What difference does tourism make to our daily lives? We create memories and enable people to rest and unwind. These are important things, but of themselves, all they do is recharge our batteries ready to return to the grind of work.
Of course, done responsibly, tourism can help us discover truths about our fellow women and men, as well as the other creatures we share the Earth with. And this might make us more compassionate, and more understanding of our differences.
But can we do more; can we help the visitors who come to our hotels and on our tours live better when they get back home? What has this got to do with efforts to make tourism more responsible? And why should we bother?
I’ll try to answer these three questions in reverse order.
Why should we bother? The more I travel, the more I notice how tourism promotes its ability to enable us to keep working. This last week I have been in South Africa’s Kruger Park, and it has sometimes taken me three hours to simply drive to and from the nearest place where I could send and receive email. For those of us trying to get some work done, this is a frustration. And so our hotels – which of course often cater to business travellers as much as leisure, work to ensure we remain connected all the times. But we know what this means. We take our work on holiday. Sit by the pool checking emails, just do a couple of hours before lunch. And so our rest is eroded and our time with those we love reduced.
If you just see tourism as an industrial machine, another production line fuelling GDP through the creation of memories, experiences and instagrammable moments, then the more stressed and wound up we are the better. We’ll blow more on the hotel, spend more in the gift shop, stuff the kids full of anything just for a moment of peace. But if we see tourism less like a factory, and more like a youth club, then our role becomes different. Sure we need the finances to stay viable – but our role is not to make the Club President rich – it is to manage the processes that enrich the lives of those who turn up, to help them find fulfilling ways of spending their time.
Second – What has all this got to do with Responsible Tourism? Of course we focus much of our efforts on reducing climate change, improving working conditions, and protecting the habitats in which we operate. But what I am talking about today impacts on all of these. The less stressed we are, the less we feel the urge to consume. The more we find the time to be patient and connect to those with whom we interact. And as a result we have the time, and the attentiveness, to immerse ourselves in the natural world.
Finally – how can we help visitors live better when they go back home? I’ll give you two examples from the last week. Each day I have woken up before the sun has risen, and sat with a cup of coffee listening to the dawn chorus as the birds – and elephants – wake up. I could do this every day (without the elephants) where I have lived for the last 20 years, but have probably done it less than 10 times. I wish I had, as doing so has prepared me for the day far better than lying in bed surfing the news and emails with a cup of coffee, as I generally do at home. I simply don’t need to know the latest miniscule tweak in the Brexit saga, however much the urge to scroll down. Learning to distinguish the many different birdsongs, on the other hand, brings ever greater rewards.
And finally, although I earlier made the comment about the challenge of having to drive so far to find an internet connection, the truth being disconnected has made me write much more effectively. Yesterday I spent several hours thinking and writing undistracted, no surfing, just leaving a mark in the text from time to time to remind me when I needed to go and check something online. It was a much better, less frittered, use of my time.
I write a lot about the transformative power of tourism. Often this means life changing experiences, and the making of memories we will never forget. But maybe the transformation that really matters is not to be found in the once in a lifetime experiences, but in those that take place every day.