“Likes” are this century´s new currency. You can buy them, earn them, trade them, lose them…every action with a direct consequence to your social media status. In times when likes dictate who are the ones ruling the virtual world, people are doing anything for them. Unfortunately, the environment seems to be the one paying the price, since travels to exotic places are definitely a “likes magnet”. Ever seen somebody posing by the side of a full-grown lion? Or holding a fancy drink in a plastic cup on a boat? If you liked these pictures, I hope you think differently by the end of this article 😉
Ok, let´s be fair here. Though social media can be used as a virtual stage to get famous at any cost, I do believe most of us just get caught up in the moment and don´t really think very much through the impact we, as tourists, are causing. National Geographic, by the way, has a really interesting article about the harm well intentioned tourists are causing. I will share an example: once I saw on Instagram the picture of a girl with a baby crocodile during an Amazon river cruise. One person (shokingly, only one person!) asked what would happen to the baby after it was showcased. The girl was proud to answer that it only stayed in the boat for a few minutes, and then it was given back to the water. Though the education of tourists about the wild life is important, there are many ways it can be done without separating a baby from its mother and, consequently, bringing stress to the animals. These actions can definitely bounce back and bite somebody in the tushie…in this case, literally.
Therefore, I want to use today´s article to give some tips about how to be a conscious tourist. I, myself, have made bad decisions in the past, which I will definitely discuss further here. I learned from my mistakes – they helped me to start questioning every activity I choose in my travels, thus making better decisions in the future. Ultimately, this is what this article is all about: sharing, discussing, inquiring and improving.
ACTIVITIES WITH ANIMALS
. Research thoroughly the Establishment offering the Activities (Trip Advisor, Google and the local visitor center are great research tools)
One of my dreams was to become a vet specialized in wild animals. Well, Discovery Channel pretty much ruined it for me, when I cried buckets every time an animal didn´t make it (which, in the wild, means very often). I became a Journalist instead and tried to cure my frustration as a vet by dreaming of the future travels I would do to natural habitats in order to experience these animals up close. Swimming with dolphins? Oh YES! Petting a tiger? OMG, dreamy!
Well, for some, these thoughts might be cool, but it can also mean the support for the mistreatment of these beautiful creatures. I started to change my mind once I read a lot about the Luján Zoo in Argentina – one of the places you can get up close to tigers and lions. Though I couldn´t find concrete evidence, many people raise awareness online that these big cats might be on medication in order to hinder their wild behavior, which, to me, made perfect sense. I ended up having a great time in Argentina, even though (or maybe even because) I didn´t visit the zoo.
Research also changed my dream of swimming with dolphins. When we were in New Zealand, Paihia, I explored my options for finally seeing these creatures without a tv screen between us. I ended up bumping into some reports about how stressful it is for dolphins to be chased by these close encounter boats, specially when they are feeding or have babies with them. In the end, we chose a tour (Phantom Sailing) that openly speaks against these encounters in their website and we did not regret it! We had the best day swimming, exploring an island, eating delicious homemade food and…guess what?! Dolphins came to us freewilingly, playing around us and under the boat while we sailed back to land. The captain immediately turned the motor off when he realized dolphins were coming our way, which is the right procedure in order not to disrupt their communication. Being a resposible tourist doesn´t always mean ending a dream, but adapting it.
Sometimes, research is not enough, that´s true. In Bali, for example, Mathias and I wanted to see if there was a place where we could have an experience with elephants. Through reading, we learned that riding on their backs was not good at all for them, so we started to look for other options. We found a place, the Bali Elephant Park, which had rescued elephants from Sri Lanka. Some bad reviews on Trip Advisor were answered by the owner with comments that, to me, made a lot of sense. So, off we went….and I regretted it. The elephants were not entirely free, so they couldn´t interact when they wanted, quite the opposite – they were forced to perform for tourists, God knows for how long. I also did not know they had a show with the elephants, which reminded me of a circus. Overall, I didn´t feel comfortable. In these cases, all we can do is share our experiences and learn from our mistakes.
. Prioritize Conservation/Rehabilitation Centers
Here´s the awesome thing about recuperation centers: you can get close up experiences with animals that are kept there only because they can´t return to the wild due to health or age conditions. Besides, the entrance fees go entirely to the animals and to improving the infrastructure of the center. That´s money well spent.
One great example is the Turtle Hospital, near Key West, Florida. They do an awesome job of rescuing, treating, and returning turtles back to the environment. There, in 1h30min, you can learn about turtles and the hospital´s work. You can even feed their permanent residents who have, unfortunately, been forever damaged, or join a rehabilitated turtle release back to the sea. How amazing is this?! If you don´t have time for a tour or they are fully booked, you can still help their cause by buying something at their gift shop. Tip: they have amazing wooden work with turtle motifs!
. Never join Activities that attract Animals with Food
The explanation here is simple: attracting animals with food change their hunting behavior, can make them highly dependable and even aggressive. This can happen in the case of shark cage experiences, even though baiting them is legal. National Geographic Brasil also, recently, wrote about the changing behavior of pink river dolphins due to “fast food” tourism. It´s understandable that you traveled far and want to see local animals or have a once in a lifetime experience, but being a responsible traveler means finding other options when the ones available clearly intervene in the animals´ habits or habitat. (if you want to read more about the impacts of shark cage diving, click on NatGeo and CABI)
SAILING, BOAT TOURS, WATERFALLS
. Avoid plastic Bags, Cups, Cutlery or any other Material that can harm the Marine Life
There I was, enjoying a leisure boat ride in one of the most preserved natural habitats near Rio de Janeiro: Arraial do Cabo. If you have never heard of it, do me a favor and google it! It has the most amazing crystal clear water beaches you have ever seen. The boat would hop from island to island, anchor, and let us swim to the beaches or snorkle around. Though plastic cups were allowed inside the boat (not ideal…), we were not allowed to take them out of the boat. Sounds obvious, right? Well, not everywhere. Two years go, when I was at another boat ride in the city of Paraty, also near Rio, I was shocked to see people jumping out of the boat with beer cans and plastic cups. The boat staff couldn´t have cared less.
More recently, in the waterfall region of Visconde de Mauá, Brazil, I also witnessed something alike. A restaurant just by the side of one waterfall was selling beer/soda cans with plastic cups/straws while other street vendors sold plastic bag snacks to whoever passed by towards the water. People would literally go inside the waterfall eating and drinking.
When the local authorities (and other tourists) fail this badly, we can still find our voice writing to regional organs who have jurisdiction upon the region or writing an activity review on Trip Advisor. Other tourists might read it and, if you cause an impact in one person, it´s already a victory.
. Use Eco-friendly Sunscreen
Only recently have I learned that some sunscreens can contain very harmful chemicals to corals and marine life. Captain Lizzie Clark (@captainlizclark), a sailor whom I follow on Instagram, once posted about a non chemical, non-nanoparticle sunscreen and I was curious enough to learn more about it. When I read, in the Independent , that 25% of the ingredients end up in the water, I was astonished. The effects of certain sunscreens can be so damaging in the course of time, that Hawaii passed a law banning them, which will take effect from 2021 on. If you want to read about some recommendable brands that are good for you and for the planet, take a look at the following articles: Oars, Health Infoniac and Earth911.
HIKES, FORESTS, PARKS
. Avoid plastic bag Snacks and Cans
I lost count of how many times I have seen tourists in Thailand or Brazil have food stolen by monkeys. Not only this can be dangerous for you, but it also changes the monkeys´ behaviour and diet. Besides, the environment loses too since you don´t expect animals to gently place the packaging in the trash afterwards (that would be something…). More tragic, in Bali, at the Ubud Monkey Forest, I saw tourists luring monkeys with fried snacks to get a picture with them, even though there were stands selling bananas in order to feed them. I was puzzled that a guard nearby did nothing.
If you are hiking trails without apparent animals, it´s still best to take food in safe containers, and bring your garbage back home with you. I have seen many trash cans in parks filled with rests of snacks, and some were scattered around, probably picked by racoons or birds.
EATING AND SHOPPING
. Support small Businesses by eating and shopping locally
Endorsing local organic producers has important consequences: you help the development of the local community and small entrepreneurs, as well as you contribute to the improvement of the environment. These manufacturers don´t use chemicals, heavy machinery or big trucks that emanate pollutants in order to distribute their products, contrary to big food chains. Furthermore, you end up eating healthier and tasting better quality products. It´s definitely a two-way street here.
One country that really surprised me by strongly supporting their regional producers of food and crafts was New Zealand (we have only been to the northern Island). We saw Maori art everywhere! By buying genuine handcrafted objects you are helping to keep tradition and culture alive.
It was also easy to find restaurants that are proud to present dishes with locally grown vegetables and herbs, showcasing the best the land has to offer. Also, there is a concern for serving meat from responsible farmers who have animal welfare as their priority. We even found some that name the suppliers of the fresh products they use every day. What an example to be followed!