Engaged Tourism

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Christine Ciancetta
Evergreen State College

Tourism has largely developed unhindered by environmental and community concerns. Its sole basis is economic growth, with the majority of profits funneled to already rich industrialized nations. At its worst, tourism devastates rich landscapes, displaces long-established and thriving communities, causes pollution, creates a culture of drug and sex-trafficking, abuses access to clean water, and eradicates culturally unique lifestyles and livelihoods.


Individuals or organizations seeking to take part in travel and tourism that benefits local communities should investigate the many resources for Engaged or Responsible Tourism. The hallmark of Engaged Tourism is that it is community-determined, sustainable and draws on the existing people and environmentally centered resources of the community.


The challenges to participating in responsible tourism are many. A westerner's perception of travel and vacationing are already formed to expect a certain kind of product. Swimming pools, air-conditioning, lavish meals, subservient staff, "staged" traditional activities and the like leave little room for discovering the many wonders of foreign cultures or experiencing the complexities of a different lifestyle. Foreign governments share in the global race to classify tourism as a national export, paving the way for multinational corporations to build a tourist infrastructure at the expense of whatever may be in its way.

Tourism Concern, an NGO based in the United Kingdom is a primary source of information about the social, environmental, and economic impacts of tourism at the same time that it advocates and provides information about alternatives. According to Tourism Concern's Web site, some of the main negative effects of tourism include displacement of people (particularly native peoples living on their traditional lands), environmental damage from uncontrolled development, and water abuse. In examining water abuse it's easy to find that "the presence of tourists naturally means a much higher demand for water. Local communities normally do not benefit, and in most cases, are not allowed access to infrastructure built to ensure safe drinking water. The development of golf courses and hotel swimming pools are responsible for depleting and contaminating water sources for surrounding communities; this is especially true in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. An average 18-hole golf course soaks up at least 525,000 gallons of water a day - enough to supply the irrigation needs of 100 Malaysian farmers."

Equations, an East Indian NGO promoting responsible tourism, documents several tourism projects that are moving ahead without local support. The mega Bekal Tourism Project plans to convert Bekal, a northern rural coastal fishing district, into Asia's largest beach tourism resort of 6500 units by 2011. As a consequence, four entire fishing communities would be destroyed, communities that are among the most sustainable in all of India. In addition, unique cultural practices are at risk: "The indigenous fishing community of Kasaragod is the last remaining community along the Keralam coast with traditional fishing techniques. They abhor over-fishing and adhere to sustainable harvesting practices. The community still practices the traditional 'sea courts' where the community heads assemble at the place of worship every day to hear and decide on issues within the community."

The Bekal project illustrates more. The government of Keralam has already begun acquiring land as cheaply as possible under "public purpose" and intends to sell the land to private and multi-national tourist organizations for this same price. To date, there is no Environmental Impact Assessment despite the fact that as planned it would violate national Coastal Regulation Zone rules. Local community members are being denied due process through hearings that are a sham.

Fortunately, there are organizations that are becoming involved in the process of re-vitalizing community efforts to direct tourism. An extensive list of responsible travel organizations can be found on Tourism Concern's Web site, (http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/). Reference books also published by Tourism Concern include "Good Alternative Travel Guide: Exciting Holidays for Responsible Travelers" by Mark Mann, and the new, "Ethical Travel Guide" by Polly Pattullo, lists ethical and sustainable tourism in over 60 countries.

Global Exchanges is a model organization in creating opportunities for Engaged Tourism. Their Reality Tours operate give people "the chance to learn about unfamiliar cultures, meet with people from various walks of life, and establish meaningful relationships with people from other countries."


Engaged tourism represents a shift in both attitudes and activity. Tourists traveling to developing nations shift their attitudes from participating in inexpensive fun abroad to participating in meaningful experiences in international communities. Interestingly, it is exactly the presence of western engaged tourists that assists in re-establishing the values, culture, status of local people and communities adversely affected by commercial tourism.

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At its worst, tourism devastates ecosystems, displaces communities, causes pollution, promotes drug and sex-trafficking, restricts access to clean water, and degrades culture. A westerner's perception of travel often is oblivious to foreign cultures or different lifestyles. Engaged Tourism shifts from fun abroad to meaningful experiences. In fact, engaged tourists can help re-establish values, culture, and status of people adversely affected by commercial tourism.

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