Why sustainable tourism is important

CubaMaybe it doesn’t make sense that I avoid individual transport where I can (except for my bike), car-pool for longer journeys but have no issues taking a plane for my trips and holidays. Pollution aside there is however a whole other side to tourism and how we can travel sustainably and support the local economy, and with that local community.

Globally 1 in 10 jobs  is related to tourism, that’s a huge number. Personally, I’m not the kind of person who would spend her money to stay in an all-inclusive resort, I much prefer the encounter with people and spending money on experiences. And this is key: Just think of the money you spend on all those small things, trains, buses, tours, entrance fees, food & snacks, souvenirs, tips… If all of these go to support the local community, we will make a difference while travelling.

By souvenirs I don’t mean purchases from a middleman in a resort. It may not seem much to us, but buying a locally produced souvenir directly from the producer may go a long way in many lower income economies. Just as examples:  Minimum wage in Peru for example is 226 EUR/month, in Mexico it is 3.60 EUR/ day. In Cuba the monthly minimum wage is 7.30 EUR/month.

Travelling in Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba
Trinidad, Cuba

The positive impact but also dependency on tourism really became clear for me when touring Cuba with Cuban Adventures (whom I can highly recommend). My trip was during the Obama thawing of relations and I thought it may be the last time to visit before McDonald’s, Starbucks and the like would get a foothold and destroy the beautiful patina Cuba has always had in my imagination.

Aside from whatever else I had expected, this holiday was an eye opener in terms of sustainable tourism for me, and very well framed both with supporting documentation pre-travel, the selected tours by local guides with widely varying political views, and our Cuban tour guide. The group dynamics in our group, the evening discussions following thought provoking encounters – it all contributed to make this a very ‘rich’ experience. And this to a soundtrack of salsa and the visual feast this country is (and the odd mojito too).

We stayed exclusively in privately owned homes or ‘casas’, the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. Families need to register and pay the government for income received from tourists. However we typically stayed two nights in the same place and made sure to have one evening meal in the home, which probably directly benefited the family rather than the state.

Havana, Cuba
In Havana

The direct impact due to income generated from tourism in the form of tips, souvenirs, and homestays was clearly visible. The owners of our homestays seemed rich compared to others. Some Cubans we spoke to (probably carefully co-ordinated by our tour operator) showed us their food ration cards and the very limited supplies granted to them– neither enough to live nor to die.

The paradox to sustain an eroded system was very visible without ever being commented on: Between doctors running most of the B&Bs we stayed in, taxi drivers who seemed equally overqualified; contrasting starkly with shortages in local shops. We, paying in the tourist currency, were quickly ushered to the top of the queue to pay for our water while locals were queuing for the little bit of available meat in the shop they received with their ration card. Tourist really is king in Cuba, which at the same time means quite a responsibility also and one I hope is not and won’t be abused.

Havana, Cuba
In Havana

Sustainable tourism

Not a topic that is easy to digest but so important. It dawned on us so naturally and organically during our eight day trip. Very thought provoking and something I’ve transferred to other holidays since. It was the fact that we could all so clearly see the impact, without this ever being commented on from a Western perspective (our guide was Cuban). Isn’t that one of the best and most lasting memories from a holiday we can take home, the fact that the holiday really changes the way we see the world?

It’s the power we have as tourists, the power to change society or people’s lives, but also the power over other people and the responsibility that comes with this. Staying humble, listening and trying to understand the local culture – this (I think) is key to sustainable tourism.