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What happens abroad….doesn’t have to stay abroad

by Shanna Schubert and Brooklynn Downing, Intern-Associates, PATA

Brooklynn Downing and Shanna Schubert, intern-assocaites, PATA

Brooklynn Downing and Shanna Schubert

Being recent female graduates originally from North America, we quickly realised our commonalities soon after meeting each other. When you’ve been out of your comfort zone for a period of time, travelling abroad, living with a host family, etc., to come across someone from a similar background can be heartening. We soon struck up an interesting conversation about cultural differences and similarities, and what an educational experience travelling can be, more so, how eye opening it is as a reflection on others and especially on one’s self. Often when we think of sustainable travel we think of the obvious, for example, pollution, consumption, transportation, and other tangible factors. But what we frequently forget to discuss is the importance and impact of cultural interaction through tourism in a sustainable manner.

Taking in the natural beauty of Thailand’s Islands Guided tour to Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island Thailand

Taking in the natural beauty of Thailand’s Islands Guided tour to Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island Thailand

When searching for our accommodation, we both found it a surprising change of social norm that the majority of apartments (unless you look for a ‘Western’ type apartment) do not have kitchens. They consist of a bedroom and a bathroom (those that were in our price-range). At first this was slightly confusing and we both questioned how we would eat and make ourselves meals! But after only a few days we were forced to accept the local norm as our own: that people tend to use the street vendors as their primary source of meals. That is the income and occupation for those workers, and they’re supported by what seems to us, to be the entire population. You don’t cook, unless that’s your job! This is what we mean by sustainable tourism in a cultural sense. We must learn to share and understand the differences so as to support differences but also appreciate them.

Bangkok street food stalls where we ate almost every meal

Bangkok street food stalls where we ate almost every meal

What tourists often want to try is a country’s local food, in our specific case, Bangkok’s street food. This is positive on a number of levels. It is wonderful that tourists want to have a taste of genuine Thai cuisine and local produce. To support local vendors and produce can be a sustainable practice, because the distance and expenses from farm to fork is less than the imported produce, while providing jobs for the local economy. Everywhere you look, local populations eat from these street stands; they are affordable, and a meal or snack is made right in front of customers. The issue that foreigners might have is the lack of sanitation and the unknown. None of these foods have labels, or health standards other than what is seen – we would say, just use discretion.

One observation we have made is that many tourists flock to mega malls, food courts, and travel to shop at big brand-name stores. Primarily this takes away from the education gained of a different culture while travelling. Why do we travel? For us, it is not to see the inside of another copy-cat building for the wealthy. For us, it is to see what it is that represents local and historically authentic culture. Additionally, something that has stood out to us is the humble and gracious nature in which the street-food stall owners tends to work. Always with a smile, it is humbling for us to buy product from them. We feel particularly lucky to be given the chance to interact with them and taste, for example, fresh coconut juice from a coconut (not out of a carton). This is one of the gems of learning and appreciating through tourism. Staying inside mega malls strips the tourist of the experience of this humble and gracious culture.

Let’s take a slight interjection here and recongise the universal need for recycling and waste management. When we eat, there’s almost always something left over to discard. Just because someone is travelling does not mean that they should forget about the importance of cleaning up after self and using less harmful products for the environment. In fact, we would go as far as saying BECAUSE someone is in another country, they should be extra careful. It is not your country to litter in; you are a guest. The country is your host, and you should thank them for the privilege of the experience, just as you would in a friend’s home. We have actually been very impressed with individuals’ efforts here in Bangkok to keep their city clean. It is something to be applauded; it is exemplary. We have become more appreciative of the systems our governments have intact to take care of it in our own countries (in our cases North America).

Both of us, at one point or another have felt a sense of guilt while traveling. Whether this is because the country doesn’t have as advanced structural systems as those that we are used to, take the example of waste management from above. We have seen less fortunate living situations in comparison to our privileged lifestyles and upbringing, as mentioned above, to have services provided to us by our governments, for example, waste management. We want to make a point of saying that instead of feeling guilty, one should all learn to be proud of this privilege; the opportunity to not take these services for granted and to make one’s home community and those traveled to, more sustainable. If one is able to recognise these types of differences, it means that awareness of the need for incorporating sustainable efforts while travelling is present. There may also even be the opportunity to share with locals sustainable practices from a country of origin.

Another excellent indicator of local communities and daily life is accommodation. This is an area where the tourist really decides how far the travels will take and educate. Does the tourist want to be contained in a safe bubble and comforts of the familiar, or try and walk in the shoes of someone else and truly experience the destination? The benefits of doing so can be life changing.

Bamboo forest, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Bamboo forest, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Remember that there’s a very fine line between judging what acceptable living conditions are and simply taking in your surroundings. For us, one of biggest learning experiences has been to realise that what you see, hear and feel of another culture, is in a specific context. We have felt it’s most important to take it in with a grain of salt. What would be considered wrong in our countries, could highly acclaimed in others. This is relevant to absolutely anything relating to sustainable tourism, and maybe even sustainable living in general. So how do we a find middle ground? What’s an appropriate way to promote positive change without being offensive, or deciding that the way that others live in their communities is okay for them, is currently being sustained and we as tourists can support that? Sustainability is not a ‘one size fits all’ mold. It is so specific to each case, and as tourists we need to be sensitive to that.

Sustainable tourism is a two way street. Of course travelers need to be accepting of the culture of the place they visit. However, it is equally vital that the local community is accepting of incoming tourists and don’t generalise based on stereotypes. We need to be careful to preserve the beauty of the places we travel to, as we should do and promote for our own countries. So maybe the next time someone hops on a plane or goes on a road trip, they’ll be slightly more aware of what to take away from the experience in terms of sustaining our global tourism community.