists on cruise ships per year to the island within five years--up from 300,000 per year today. The concerns there are similar: environmental damage and cultural degradation on the one hand versus economic development and the spot on the map that comes from being a tourist magnet on the other. And of course, we don't have to go abroad to find similar: off of South Carolina on the Sea Islands, there's the struggle to keep the Gullah-Geechee culture alive--here, golf tourism is also the encroaching force, and heritage tourism seen as a solution.

It's all the traveler's version of the observer's paradox--that this unique thing that you're going to go visit, whether it's natural beauty, or a distinctive culture, or what have you, is influenced by your presence, and changed. I'm not one to think that this is absolutely a bad thing. Unlike a conservative or some conservationists, I accept that change is inevitable in general. In travel, some of what gets changed is good--modern plumbing is generally, for instance, a health-positive change. And while I applaud the rise of voluntourism--the idea of making volunteering the centerpiece of your vacation--I'm also a bit exhausted on everyone's behalf by the idea of it. We work hard in this country! We take very little vacation time! During that short period of time, shouldn't we take a break from the puritan work ethic and the guilt of the privileged?

At the same time, I don't think we can ethically leave our sense of citizenship and stewardship at home along with our wilting houseplants. And I can't say I have a well- developed policy statement prepared on what travelers should and shouldn't do, where they should stay and what they should visit and exactly what they should leave behind or take away. It's a complicated subject.

But there is one thing I think all travelers should consider, particularly as we visit environmentally or culturally sensitive areas, which are as often as not in the developing world. And that is the concept of "leakage," which has nothing to do with plumbing whatsoever. Leakage is the money you spend in a destination that does not stay in the local economy that you're visiting. And there's a lot leakiness going on: For every $100 a tourist from a developed nation spends in a developing nation, only $5 only stays in the local economy, according to this United Nations Environmental Programme analysis of the economic impact of tourism.

The report goes on to explain this all in detail, but it seems to me that the more we demand that a destination provide us with the comforts of home, the more leakage we will create. In small economies, 40% to 50% of leakage comes from the products that are imported for our consumption during our visit. Another goodly share comes from tourism profits leaving the country, as infrastructure costs are paid by overseas investors who naturally (and properly) take their profits home with them. "Enclave tourism"--all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships--are almost all leakage, as these are almost never run or funded by locals--as is the case in Guana Cay.

It is uncomfortable to be in a different place, away from all that we know, love...and let's face it, are bored by, or we wouldn't be traveling in the first place. So it's for the good of the place you're visiting and probably your own soul to get a little uncomfortable. Don't try to replicate home--it's good to miss things. While you're away, strive to be as authentically local as possible. Eat local food, stay at locally-owned accommodations, try to let the people who live there keep as much of your money as you can. It's not like the people you're visiting have easy choices about how to best protect their home culture or environment--and it's not that they will always make decisions that you'll agree with--but to leave the decision in local hands seems to be a dignified first step.


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