Beyond the selfie: responsible tourism in today’s world

From left to right: Linda Schlapp, Michael Luongo, Glenn Jampol, Merryn Johns and Kerry BranonThis year – 2017 – is the year of the rooster, the year of new US leadership and as the United Nations has declared, the year of sustainable tourism. The latter gives us added incentive to be thoughtful in our approach to travel. Having just returned from a life- changing adventure in India, I was more than happy to accept an invitation to join the New York Times Travel Show panel on ethical travel this past weekend.

My friend Merryn Johns, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Curve Magazine, served as moderator and brought together a globally savvy panel of experts in the humanitarian, environment, travel and animal space to discuss responsible tourism from varying perspectives. The result was an extremely engaged audience lining up at the microphone and staying long after the session ended to ask pressing questions related to their own travel experiences. Where can I volunteer to help conserve wildlife? If I see mistreatment of animals, where do I report it? How can I be sure I am truly supporting ecotourism?

We talked about vetting organizations for legitimacy, the power of tourism dollars and the need for buyers to diligently research before jumping into a new travel experience to avoid inadvertently disrupting the local ecosystem, people or animals. In all cases, the key is to educate yourself and extensively research in advance so you can make conscious choices when you arrive. You may not have Wi-Fi in country so pre plan before you leave.

Here are four easy tips for travel planning:

1. Support the local economy

Think local. If you are like me and want to bring home a few souvenirs for your family, buy from local crafters. You will support the people who need the money most and also provide your loved ones with a unique one-of-a-kind gift. Of course it is not all about shopping. Plan to visit or volunteer at a reputable animal sanctuary or wildlife rehabilitation facility and learn about projects that rescue animals and conserve habitat. If you like what you see, consider donating before you leave to ensure these facilities can keep doing their important work.

2. Think about animal welfare

At one point during the panel, Johns knowingly asked, “Is it ever okay to pet wildlife?” I quickly replied, “No” and encouraged attendees to avoid activities related to exploitation or cruelty to animals like elephant-backed safaris and the recent dolphin selfie incident in Argentina reported by Rachel Bale for National Geographic. This was particularly tragic as the seemingly innocent act of taking selfies led to the baby dolphin’s death.

It may seem obvious we should not directly interact with wildlife, but sometimes we get a bit too relaxed on vacation and forget some of these basic principles. It can be really tempting to snap selfies when you find yourself in the vicinity of a stunning creature. Resist the temptation. You do not want to disrupt their behavior or encourage your friends to get too close to wild animals either. Instead, point the camera away from you and capture the animals in their habitat so  you can appreciate them again once you are back at home and feel good knowing you did not interfere with nature.

Exotic cuisine was another hot topic, given some ingredients come from endangered species or involve extreme animal cruelty to deliver it to your plate. The NY audience was happy to learn of our Whappy app as part of our ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ campaign, which helps Iceland tourists and residents support restaurants that do not serve whale meat, book whale watching tours and find whale-friendly souvenirs.

Two other prominent menu items to watch out for are shark fin soup and bushmeat. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year just for soup. Tragically, their fins are sliced off and they are thrown back in the ocean to slowly die in agony no longer able to swim. If you have an adventurous palate and want to try something exciting, avoid ordering meat from wild animals like primates, crocodiles or pangolins. The highly commercialized bushmeat trade is devastating animal populations, particularly great apes and is causing the spread of deadly diseases from animals to people.

3. Choose ecotourism

If you are looking to have the least possible impact on the environment, make sure the tours and lodges you select are legitimate and not just greenwashing. Take a detailed look at their websites before booking. Are they supporting the local community? Employing local people? Sourcing local food? Using water, paper and other resources carefully? Are they exploiting wildlife?

4. Report endangered species products

Report any suspicious or offensive items to your server, restaurant manager, local police, tour operator, hotel staff, tourism authorities and especially your friends and social network. A quick review on a travel site can prevent many visitors from having the same experience and accidently undermining conservation efforts with their tourism dollars. If enough people tell a vendor they prefer to buy sustainable, animal friendly products, it can make a big difference. Remember, if we don’t buy, they don’t die.

Although the audience was filled with mindful consumers unlikely to knowingly purchase wildlife products, it was a helpful to discuss a few items to watch out for. At least one attendee was planning to report animal products she had recently seen for sale while on holiday. Avoid purchasing:

  • Belts, boots, handbags, wallets and other products made from alligators, turtles, big cats and snakes
  • Traditional medicines that claim to contain rhino horn, tiger bone, bear bile or other animal derivatives
  • Carvings, bracelets and other items made from ivory, elephant hair, shells or coral

A special thank you to Merryn Johns and my fellow panelists Michael Luongo, University of Michigan Knight Wallace Journalism Fellow and freelance journalist, Glenn Jampol, Chair of the Global Ecotourism Network and Co-Owner of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort in Costa Rica and Linda Schlapp, LGBT Program Director for Global Volunteers.



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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy