I live in Central America where it is not an uncommon occurrence to see a group of young, international travelers with their oversized backpacks struggling to find a seat on those infamous “chicken” busses while a bus full of curious people chuckle at their obvious discomfort of riding four to a seat. Central America, like dozens of other regions around the world, is a hot spot for tourists of all types, and is increasingly affecting the economies of dozens of small communities.
As the tourism industry grows, however, the economic opportunities are increasingly concentrated into the hands of wealthy groups and individuals who invest in the tourist hotspots. With detailed guidebooks such as “The Lonely Planet” and “Central America on a Shoestring”, many travelers arrive with a detailed itinerary which will take them only through a somewhat established tourist “route” thus depriving the traveler of an opportunity to discover the hidden wonders of the places they´re visiting and likewise depriving the local communities of an opportunity to economically benefit from the tourism industry.
The Problems with the Tourism Industry
According to a report by UNESCO regarding community tourism efforts in Asia, communities in India involved in community eco-tourism projects saw a 25% increase in their income. Additionally, a WTO study reports that tourism accounts for 5% of the world´s GDP.
Community based tourism projects can help to alleviate poverty through two general strategies: increasing income and helping communities exercise more control over their territory. The first strategy is the most obvious as the tourism industry creates a massive influx of wealth into certain communities. The problem is that this influx of wealth is often concentrated in the hands of wealthier people with the affluence and knowledge to take advantage of the tourist market.
When planning a vacation or a backpacking trip through Central America, for example, the resources available to most travelers will only lead them to regions, destinations, and lodging and food choices where the imbalanced “nature of tourism investment” is already well-established to the detriment of local communities.
Unless you have some sort of direct contact with small, rural communities that are removed from the tourism circuit, what other opportunities might exist for the traveler to go beyond the well-worn tourist path to explore the unexplored and economically empower rural communities through their travels?
Tourism as a Commons
In the small community of El Salvador where my family and I live, every weekend, tourists bring thousands of dollars into our community. Like most other tourist regions, however, most of this money is left in the hands of wealthy investors from San Salvador who have come to invest in the tourism business in a place they have no connection to.
The hotels, restaurants, and even tours to the beautiful areas of the mountains are owned and operated by people completely separated from the mostly peasant and agrarian reality of the region. The young people are left with nothing more than some very poorly paid jobs that are well below the national minimum wage.
Tourism, then, instead of being an impulse that generates decent economic opportunities for the young people of the area, has become a profit opportunity for people who are not part of the local communities.
Recently, a group of young people from the community came together to come up with a strategy to make the tourism industry work for them and their families. The young people believed that if everyone in the community participated in the construction and preservation of the conditions that allow for tourism, then the community should have the right to participate in the economic and social benefits tourism brings. The tourism industry, then, was seen as a “commons” or a common resource that needed to be managed collectively so that they greatest amount of people possible could benefit from the economic opportunities brought by tourism.
There are hundreds of community tourism cooperatives, collectives, and groups in Central America alone who are seeking to “rescue” the tourism industry for the good of their communities. The ethical traveler, he or she who wants her tourism dollars to benefit the people in the places they visit, would do well to search for ways to organize their travel through these groups.
The Benefits of Self-Guided Travel
There are natural wonders to be explored and vibrant cultures to be enjoyed anywhere you decide to travel. By sticking to the suggestions of the guidebook alone, you are missing out on much adventure and run the risk of encountering a devalued cultural experience.
By choosing to travel off the beaten path, you will undoubtedly stumble upon opportunities to experience authentic culture. Instead of experiencing places where the local population has learned to offer pizza instead of tamales to tourists, you might find places where people will open up their lives and livelihoods so that you can truly experience other ways of relating to the world around us.
Some Tools to Help You Prepared Your Trip off the Beaten Path
Travelling off the beaten path might very well offer opportunities to explore authentic culture, find beautiful, hidden natural wonders, and experience a side of reality that you could never find elsewhere. However, it´s worth noting that this sort of travel might come with a few more challenges.
First and foremost, it is important to be prepared for the places you are travelling to. You most likely won´t be able to find a 5-star hotel with air conditioning where you can comfortably sit through muggy, 100 degree days or several day long rainstorms during hurricane season. Preparing for the weather for the places you are travelling to can go a long way into making your vacation a memorable experience instead of a miserable trip.
This traveler´s app by Weatherbug has several important functions to help you plan out your “off the beaten path” travel. From information on how to stay prepared for Hurricane season, up to date Doppler radar, and even tourism statistics on places you are thinking of visiting, this app will make sure that even if you are heading into the deepest of jungles, you well at least be prepared for the weather you´ll find there.
Furthermore, Weatherbug also reports on other, less common climatic conditions such as air quality so that’s you´ll know whether or not to stay indoors when exploring some metropolis. You can also receive updates related to the nearest and most recent lightning strike to your location which is a great way to determine whether severe weather is nearby.
The Art of Travel
While you could travel to the same places that everyone visits, take the same pictures, buy the same souvenirs, and eat at the same restaurants, travelling off the beaten tourist path will allow you to support local eco-tourism efforts for the benefit of small communities, experience authentic culture, and satisfy your need for adrenaline by exploring places that few outsiders have ever been to. With a little bit of research and preparation, you can make sure that your travels truly make a difference, both for your own life and for the lives of the communities you visit.