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It would be wrong to imagine that partying in a foreign country is by definition diametrically opposed to either sustainable tourism or responsible tourism. On the other hand, several parties around the world do have a reputation for excess, for drugs, for environmental damage and cultural pollution. Perhaps the best example to take to discuss this topic is famous (or infamous) Full Moon Party on Phangan Island in Thailand.
Koh Phangan is Thailand’s fifth biggest island. It is a designated eco-tourist area that retains 90% of its original rain forest cover thanks to zoning and a population keen to avoid the mistakes made on the neighboring island of Samui.
Until the Full Moon Party really started to attract large numbers of people to the island it was a quiet place famous for its laid back atmosphere, simple bungalows and low-key backpacker and hippy tourist industry.
That all changed in the early 2000s as news of the Full Moon Party spread far and wide and attracted a party minded set of young people to the island. In many cases these new devotees of Koh Phangan cared very little about Thai culture, picking up a few words of the language or staying in cheap fan bungalows on the beach. Whereas, they don’t openly smoke marijuana on the beach they do raid the pharmacies prior to the party and organize other class A substances for the party. Since nothing is smoked openly on the beach the organizers and authorities can claim the party is now ‘clean’.
This is very far from responsible tourism. The locals gain a bad impression of foreigners, Thai culture is not respected and money is being funneled into the hands of the gangs.
It is a pity because the original parties were a chance for locals and tourists to mingle and get to know each other. Parties are very much part of Thai culture, since having fun, drinking and smoking a bit of weed was never really frowned on until tourism highlighted this part of Thai culture that does not fit in with American values.
In short, there is nothing wrong with partying with the locals. It can be done in the right way. Big commercial events that pollute the beach and create large black markets are not sustainable or desirable in the long run.
Responsible Tourism is commonly regarded as a set of behaviors that has the same goal as sustainable tourism: namely, the development of a sustainable system of tourism that benefits tourists, local inhabitants and the environment.
It is possible to break down responsible tourism into the following behaviors according to the Cape Town Declaration:
- Minimize negative economic, environmental and social impacts
- Improve the economy for the host community
- Involve local people in decision making that impacts their lives
- To make a positive contribution to the conservation of environmental and cultural resources of the host area
- Provide more opportunity for meaningful interactions between tourists and local inhabitants
- Increase cultural sensitivity and maintain the pride and dignity of the host community
The success of responsible tourism is not simply in the hands of the foreign visitor. Because the goal is to benefit the local inhabitants there has to be shops, accommodation, tours and transport that is controlled by the local inhabitants in order for this to happen. Although many tourist locations will employ ‘local’ people to work in the tourist business, it is often the case that the owners and the main financial beneficiaries of tourism are people who come from and live outside of the host community. In many cases the owners are foreigners from Europe, America or China with priorities based on the profit motive, not the welfare of the local people or the preservation of the local environment.
To be a responsible tourist it is often necessary to be pro-active; to by-pass the travel agent system and to eschew the traditional hotel. This is what humane tourism attempts to do by using the internet to arrange host family situations where the tourist lives with the locals and gets to experience life as the locals do.
There is risk in this approach as trust is needed on both sides. Moreover, many traditional tourists are reluctant to forego the luxuries of beach front accommodation, swimming pools and room service.
Another challenge to meeting the criteria of responsible tourism is language. Meaningful interactions are limited when a common language is not shared. Traditionally conversations between tourists have been based upon the nexus of services and goods – which means asking for prices, ordering food, inquiring about transport times etc. To get beyond this better communication skills are required on both sides as well as a change in mind-sets: tourists must take a genuine interest in the life and traditions of the host people, and the local inhabitants have to stop viewing tourists as simply a means of making money.
The final challenge for the responsible tourist is preserving the environment and local culture. It can be hard to carry home two weeks of trash with you. Just consuming bottles of water, coke and imported alcohol means a large carbon expenditure. Moreover, coastal communities often find it hard to maintain decent sanitation and waste disposal. Sadly, the only solution is often burning or landfill. While local products should be preferred it is often hard to choose the least polluting products to buy. Information about this can be hard to come by. Perhaps some areas are too important in terms of biodiversity to allow any tourism.
In terms of culture, a respectful attitude is a must. However, a tourist often represents a different society and set of values which is hard to disguise even if tablet computers, digital cameras etc. are kept out of view. The culture of consumerism is polluting and tourism is sadly part of that culture. There is no disguising the fact that the tourist is the ‘rich’ person who can afford to go to the host location. This sends out cultural messages that are hard to stop becoming prejudices that will affect generations of local people who see tourists come and go and leave behind paper money.
These are all valid issues for those who want to be responsible tourists in the Twenty-first Century.