Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Leaving Footprints, Taking Memories

High Camp. Mera Peak, Nepal
During the 90’s and the 00’s, I worked in the tourism industry, specializing in trekking and mountaineering around the world. The two companies I worked for were forerunners in eco-tourism—they turned their office practices from paper files to electronic ones before it was commonplace, and they made sure every staff member in the office and out in the field, adhered to a strict code of ethics regarding low-impact tourism. 

This method of conducting business now seems standard with adventure tour companies around the world. Sure, there are a few that disgrace the industry, but I can happily say, most of the companies I’ve dealt with have embraced the philosophy of looking after the pristine environments people pay big bucks to visit. A quick search of the web will reveal a wealth of companies all stating they are eco-friendly, offer low-impact tourism, and so on, but how does one distinguish the truth from the sales pitch? 

Here’s a list of points to consider when deciding which company to book with next time you want to undertake adventure travel in the wilderness:

Does the travel company have a responsible tourism policy? Every company will have a different policy, but the types of things a company should do is make sure the natural and cultural values of the host region are not compromised. A lot of responsible companies work closely with conservation and rehabilitation groups to ensure the area travelled to is not under any threat from outsiders. If you ask for details, the company should be able to provide them for you.

What is the company’s level of engagement with the locals? Companies should employ local staff, services, and suppliers where possible. This approach assists in sustaining local business, bringing income to the local communities, and growing the region overall. It also reduces the carbon footprint by ensuring people and goods are not brought into the region when they’re not necessarily needed. 

Is a cultural exchange encouraged? The travel company should encourage and provide opportunities for the locals and visitors to interact and get to know each other.

What contributions does the company make to the host community? Some companies have special projects in which their employees and/or travelers, spend time in disadvantaged communities to help upgrade facilities such as education, water access, and health. You should also check if the company funnels money into the community for projects such as educating the locals about conservation or health. This information is usually easy to find as most travel companies are happy to promote their involvement, and it’s not uncommon for well-respected companies to have endorsements from organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, or to have been nominated for awards because of their eco-tourism practices.

Uros Islands, Peru
Does the company offer cultural guidelines? Because some parts of the world have strict religious or cultural rules, a responsible company should provide all travelers with a list of what is and isn’t acceptable, in travelling to those regions. The tour guide should ensure that every traveler adheres to these guidelines.

How frequent are the tours and how big are the groups? Check to see if the company runs trips that have small numbers of participants, and how often the tours are. If the company runs trips on a weekly basis and the groups are large, chances are, they’re not considering the impact of tourism on the environment. For example, the growth of the trekking industry in Nepal has resulted in some regions being trashed because of too many trekkers. Eco-friendly companies have gone in to help clean up the mess, and a lot have banded together to petition the government to limit the amount of trekkers a region can have per year. 

Online forums: These are the perfect place to garner information from people who have been there and done that. People on these forums are usually happy to share their experiences, and by asking detailed questions, you’ll quickly learn if the company you’re considering is eco-friendly. Beware of review sites, though, as people who frequent those are usually disgruntled customers who may have a slightly skewed view. It’s usually easy to tell who is complaining because they can, or if someone has a genuine reason. The secret is to ask lots of questions to lots of people so you can get a good idea as to how a particular company fares when it comes to eco-friendliness.

Alli and guide near Aswan, Egypt
When I lived in Peru years ago, the Inca Trail was choc-a-bloc year round. There were no restrictions, and people could go it alone or travel with a local tour company. Some of these companies were dodgy and you could tell they’d been through the area by the amount of rubbish left behind. But the government finally wised up a few years back and put restrictions as to how many people can walk the trail at one time. Now it’s limited to 500 trekkers for the multi-day hike and permits need to be booked months in advance, whereas before 2002, anyone could rock up the day before and get a permit. The only way to trek the Inca Trail these days is by booking with a licensed tour company or employing a registered guide. The hard-core travelers have complained for years about it, but after witnessing the destruction of non-monitored trekking, I agree with the government. As always with life, it only takes a few inconsiderate people to destroy it for everyone else.

So next time you’re considering a trip into the wilds, do some research, ask lots of questions, and enjoy your adventure, happy in the knowledge you’re doing your bit to preserve the culture and nature of your chosen destination.


  1. Great summary, and the more people ask these questions, the greater the pressure for companies to make these changes. Nice!

  2. Thanks Dave! All people have to do is invest a small amount of time to do some research and that can seriously make a world of difference. :-)