Responsible Tourism

Just before we were ready to go to visit a floating village in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, we gathered on the upper deck of our junk boat to get an overview about the floating village and the life there. Our guide Smiley started with mentioning a little bit about some of the background information that built upon some information I already learned from reading some materials that were provided as part of our cruise. But towards the middle of his presentation, Smiley talked about the unfortunate negative impact of human settlement and now increase of tourism on the nature. Quite unexpected to hear especially in a developing country especially when the tourism industry was booming in the area.

Smiley said that as the number of tourists increased, inevitably there was impact to the nature as pollution increased, rubbish produced and polluted the environment, and the traditional lives of the locals impacted with the constant visits of guests. In many cases, others looked to profit from such increased in popularity and demand for tourism, but neglected how their actions impact the actual nature that drew the visitors to come in the first place. He said the Indochina Junk, the company that owned and operated the Dragon’s Pearl and several other boats, was working with the local government to launch a program called ‘For a Green Ha Long Bay’ which aimed at educating the locals and the tour operators to help reduce the negative impact tourism has on the nature and the lives of the locals. They helped with rubbish collection, and also educated and provided more environmentally friendly materials to use in the floating homes. He also mentioned that parts of the proceeds from our tour actually went to the village that we’re visiting.

When I heard this presentation, while on one hand I was happy to hear that we seemed to go with a tour company that was environmentally responsible, on the other hand I was wondering how sincere that was, or whether this was all just a presentation to the foreign tourists so they feel good about themselves, and potentially help market and recommend the company to other tourists. I hate to be that cynical, but I guess unless I see more visible activities (e.g., perhaps also offering a more voluntourism type trips where guests can also participate in activities that help improve the locals), it remains to be seen whether that’s all just a show or it really is because they want to be ethically responsible.

I took the photo below while Smiley was giving his presentation to our group. You can see the village we’re about to visit in the background.

Responsible tourism presentation


When we visited the village of Cat Cat near Sapa, Vietnam, I couldn’t help of thinking about the concept of ecotourism and how it seemed to be applied there. Compared to the other villages we visited the day before, Cat Cat clearly had been developed to be more tourist friendly with the nice walking path down into the valley and back up, complete with maps along the way, and during the busy tourist season, even some planned cultural events, demonstration, etc. There was fee collected on the way to the village, and ticket is needed to enter the village by foreigners. It was quite organized that in the beginning I wasn’t sure whether we’re entering a real village or a theme park.

Since we came during an ‘off day’, there were not many visitors around, and while there were a couple of souvenir shops open along the trek, clearly they were not anticipating big crowd that day. As we walked through the heart of the village, we passed the homes of the locals that looked like real homes in the village. While the path through the village might be developed to make it more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing for the visitors, the buildings in the village seemed to be the local homes without much modification. And as we passed some of the homes, we could see the locals going about their lives normally — nothing was staged. Nothing exciting too see or much of ‘photo op’ along the way, but I thought this was a more authentic atmosphere to portray to outsiders who wanted to know how the locals live.

That reminded me back to the concept of ecotourism. In the last couple of decades, there has been a lot of emphasis on this concept especially as the increased globalization opened up many new destinations around the world that are rich culturally but previously were not well known as travel destinations. One definition of ecotourism is as follows: ‘Ecotourism a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial (mass) tourism. Its purpose may be to educate the traveller, to provide funds for ecological conservation, to directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities, or to foster respect for different cultures and for human rights.’ You can see from this definition how it could be a really good thing if done correctly as it would benefit the locals while at the same time preserving the environment and culture for future generations. However, in reality, this could be quite difficult to accomplish, as some of the goals may be at odds with each other when implemented (e.g., trying to benefit local economy vs. minimizing negative impact from the outside world). And sadly some government or travel operators used the ecotourism idea to promote their business while in reality they didn’t really do what’s needed to meet the goals of this type of tourism.

One other interesting observation I heard once on a travel program was about the impact of global economy on the local culture, and how the local culture itself is evolving because of that. The case in point used during the discussion was Ireland, where in the early 2000s there was a big economic boom that the country attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe and some European Union countries. As a result, the local culture had become more diversified. This became an unexpected surprise for tourists who came to Ireland with the expectation of experiencing the authentic, perhaps romanticized Irish culture. When they could actually find those, often times it would be staged as show only for tourists, and gone was the authentic culture to observe.

I wonder how long before such effect would impact places like Sapa. The draw of economic benefits I think would be much stronger than simply preserving the old way of life. We already saw during the trek the day before how some local minorities became very dependent on the tourism business and introduced a new pattern of behavior that didn’t necessarily exist prior to the increase of tourism in the region — following (bordering stalking) tourists to get them to buy handicrafts or souvenirs. For tourists, I think a good place to start is to consider activities or using operators who have good reputation of benefiting the locals and also having the minimum impact possible to the environment, and keep this in mind as you visit, learn, and appreciate the local culture, people, and environment that you visit.

The photo below was taken as we walked through the village. You can see the local homes on the side flanking a nicely path walkway through the village. On the left you see a small store selling some souvenirs. On the right is a normal home that was ‘normal’ and not staged for tourists at all. You see Kristi walking on the path, with one of the local girls jumping around like a ‘mountain goat’ (as May, our local tour guide from the day before, said).

Through the Cat Cat village

Chong Kneas Ferry Port

Chong Kneas is a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake that has become a popular tourist destination for those who want to observe life on a floating village that is dependent on the most important lake in Cambodia. To visit the village, one must drive or take public transit to get to the port from Siem Reap (about an hour drive), then take a small boat from there to visit the village.

When we arrived at the port, one thing that was quite noticeable was how new the port building was, and it looked a bit out of place in comparison to the surroundings. Our tour guide Vanna explained that the port was pretty new — it was built a few years ago by a South Korean investment company that saw tourism there as a business opportunity. It used to be that one would get to the river bank and would have to find and haggle the price of a ride to visit the floating village with the boat driver. Now it all seemed to be organized at the port where there is a ticket booth where passengers would purchase tickets and then getting assigned to a particular boat.

While the new development sounded good on the surface to the visitors who want to avoid the hassle and the risk of getting ripped off, there was a controversy as some saw the coming of the foreign management company as bringing in the regulated system without consulting the people who rely on the boat tourism for their livelihood. Where it used to be competition among the boaters, now it’s regulated by the management company, and the boats are rotated. The equality means it’s good for some, but not for others. Tour operators also had mixed reactions to the development. Some welcomed the change that would help protect the visitors from getting ripped off, but others had already had business arrangements with local boaters to obtain fair pricing for their tour guests that now would have to renegotiated with the management company in the middle as part of the equation.

For us, since our visit was part of a tour package, we didn’t have to worry about getting the tickets. When we arrived at the port, Vanna asked us to wait at the entrance of the port while he went to the ticket booth and got the tickets for us. We didn’t ask how much we were charged for it; all we knew was that we had a chartered boat just for us: Kristi, myself, Vanna, and the accompanying boater. It might be interesting to find out out how much it ended up costing us per head, and out of that price, how much actually end up at the hands of the boater himself.

The photo below was taken from the boat overlooking the port, as we waited for our boat to leave the dock. You could see the port looked like being added on to the landscape, and you can probably imagine what it was like before the port was there with just the dirt river bank and the boats docked there.

Chong Kneas port