Backpacker, Flashpacker, or Tourist?

Are you a backpacker? Are you a flash packer? Are you a tourist? What does it matter?

I only recently started asking myself this question. For years I was a backpacker. Everything else had a stigma to it. I thought tourists walk around New York with “I ♥ NY” shirts and telephoto SLR cameras trying to photograph the statue of liberty from a bobbing ferry. Now that I am older I realize backpackers aren’t the best kind of traveler for every situation either. Sometimes being a tourist is okay if you do it right. This is part of a 3-part blog about ethical tourism.

I only care about the difference because not every traveler leaves the same mark when they travel. Hopefully the places you visit leave a positive mark on you, but do you always leave a positive mark on them? Do you photograph people with their permission? Do you respect their culture? Do you make the time to meet your hosts and try to learn who they are? Do you know where your money goes when you buy something while you travel? Do you participate in fun behavior that has a negative impact on the local community?

Impact on the environment

When I say “ethical travel” I mean traveling to places and making choices that promote good. Personal enrichment is only part of the story. Does the travel respect and care for the environment? There are plenty of great articles about the ethics of traveling and question if we can afford the carbon footprint of plane travel at all. I’m not talking about that because sadly, we jet-setting is far too hard on the environment. I am only focusing on what impact we have locally when we travel.

Environmental footprint of travel

Traveling has an environmental footprint. No matter how hard we try, we can’t help but change the environment where we travel. Can the environment sustain our visits? This really comes down to where we travel, when we travel, and for how long.

  • Do you know where the local trash goes? Why travel to a tropical paradise when every napkin, plastic fork, plastic bag, and plastic water bottle gets buried in the back yard where tourists don’t see it. Travel to places that have waste collection. Avoid use of single use items or plastic. Travel with your own silverware and use that when you visit street markets.
  • Where is your bodily waste going? Most of us never consider it but on many, if not most beautiful tropical islands the human waste from our bungalows just runs to an off-shore pipe near the coral reefs that attracted us to the island in the first place. What can you do? Do research. Avoid over-populated tourist destinations like Phu Quoc, Vietnam and Koh Rang, Cambodia.
  • Eat local food and eat what the locals eat. If you travel to places where the locals can’t eat meat then you probably shouldn’t either. In many poor parts of the world meat makes a huge environmental strain on the local community. If people don’t offer you meat then don’t take it. It is entirely possible that you eating meat will prevent a local from having access to it. I’m saying this more for rural communities in places like Laos or Cameroon or Indonesia where poverty and childhood malnutrition are all too common.
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