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Toxic Tourism

February 28, 2017
Travel Tips

Travel forces you to grow mentally and emotionally. It exposes you to different cultures, languages, and people. It shows you just how big the world is and how many different cultures exist on this tiny blue orb, but it also shows just how small the world is in that we are, for the most part, all the same. What is that over-used saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

If you are from the mid-west United States and decide to go on a backpacking trip through Cambodia, you will find a whole world you never could have imagined. The sights, sounds, tastes, people, clothes, and feelings will be completely foreign to you. I can't even begin to account for everything that you will encounter or be exposed to. It is scary, but more importantly it is beautiful and life changing.

Who doesn't want to see things like this? 

With the improvements in technology and the steady growth of many first world economies, the travel industry has grown. The internet has given people a glimpse into the wonders that await them outside of their small town and they are, understandably, excited to explore. This interest is good.

There is a problem, however. Something that I mentioned above: the travel industry. The life changing experience of meeting new people and immersing yourself in a new culture has been industrialized and centered in business. The goal of the travel industry isn't to provide you authentic glimpses into a new way of life. The travel industry largely exists for capital gain.

This is not a big problem for the consumers; Americans that book cruises, go on tours, and take flights to all corners of the world were going to spend their money anyway. The intention to explore the world is a good one. But this intention has shifted and transformed into something else for many people and it has far-reaching effects. The businesses are doing anything they can to cater to the ever growing need for seeing what is new.

This influx of travelers and the corresponding adjustment by the travel industry has effects far beyond these travelers and companies. The destination adjusts, building hotels, restaurants, and attractions for tourists to enjoy. The country's tourism board and government undoubtedly benefits from this and often underdeveloped countries find this extra income extremely useful.

So, the million dollar question. What is toxic traveling? While tourism provides an opportunity for a stream of income, there is a mixed affect on the inhabitants of the country.

Take for example the country of Papua New Guinea. Tourism has seen a rise in recent years despite the ongoing conflict between the Papuans and Indonesians, lack of infrastructure, and increasing danger to foreigners. It is important to note that nearly half of the Papuan population live off the land in a self-sustainable lifestyle. These Papuans rely on the land for growing their food and for shelter, and many rely on their proximity to the beach and ocean for providing their food. Only about 18% of Papuans live in urban settings.

When more tourists come, the government recognizes a need and adjusts accordingly. In Papua New Guinea particularly, this has meant that resorts and beachfront hotel locations have increased dramatically. Much of the population in the islands of Papua New Guinea rely on access to the beach and have lived on the waterfront for generations. Now, as beaches become privatized, these communities are forced inland or to other islands. They can no longer continue the same way of life.

Another rising problem is the issue of over fishing. These communities rely on fish for a large portion of their diet. With the influx of visitors and foreign fishermen, the catches are getting smaller and less regular. This is just in Papua New Guinea. Similar problems are true in other countries as well.

Many indigenous peoples and inhabitants of these countries rely on the land for their way of life.

When you go to a 5 star hotel in the middle of a severely impoverished area, you are not supporting the economy. You can say that your money is going to the hotel, and therefore to the country and its people. But in reality, that money is moved to the headquarters or the company itself. Travel is only helpful to the economy if it is done through local channels.

These hotels, restaurants, and other tourism-based companies do provide jobs to the locals, that is true and may be an arguing point for you. But remember these are service jobs. Anthony Bourdain on his show Parts Unknown (yes, I am quoting him, don't judge me) states that tourism in impoverished, struggling, or low-income areas is perpetuation the idea of service to rich people and whites. Yes, these locals get jobs and are paid regularly (for the most part) but it continues the subserviant relationships and tendencies we have seen throughout history. Europeans have historically landed on new countries, claimed the, used the resources and people, then left once nothing else interested them or served them. We can't continue to allow this to happen with the travel industry.

What Can We Do? 

Ethical traveling is on the rise and countries are doing things to mitigate the negative effects on the people, land, and native animals. It still has a long way to go, but things are slowly, very slowly, improving. Ethical traveling is the idea of traveling without leaving a negative, or any, impact behind. Try to focus your trip on local activities; shop in the markets to support the families of the town or city, stay in local hotels or in hostels, eat local...shall I go on? Many high-sustainability, low impact, and grass-roots organizations exist but do not have the budget to market like hotel chains and tourism companies.

Engage in activities that support the locals, but not in a way that creates a dependence, reliance, or any other unhealthy relationship.

There are plenty of organizations that support and provide options and resources for engaging in ethical, sustainable traveling. Do your research.

Here are some organizations either I or my friends/family have used and stand by: 

Operation Groundswell

Humanity Unified


There are so many others but these are the ones I or people I know have had personal experience with.

The situation above only describes (briefly) the complicated situations in Papua New Guinea. There are countless other areas where animals, people, and countries are being abused or taken advantage of. This is not travel. This is using a location for entertainment. That isn't how the world works. That isn't sustainable.

Supporting locals through their businesses and shopping from local markets can make a big impact

I'm not trying to put anyone down. I think that many people just don't know the effect travel and tourism can have on the destinations.

-For more information on the situation in Papua New Guinea, I recommend watching this movie (I think it was free on Amazon Prime or Netflix) and of course, doing your own research.

Siggi Einarson

My name is Siggi-dubbed by my American friends because of the Icelandic yogurt-I am a writer, polyglot, and aspiring expat, not a cup of yogurt (unfortunately).

My love for travelling began with a trip to Iceland and Sweden to visit my family when I was just 15 years old. I spent so long dreaming of the possibilities of life abroad but I always figured these dreams were too far reached. Flash forward almost 10 years, here I am again, both cursing and thanking this damn travel bug.

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