Is There Really Such Thing As Sustainable Tourism?

For the last 3 years of my life I have been working to create real sustainable tourism around the world. Whether it be in the Peace Corps in Panama working with indigenous cacao farmers for 2 years helping to create a low impact agro-based eco-tour, or the latest project I’m involved in, Keteka, which helps to find small community based tourism projects around the world that feature low impact tourism and bring in cultural exchanges as well as extra money to places that really need it. As our Indiegogo campaign for the project has intensified and become extremely popular, I have had the chance to answer questions from journalists, bloggers, and radio show hosts. The question “Is this really sustainable” comes up frequently and I think it is an important one. I feel that this question is so important that sharing the following recent exchange that I had with a journalist is the best way to for me to present it. Read and discus:

How do you show tourists little seen areas of Panama without irrevocably changing those areas?

The idea is to change these areas believe it or not. At least a small amount. All three of the founders of Keteka worked on tourism in our two years in the Peace Corps and in that time we found the effects of responsible tourism in our community to be much much more on the positive side in terms of impact than the negative. This is especially true in the indigenous communities. I can give you a couple examples of this: In my community (Rio Oeste Arriba ) it is very common for the people not to communicate very well. Because of this, a recent road put into the area, and the many church groups that have come through throughout the years telling the community that they need to “become more civilized” they have lost many of their traditions and language. With the tour that we set up, we literally had to spend a large portion of tourism training getting the very old generation in my community to teach the middle aged and younger generation the old customs, language, dress, and food.

I will never forget seeing community members coming to see the food we were cooking for tourists and wondering what it was not realizing that it was a traditional dish of the area and that it was all from local plants. In the two years that I had to work on the Chocolate tour that we set up I saw new tour guides that we were training learn the language of their grandparents as well as English and how to use a computer. I saw timid women become more confident and start to take leadership roles where there had not been in the not to distant past. And I saw many many many tourists learn about a culture that is on the absolute brink of being no-more. As I mentioned before, change is the idea here. It is just helping these communities change with the time in a way that helps them keep their traditions and offers new opportunities.

How do you balance traveling in an eco-friendly way when airplane transportation is so damaging? Or are there any sustainable (in the green sense) trips?

This is an interesting question and in a world where “green” is thrown out there more often than not it is hard to tell what is really helping our planet and what is not. We don’t pretend to be “green” service. Whenever you are traveling you are using non-renuable energy sources to get there and back and you are probably eating things such as local seafood that is from areas that are from severely fish depleted waters such as most of the areas in Panama. As you probably know, bottled water is one of the biggest energy users and the containers fill our landfills or in Panama, the side of the road. If you are trying to be “green” or earth friendly I would honestly recommend finding a local place you can visit a new culture and have those experiences. Of course this is easier to do in a larger city. You would be amazed at the amount of diversity we have in the states and many of these people keep their traditions. That said, there is a “greener” way of traveling and that is by bus, which is how a great majority of Keteka users travel.

Especially true in Central America, busses are packed and relatively cheap. The more packed the bus, the less damage it is going to do to the environment. Panama in particular has a great bus system and even have newer buses that are energy efficient. If you really need to fly somewhere as your time is limited or you just can’t handle the crowded bus, I would suggest becoming a vegetarian for at least your trip or maybe even the month. This will help offset the amount of pollutants put into air from your plane trip and will keep more of fish in the water to see later when your snorkeling.