Love travel, hate mass-tourism? In an attempt to leave a positive impact upon a local community, we explored what it means to ‘travel for good’ with a conscious tourism trip to Vietnam.
Eco‐tourism. Environmental tourism. Community‐based tourism. Ethnic tourism. We’ve all heard the buzzwords describing travel that reduces the adverse social and environmental effects caused by traditional, mass tourism. Conceptually these all seem like positive steps in the right direction. But as tourists, it’s vital to be mindful that we’re not walking blindly into being green-washed (falsely believing the corporate spin that we’re contributing positively to the environment or sustainability). The reality is that aside from not travelling at all (which, let’s face it, is unrealistic for many) what can we do to ensure we’re travelling consciously?
If you’re a well-intentioned traveller, it’s important to remember that, positively or negatively, you will have an impact. As with consuming anything, tourism is a product with ethical (and not so ethical) options available. And I believe it’s essential to educate yourself on the travel choices you’ll inevitably have to make. With that in mind and in advance of an upcoming trip to Vietnam, I was keen to explore alternative options for my next vacation. Thanks to Actxplorer, a start-up with the slogan of ‘travel for good’, I hoped for an immersive cultural experience within a local community that would leave a positive impact.
What was the adventure?
My time in Vietnam began with a 10-hour journey from Hanoi to Nam Hong Village, nestled within the Thong Nguyen region (don’t be put off, it was worth the trek!). Due to the nature of the trip, I was both a tourist, and a worker focused on a local project to build capacity for community-based tourism. Little did I know that my experiences with the local villagers would be intense, and left me questioning whether I was making the positive impact I had hoped for.
Where exactly did my money go…?
One of my priorities during planning was to ensure that the money I did spend would benefit the local community. And when travelling with tours branded as ‘eco‐tourism’ or ‘community tourism’, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just looking for native huts and lots of green. But what matters is whether local people have ownership over the places you stay at and the tours you take part in. In Nam Hong Village, most of the homestays are built and owned entirely by locals, save for one, which received investment by a businessman from the city. Which one do you think will benefit the local community more? In an ideal world, the money earned from your visit goes directly to locals (which in my case, it did).
Another thing to consider is whether you may inadvertently be contributing to local inequality. The cash income generated by tourism is significantly more than the cash income received from traditional subsistence farming and tea-leaf picking. In Nam Hong and other similar villages, homestay owners who successfully work in tourism can noticeably earn far more than others, which has the potential to create tension within the community.
How much should I pay for this kind of trip?
My tour was by no means ‘cheap’, unlike many other tours available in Southeast Asia. But that’s what is wrong with mass tourism packages in the region. Packages are too cheap, and there are too many.
A simple rule of thumb is – if it’s cheap, it’s probably exploitative. While it may be cheap because local prices are lower, remember that meagre amounts can also be a result of competition. Which squeezes profit margins for homestay owners and the tour guides they employ.
On a personal level, paying more may mean fewer trips. (Which arguably is a good thing. Less travel means less negative environmental impact and an increase in earnings for local people.) Instead, change your mindset and replace ‘cheap’ with ‘fair’. After all, if you wouldn’t work for that equivalent amount in your country’s currency, why do you expect someone else to?
Just how ‘local’ was the experience?
In Nam Hong Village, everyone maintains a traditional way of life that revolves around subsistence farming, which I viewed as a positive. (Unlike in some parts of neighbouring Sapa, where tourism has become the primary source of income for local people, and traditional farming no longer exists.)
While my experience felt authentic, I was also aware that ultimately, I was still a tourist. In Nam Hong, just five to six of 36 families operate a homestay, and there are around 17 local guides. And as a tourist, I was staying with a villager who is working in tourism.
Getting that authentic local vibe is also tricky because, well, I’m not local! And just staying for a week or two would not make me so. However, I did embrace being out of my comfort zone, and battling moths, bugs, cockroaches, and spiders was not an issue (though I was immensely grateful for the ‘proper’ toilets!). I also got down and dirty to try buffalo ploughing (harder than the grandma teaching me made it look!). The great thing about Nam Hong is that you can make the experience what you want it to be. Fancy forgoing modern toilets and bathing in cold water every day, sure, why not? Choose to do heavy farming all day from 6 am to 6 pm, go for it.
In addition to farming, I also helped document, translate and represent aspects of local Red Dao culture into workshops, including a farm‐to‐table experience, an embroidery workshop and a bamboo paper making workshop. Ultimately, it’s up to you to create your own meaningful experience. All the easier once I realised the locals were as interested in our culture as I was in theirs!
Sounds great! How do I find a homestay?
Many of the homestay owners and local tour guides are dependent upon tour agencies to market their services. Unfortunately, this can also lead to an unequal distribution of power as the agencies have a considerable say over how the homestays are managed. In Nam Hong Village, there is a Community-Based Tourism (CBT) model where homestay owners cooperate so that earnings are more equitable. But tour agencies often bypass the CBT and contact individual homestays themselves. Which can result in one homestay being favoured over another, leading to uneven distribution of earnings. So we helped the CBT to design its website so that tourists can contact homestay owners directly, without going through tour agencies.
Has tourism changed the village?
I was concerned that introducing tourism to the region would negatively impact the village. After thinking about this carefully, I left with more questions than answers. Has it led to income inequality by increasing the earnings of the select few working in tourism relative to others? What are the results of such uneven development?
It’s important to note that tourism is not the sole cause of change. Globalisation more generally is far-reaching and noticeable even in the most remote of locations. I was surprised to learn that instant noodles were a foodie favourite of villagers. I was also shocked to see BTS notebooks lying around. And villagers sharing the latest KDrama gossip or celebrity news (Fan Bing Bing is a hot favourite, apparently!).
It’s also easy to construe changes as either positive or negative, but again, it’s not so clear‐cut. Electricity only arrived in Nam Hong in 2012, and it has facilitated the provision of lights at night and the powering of electrical appliances suited to tourists, like electric fans and refrigerators. But hey, by and large, the villagers have not become utterly dependent on electricity.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to forget the strict dichotomy between rural and urban lifestyles or positive and negative developments. The villagers use their smartphones and upload pictures of themselves in traditional costume to Facebook, and share posts marking the beginning of rice planting season. Watching football matches on TV can be a community-wide event, and they occasionally swap traditional rice wine with commercially produced beer. The children were exposed to social media, but they still love to collect wild berries and make swords out of wood.
Conclusion? Go, but before that, ask
I had a fantastic time at the village, but throughout I had to ask and try to answer uncomfortable questions about whether my visit was for better or for worse. It was a challenging project because I always questioned if I was commodifying their culture. I gained an insight into a unique community but was tasked with marketing it to tourists. I hope that travellers see the work as an invitation to go to the village themselves and have a meaningful experience.
As to the age-old question of whether tourism is good or bad, I’m still none the wiser. As someone who enjoys travelling, I’ve started to ask myself these questions and think about the kind of experience I am looking for and the impact I am going to have. The answers to these questions are also deeply personal. Some people are perfectly comfortable with participating in mass tourism or giving their money to large tour companies. It’s a matter of choice, and I’ll leave it to you to decide when planning your next trip. As for me? My conscious travel adventures have only just begun.