Ask Nicaraguans taking English classes why they want to learn English, and I’ll bet the majority of them say, “Because I want to be a tour guide.” Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Nicaragua. It is a people-oriented business, geared to revitalizing local communities and providing many jobs. However, like other industries, tourism has its downsides such as: ecological degradation, locals forced to relocate because of increased cost of housing, food, transportation, and other services, loss of cultural heritage, increased petty crime, and economic dependence on foreigners.
We are victims of our own popularity. We’ve seen the impact mainstream tourism has on our tiny Ometepe Island. Its long-term effects on our local island communities have led many of our expats and local islanders to explore programs offering alternative vacations. The problems that go with mainstream tourism will doom Ometepe Island if left untethered. The proposed Nicaraguan canal could prove to be an ecological disaster. (I’m writing a post about the canal soon.) Sustainable tourism is the perfect alternative for responsible travelers seeking educational and low-impact adventures that will benefit the local communities of Ometepe Island.
Notice that I use the word ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists.’ A tourist visits to be entertained by experiences and images created especially for the tourist market. Think…luaus…beach cocktails with paper umbrellas…going somewhere just to check it off the list…white sneakers…camera draped around the neck…you get the picture. A traveler…blends in with the locals…travels by local transportation…considers a trip a journey or a quest…researches, plans, and explores the culture.
Before developing programs, we need to know what responsible travelers really want, what resources we have available on our Biosphere Reserve, and how we can provide sustainable tourism that respects both the local people and the travelers, the cultural heritage, and our environment. In order to understand the needs of travelers, first, we must learn the codes of responsible travelers.
The Codes of Responsible Travelers
1. Prepare in Advance
Travelers learn about the culture, customs, history, and language of foreign lands long before their passports are stamped. They are avid researchers. Ask a traveler for a list of websites, blogs, and books to read and you’ll be surprised at the number of resources a traveler can recall off the top of his/her head. Travelers tend to be expert packers, too. They have memorized the airport codes and know the best days and times to book a flight, or all the locations of the local bus stops, including a schedule of the times of departure.
2. Choose the Right Tour Operator
Travelers choose home stays and locally operated hotels and hostels over expensive resource-consuming international hotels. They select tours that support small-scale projects and employ local guides. They seek tours that are designed with the input of the local community.
3. Respect Local Customs, Cultures, and Lifestyles
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…the mantra of travelers. They are sensitive to the intrusion of photographing people and places. They respect the local customs and try to “fit in”. Offensive behaviors such as drunkenness, sexual advances, and improper dress are avoided at all costs. Travelers accept that people have different, not wrong or inferior, ways of living. They understand the myths of poverty and instead of tossing money to beggars, they offer them clothes, shelter, or food.
4. Consider the Impact of Presence
Travelers eat the local food, not only because it’s adventuresome, but because the expenditure will stay in the country. They shun McDonald’s and Burger King, instead going for places with names like Pizza Hot or the Mini-Super. They avoid buying products that are made from protected species, never litter, and try to conserve limited local non-renewable resources like firewood or water. They enjoy cold showers…
and local drinks. They are aware of the impact of tourism on the people and places that they visit. Travelers are careful when bargaining that they don’t exploit the local vendors. They walk, run, hike, bike, and explore the country using local transportation instead of large, energy-consuming tour buses.
5. Present Yourself Realistically
Travelers learn to speak the language and present themselves as citizens of the world. They share ideas and other information with the local people about their social, economic, and environmental realities in their home countries. They do not glamorize their lifestyles or their culture. They focus on similarities, instead of differences. They empathize.
6. Continue the Experience
When travelers return home, they often share their stories…but they DO so much more. They are activists. Travelers are not content simply sharing photos of their experiences. They join human rights and environmental protection groups, volunteer their services, and share their experiences in the hopes that we can all become citizens of the world. Travelers are our eyes without borders, our dreams and hopes for a better future, our voices for those who cannot advocate for themselves.
The six codes of responsible travelers were taken from the UNESCO website called Being a Traveler-Six General Principles.