How To Be An Ethical Traveller? Leave Only Footprints!
On some Australian bush and coastal hiking trails that I love to do, there are little signs that say, “leave only footprints.” So basically asking that you come as you are, experience the beauty nature has to offer and leave it just as you found it. We hear so often the term ‘eco-tourism’ but what does it really mean and how can we travel in a more conscious way that is supportive of local cultures and environments?
I recently completed a tour through Costa Rica, exploring rural farms and staying with local families deep in the rainforest, thoughtfully planned out and expertly guided by the team at Sumak Travel. I wanted to know more about how we can be conscious travellers, so I had a chat with Felipe, Founder of Sumak. Here he shares his thoughts on ‘eco tourism,’ how we can have authentic cultural experiences while supporting the local people, animals and environment and his top ethical travel tours and destinations.
Read here the interview with Felipe, Founder of Sumak:
What does the term “eco tourism” mean to you?
Ecotourism is a form of tourism that creates a positive impact on destinations. The positive impact should be created in at least one of the four dimensions: economic, environmental, social and cultural. However, the term is today widely used for green-washing purposes, to the point it is losing its original meaning. We prefer to use ‘ethical tourism’ or ‘responsible tourism’ instead.
One of the most important aspects of Sumak Travel is connecting consumers with communities in a way that can both offer an exchange of cultures, respect and support for those in the community, how does Sumak Travel cultivate this in a way that is different to ‘normal’ travel situations?
Firstly, we work mainly with local communities who prefer low volumes of travellers, usually located in remote or off-the-beaten path locations. These communities don’t have enough visibility (e.g. on platforms like Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, etc), but the quality of their products and services is outstanding, which means a more authentic and rewarding experience for travellers. Secondly, by operating under a fair trade model and taking out the monetary aspect from both sides (they don’t have to worry about taking / making payments), we allow the cultural exchange and interaction to happen naturally: local communities host travellers as they would host family and friends, while travellers feel genuinely welcomed. Thirdly, we are against ‘poverty porn’, that bad practice implemented by many tour operators where they picture local communities as poor people in need of help, and market the tours as a way of helping them out. For us, community based tourism is about connecting directly with local culture and nature… there should not be patronising approaches where travellers feel like they are donating to charity.
Transparency is hugely important to you in the way you conduct your business – why is this important to you and how does Sumak ensure that money reaches local communities, guides and hosts?
It was one of our main motivations to start this social enterprise. We saw that tourism is a deeply unfair industry. Local people own the resources, the culture, the land, the knowledge, the workforce, but they don’t benefit from tourism as they should. A few big stakeholders keep most of the benefits, while the environment and the local economy suffer. At a very small scale, we try to break this pattern, ensuring that most of the supply chain, sometimes all of it, is controlled by local people and organisations who are committed to responsible and ethical tourism. This translates into local communities, guides and host being paid a fair price for their services, in a more transparent way. Compared to the size of the industry, we are a drop in the ocean, but there are more than 1000 community based tourism initiatives in our network, all over Latin America, and growing.
When we consider travelling what would be the top things you would recommend to each of us to consider to ensure our travel is more sustainable, ethical and supports and respects local cultures?
Ownership: When booking, check who owns the hotel, lodge, tour company, agency, etc. When possible, book with a trusted local company, although we know sometimes it’s quite difficult to find. Give priority to small, family run hotels, B&Bs or guest houses, as well as boutique hotels over hotel chains.
Policy: Look for a responsible or ethical tourism policy, or at least a written commitment or certification.
Taste: Make sure the company or hotel you book has good taste, that it shows local culture in a decent way, highlighting the value it has, not trying to generate compassion
Name some of your most favourite things about travelling close to local communities and experiencing sustainable offerings?
I like the fact that I am not surrounded by crowds of tourists taking pictures and asking dumb questions. I love the storytelling: listening to those local guides and people from the community, their adventures and anecdotes, their version of history, their joy and frustrations, their dreams. I enjoy the home cooked food, not only because it has ingredients coming directly from their local farm, but because it has love and ancient knowledge as well. Finally, my favourite thing is being in remote, off the beaten path locations, contemplating the wonder of nature.
You take small and intimate travel groups to places mostly in Central and South America – what has been your most memorable experience so far?
The Lost City hike in Colombia and the trek to El Mirador in Guatemala. The rural tourism trip in Costa Rica for Kasi, Hannah and Simone from The Ethical influencer Network was a memorable one too!
What do you hope for travellers to take away after a trip with Sumak Travel?
I always hope they had a genuine and rewarding interaction with local people and nature, that they come back home feeling they learnt about local culture in an authentic way, not what the Lonely Planet says.
Your favourite country to visit?
Bolivia! Stunning landscapes, amazing food, super rich culture.
Which Sumak tour would you recommend for the more adventurous and well travelled traveller – a tour that would push them to the edge?
The Undiscovered Colombia Adventure. Lost City Hike and Amazon Rainforest. You have to go to Colombia before it becomes too touristy!
Which tour would you recommend for someone who has never been to these areas before and just wants to dip their toes in gently?
The Natural Costa Rica Tour. It has several great, non touristy destinations in this very touristy country.
Which tour is the most popular?
The Mystical Chile Tour because of the Atacama Desert.
Thank you for the interview!