Don’t be a ‘jackass’
— be kind, and go with the flow
This winter, I want out.
And I was thinking that February 23 to March 10 would be a good time to trade in the Yukon’s darkness and snow for Mexican sunshine, sand and, maybe, a margarita or two.
I know. That’s when the 2007 Canada Winter Games is on, that much-anticipated sporting event that some say will make or break Whitehorse.
The city needs all hands on deck to pull it off, they say, so I should feel guilty fleeing.
Except alongside an army of volunteers, the Games also needs several hundred Yukoners to vacate their homes.
By fleeing to Mexico I am actually volunteering — to leave the territory and my empty house for 15 days so the parents of a few athletes will have a cozy place to stay.
Oh, and did I mention that, if my home makes the grade, my guests will pay me $3,000?
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Now I must move on to an even bigger moral dilemma concerning my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere.
Vacationing in the Third World: Can anything that sounds so wrong be done right?
And, if so, can it still be fun?
I know about the wrong kinds of vacations: The luxury resort holidays where the only locals you see are your waiter and housekeeper; where any trips outside the compound are arranged by an in-house activity planner; where the beaches are strewn with pasty white bodies impatiently relaxing with their cellphones and Blackberries.
“I wanted to kill myself,” said one friend, recalling her resort package vacation in the Dominican Republic.
A resort-organized trip she took ‘outside’ the palace walls involved riding in a Mercedes Benz van through poor neighbourhoods.
The tour guide, a local, tossed candies out the van window to a gaggle of smiling impoverished children.
The day ended with a visit to the home of a poor family. First, one of the guides, a local, shimmied up a nearby tree to fetch a coconut.
Then, what appeared to be a hired family posed for pictures outside their old shack, which was now a museum, perfectly preserved for the sake of white tourists.
It was at that point, my friend said, that she wished to die. In fact, most what took place during her luxury vacation made her feel like a complete “jackass,” she said.
With her warning in mind, I started shopping for a vacation that I could live with.
I discovered an abundance of books, websites and brochures that have been written exactly for this purpose.
In fact, ethical tourism has become an industry in itself.
Whether you travel under the title of backpacker, photographer, writer, artist, do-gooder, family or sun-seeker, ethical travel encourages you to cross borders with the perspective of an international citizen.
Your goal is to positively affect the countries you visit, rather than trampling them or loving them to death.
It encourages you not to be so oblivious to the local culture that you are, in fact, exploiting it.
Most of the rules guiding ethical travel are common sense: Don’t be a racist; don’t exploit the locals for sex, especially children; don’t stay at a resort in Jamaica that is owned by a developer who lives and spends all of your money in Miami.
One current and particularly grotesque example of a foreign developer exploiting the Third World is Conrad Hotels, a subsidiary of The Hilton Group, which says it believes in “socially and environmentally responsible business practice,” but apparently not for itself.
Conrad Hotels has recently signed a lucrative deal with the US developer Gerardo Capo to manage a luxury resort to be built on ecologically fragile sites in Bimini, Bahamas.
Many local residents oppose this development. The company plans to bulldoze and dredge priceless and fragile habitats — mangrove forest, lagoon systems and sea grass beds — and to threaten the livelihoods of residents to create a resort that includes a vast marina, golf course and hotel complex.
I wonder how many existing resorts have already done all of this?
Besides the three tips mentioned above, world-tourism.org’s The Responsible Tourist and Traveller guide reminds us to 4) Respect nature and don’t buy any part of an endangered species, 5) Don’t damage heritages sites, 6) Buy locally and barter fairly, 7) Learn about local customs, and 8) Don’t break the laws — especially don’t sell drugs.
Another helpful guide has been written by Ethical Traveler, an organization that unites adventurers, tourists, travel agencies, and outfitters in an effort to make conscientious travel a global effort.
“We feel that all travelers are, in effect, freelance ambassadors,” says ethicaltraveler.org.
“We also believe that we have the ability to join our voices, and to use our economic power to strengthen human rights and protect the environment.”
Ethical Traveler goes a little further with Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador.
Its additional five tips to ethical travel include never giving gifts to children, only their parents or teachers, and leaving your media-tainted ethnocentrism at home.
It’s 13th tip is “Never forget Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s best line: ‘Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.’
In other words: go with the flow, and give free rein to your sense of adventure!”
Ethical Traveler also provides a link to the CIA’s country profiles database, so you can learn about a particular country’s imports, exports, population and political situation, although it cautions, “We’ve seen instances of inaccurate material.”
For another list, check out the Ten Commandments on Eco-Tourism issued by the American Society of Travel Agents.
And for help in planning a trip centered around a local ecology, check out Sustainable Travel International’s website.
One thing that you can’t avoid if you want to be a conscientious traveler is the work involved in planning your trip.
You will not find a package with airfare, hotel accommodations, day trips, food and drinks which abides by all of the rules listed above, at least not yet.
So, my work is barely begun.
Now I must find a hotel in Mexico that is owned locally as well as day trips that are not exploitative or damaging to the environment or local heritage.
My ultimate goal, of course, is to have fun and, for me, this will be measured by my ability to engage with the local culture.
That means that within the next four months I need to learn some Spanish and do my homework on Mexico and the cities that I plan to visit.
But my best chance of giving back while also taking some lessons from Mexico will be dependent on my ability to go with the flow.