Poverty & Tourism
Having spent 6 months living and volunteering in a small jungle village in rural Belize, I kept noticing some issues related to poverty that I knew were universal in developing countries. After finishing my volunteering period I decided to follow up on the observations. Inspired by my life in the Belizean jungle I've decided to write a series of essays on different topics, but always with poverty influencing people's lives on my mind. I've discovered that the world is ruled by the law of the jungle, with the “fittest” (in this context, the richest) ruling the world. Finally I have chosen 8 topics: gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights, education, religion, trash management, tourism, food and volunteering itself. Those essays can be read alone or together, under a common title: "The Law of the Jungle. Poverty's impact on the lives of people in developing countries".
By Anna Gudarowska / filmsforaction.org

Tourist traffic in remote areas

The village we lived in is located about 30 minute drive from the highway. It is the first one, coming from the junction; after that there are several other communities, all of them approximately 30 minute drive from each other. But ours is special.

 

Our village is situated on the bank of a beautiful river, which is flowing out of the mountain – or so it seems. The river is really flowing out of a cave, which people can enter and swim in for about an hour until reaching a high waterfall that is impossible to conquer. The cave has been used by the Maya people as a ceremonial site, long, long ago. Nowadays it is serving as a tourist attraction. One of them. The other natural attraction is a small but challenging hill that can be climbed, rewarding the hiker with a beautiful view of the area. An American university has built a lodge where researchers can stay and study the beautiful nature of the rainforest. To help the researchers – and, consequently, the tourists – observe the forest, they've also built a canopy tour with several platforms connected by zip-lines. Everyone can come and stay at the lodge, and local guides are happy to take them to their farms and houses and to show them how to make traditional corn tortilla or how cacao beans become chocolate.

 

The community lives mainly from small-scale farming. The second most popular occupation – if we don't count the stay-at-home moms, that is – is being a tour guide. Older men would only use the job to supplement their farming income, while the younger ones often choose tourism as their main occupation, only occasionally helping out at the family farms. All of them are officially licensed tour guides.

 

The tourist traffic isn't big enough to support all of the guides, and one of our projects was to build a sign advertising the attractions and put it at the junction by the highway. Many young men would go away for months at a time and live in tourist destinations by the sea. It isn't just out of necessity – a lot of them want to know another life and tourism is their chance to get out, especially if they have no money for university.

 

Tourism in our village supports more than those guides. Local women, almost all of whom are making some kind of traditional hand craft, display their merchandise every time tourists came to go to the cave, or the zip-line. Some of them would get jobs cooking or cleaning when tourists stay at the lodge, while men would become night guards or construction workers for expansion projects. Small local businesses would get more customers and the villagers are thinking about creating new places: a small ice-cream parlour with Wi-Fi or a restaurant with local food. Finally, there is the zip-line itself.

 

The manager of the canopy tour is an American university professor and entrepreneur. He is also a philanthropist, interested in the community that he works in. Aside from some strictly charitable work, he also created a small training program: he asked the village authorities to select 12 men and women who would get trained for free in using the zip-line equipment and guiding the tourists. He knew that he couldn't give jobs to all of them, but since zip-lines are a big thing in Belize, the ones that couldn't get a job there would still have gained a professional skill.

 

Of course, not everyone is happy about the tourism in the village, and there is some jealousy. Generally though, most people are happy with new economical and development opportunities.

 

Visiting the Poor of the world

Tourism is a big industry, both in low- and high-income countries. However, as high-income countries have many other branches of successful industry, the developing ones often count on the visitors to support their economy. In 2012, one in 12 jobs worldwide was in tourism [1, 5], and it accounted for “either the number one or number two export earnings for 20 of the 48 least developed countries, including Tanzania and Samoa.”[1]

 

But where does that money go? For many years there has been a trend for tourists to stay in big resorts, which look the same no matter if they're in Thailand or Mexico, or Egypt. People – mostly Europeans and Americans – can go there and feel like home, with air-condition, continental breakfast and comfortable beds. Those resorts, though often situated in poor countries, are usually owned by foreign investors; local people are mostly hired as maids, security guards, cooks and – if they're lucky – managers. Depending on the country they can make a relatively big amount of money from salary or tips, but still nothing compared to what the boss makes. More often than not, the taxes don't even stay in the country, because the enterprise is registered in another place. So the entrepreneurs, whose business relies also on the local infrastructure, don't contribute in any significant way to the development of the country.

 

Many tourist activities destroy the local environment, and infrastructure can have disastrous effects on the ecosystems. Inconsiderable tourists often leave the place full of trash and the biodiversity disturbed. They can destroy the art and disturb the environment – all things that could be prevented by education. They often choose to buy souvenirs made in some factories in China or India, as opposed to locally handmade products, thus contributing to “slave labour” and directing their money to wealthy capitalists instead of supporting the workers themselves.

 

However, the trend is changing. Institutions like the Travel Foundation [2], based in the UK, make sure that the money from visitors goes directly to local communities. For example, the Maasai village tours in Kenya are now really supporting the development of those villages, instead of filling the pockets of foreign entrepreneurs.

 

There are some foreigners who decide to move to poor countries and set up some sort of tourist business – a lot of those are conscious of their surroundings and do want to be fair to the people who are now their neighbours – I've personally met such entrepreneurs in both Belize and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Those people recognize that they're guests on this land and they try to use their knowledge and experience to genuinely help the local community.

 

It is not only the foreigners who get to develop the tourist industry. With help from small loans or grants, local people start to take the business into their own hands – they build their own restaurants, eco-retreats, tour-guide businesses. Lori Robertson brings the example of an Ecolodge in Bolivia, founded with the help of a US environmental organization. The lodge has been owned by a local community for more than 10 years and provides jobs and income for 70 families [1].

 

In turn, worldwide education has made tourists from high-income countries more conscious about the places they choose to vacation in. More and more people prefer the stay in a poor jungle village to big resorts, because they are more authentic, exotic, and support the locals. They want to meet the real people, not see a spectacle directed by foreign tour-operators. They want to taste the food that locals eat, even if it tastes strange and doesn't look like a restaurant meal. They want to sleep in a hammock, bake their own tortilla, eat cassava bread and milk the goat. They usually refer to themselves as travellers, not tourists. I've met an American family in Belize, the parents came with their 9-year-old daughter to the primary school in the village and talked to the principal about the education system in Belize. Then they asked if their daughter could stay in the classroom for half a day and see how children from other parts of the world learn. It seemed like a really good idea to me, especially since the local students were also very curious about the girl, and soon they all seemed to be good old friends.

 

The internet is helping a lot, connecting travellers with potential hosts. There are numerous websites promoting responsible travelling, like Conscious.Travel [3]. There are also other ways, for example many platforms which connect travellers, who are willing to work in exchange for accommodation and food, with people and organizations who need some help. However, those are usually not well-known among the poor. In Belize, people can use the Maya Village Homestay Network [4] which has a database of families in rural areas who are willing to take in travellers and for a small fee let them stay with the family for 2-3 days, teaching them about their daily lives. The money would go to the families, who definitely could use the additional income, while travellers would learn a lot from such a stay.

 

Learning about the great new fashion for conscious travelling, even the big resorts try to cooperate with local people, buying local products for their kitchen, hiring local guides, etc. They will brag about this in their promotional materials, gaining the advantage over other hotels, who then have to “catch up” by involving the locals as well. Although most of the capital still stays in the foreign pocket, the trend for the better is there.

 

What does it mean?

Travelling is a great form of education; you will never learn from the books like you learn from experience. Conscious travelling is another level of experience, which can teach more than just the history and heritage sites of the country. It teaches culture and traditions, but more importantly, it teaches openness.

 

Campaigns about entrepreneurship opportunities for the people living in local communities could be very useful in some places. These people can be just as creative as westerners, just as hard working (usually more) – they just need the opportunity to leave behind the vicious cycle of poverty and they can thrive! Some people just need a little bit of confidence, someone to believe in them. Others, just some financial advice; yet others could use small loans for a start, or advertising ideas. Those are all things that can be provided relatively easily and should be encouraged. These are the tools which help the Poor to build their own path away from poverty, instead of just receiving money as charity. This is what most of them wants – not a handout, but a way to make a sustainable living in dignity.

 

We need to encourage wealthy travellers to experience local life as much as they can, instead of staying behind the hotel wall. Even going to local restaurants, Robertson says [1], is a step in the right direction. And isn't it a great feeling, to know that just by sitting in a small wooden shack and enjoying freshly-caught fish, you are helping the Poor? That every dollar you spend on a local market, buying juicy, exotic fruits, not only gets you a healthy snack, but helps to put dinner on some family's table? I was very happy to see foreign tourists in Punta Gorda town, Belize, buying handmade bracelets from village women. Those bracelets, costing 5 USD each, would be given away as souvenirs, but it's not about the buying, it's about the intent. Most of the buyers clearly did it not for the need of bracelets, but for supporting the locals.

 

So next time you feel bad about spending lots of money on your travels– don't! Just make sure that the products you buy are locally made, and even if your friends don't like the souvenirs or the shrimps in coconut sauce don't taste the way you imagined, at least you can be sure that you have helped somebody.

So what's your next destination?

 

If you like this article and are interested in reading more, download the free e-book "The Law of the Jungle. Poverty's impact on the lives of people in developing countries".

 

References:

  1. Robertson, Lori. “How tourism can alleviate poverty.” BBC Travel. 21 Mar 2013. Web. 7 June 2015.

  2. TheTravelFoundation.org.uk. Web. 7 June 2015.

  3. Conscious.TravelI. Web. 7 June 2015.

  4. Maya Village Homestay Network.” SounthernBelize.com. Web. 7 June 2015.

  5. Tourism and Poverty Alleviation.” World Tourism Organization Network. Web. 7 June 2015.

 

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