Are you a sympathetic tourist?

Travel is central to most people´s lives these days. We work for 11 months of the year, we save some monies and we go on a holiday to far and exotic places. Some are even as bold as throw a few worldly possessions into a backpack, kiss family and friends goodbye  and start vagabonding around the remote and unknown.

It wasn´t quite so simple when I was first bitten by the travelling bug (to quote Michael Palin), precisely 30 years ago now. The unknown was truly a lot less known and accessible and distance was a lot more punishing than it is now. Thanks to advances in transport and technology, the tourism industry has come a long way since then to represent today one of the most important industrial sectors in the world. As figures released by the World Tourism Organisation show, despite concerns over the global economy, international tourism demand continues to show resilience – the number of international tourists worldwide grew by 5% between January and June 2012 compared to the same period of 2011 (22 million more). International arrivals are forecast to exceed one billion by the end of 2012.


Good numbers (we need them) positive outlook, but as always, there are two sides to a coin.

Effects of mass tourism

Firstly, mass tourist movements tend to  have a negative outcome on a lot of destinations as they have been shown to cause desertification, deforestation, destruction of the natural environment, pollution, emission of toxic gas, coral reef destruction, extinction of many animal species etc. overexploitation of the resources (water for example),

Secondly, the arrival of tourists  hungry for folkloric displays results in a loss of identity, particularly amongst the younger generations.  Attracted by the high standard of living boasted by the incomes, most of them prefer to give up their traditional values in order to copy western patterns and behaviour. This implies a deep change within the community’s value system and gives rise to crisis and disorder, resulting in problems such as marginalisation and crime. A new world view is imposed where the need for prosperity and consumption prevails.

Also, although tourism accounts for one of the main export sources of 83% of poor countries, only 3% of the total revenues obtained from touristic activities in these nations remains in local hands.  Where does the rest end up? Yes, you guessed it right, in the hands of Western  magnates who benefit from 80% of the tourist revenue of these countries. Nearly all the money spent by western tourists during their holidays are circulated back into the West. Unfortunately, for that reason, it is difficult for local communities in poorer nations to rip any benefits from it.

Finally, the very ugly face of some unethical tourists results in one of the saddest phenomena of our time:  child prostitution – the plague that is sexual tourism in places like Thailand or Senegal.

For all these reasons and many others, we need to protect environmental, cultural and economic indigenous values by organising trips which respect nature, don´t waste any natural resources nor generate any negative impact on local communities. And we need to do it before mass tourism consumes the beauty of our planet. Easier said than done, yes, but we could start by encouraging a form of tourism which is sympathetic towards environmental problems and believes in preserving the planet’s natural balance.

Asia - India / Nagaland

Solidarity tourism

The bitter fruits of economic globalisation, both human and environmental, are forcing some good people to consider how to use resources more responsibly and share them more fairly when they travel. These sympathetic tourists respect the country’s customs and traditions and avoid at all costs imposing a different model of local culture. When sympathetic tourists (or solidarity tourists) land in the visited country, they are driven by a healthy curiosity and interest, are aware of the differences, and are eager to discover with their eyes wide open this new and unknown place. No impositions, no flying big dollars around. This form of tourism intends to support small accommodation facilities, entirely managed by local populations, without any intervention from big multinational companies.

Solidarity tourism (also called community based tourism  or justice tourism), empowers the local populations as they begin to control tourist activities in their own land, their own way. The village communities organise themselves to create tourist visits adapted to local realities that develop the culture and respect the environment. They also manage the complementary incomes resulting from this activity. This way, rural populations can defend their legacy and their rights as well as assert themselves as economic actors, capable of diversifying their incomes in order to improve their living conditions.


Kalpitiya, western Sri Lanka


The world needs sympathetic tourists urgently to help prevent, or at least minimise the negative aspects of mass tourism.  We need a traveller who consciously aims to ensure sustainable economic, social, and cultural development, as well as the preservation of the environment. By integrating  this type of tourism into a broader strategy of sustainable development, it will, in the long-term, allow local communities to compete with outside investors on a level playing field and reap the benefits of their local tourist industry.

The effects of receiving a more civic-minded tourist are not only felt in socio-economic areas directly related to tourist activities (guided tours, hotels, handicrafts etc.) but also in several non-tourism related economic sectors by providing the general monetary injection needed to sustain local industry. The communities experience an increase in local production, a more stable balance of payments, and increase in budget revenues. It leads to the improvement of overall infrastructure and makes regional development projects more effective and balanced, thereby improving the general living environment and quality of life. Justice tourism increases tax revenues, creates new jobs, and ensures the preservation of existing jobs. All of this stimulates growth in GNP.

The benefits of solidarity tourism are many. It can help tourists understand poverty, the reasons behind it and how they can lobby for change once they return to their homes. It can help the environment by ensuring that tourists leave the smallest footprint possible on local ecosystems. It exposes travellers to unique local lifestyles, values, and traditions, as well as political and social problems. It promotes participation in the protection and management of historical sites by the local people themselves and it can also serve to stimulate the revitalisation of cultural practices and artistic creativity.

 Curious? I hope everyone is. So, the following are some sites where you can learn a bit more about becoming a truly sympathetic tourist and return home with the best souvenir you could ever bring: having contributed to make this planet a better place for many who truly need it.


Sao Tome and Principe




Tamadi – an organisation that offers alternative trips that focus on local accommodation (host families), using local transportation, accompaniment by guides from partner organizations and small groups of travelers in Mali, Madagascar, Turkey, India and the Western Sahara.