Sustainable Travel and Eco-tourism: a better way to travel?

Sustainable Travel and Eco-tourism: a better way to travel?

Jessie Lim and Jiani Wang cover the UCLU Green Economy Society’s event featuring Felipe Zalamea, founder of Sumak Travel

On the same day that the chemicals giant Ineos controversially announced their plan to invest £640m into the UK shale gas industry, Felipe Zalamea, founder of the social enterprise Sumak Travel, spoke about sustainability in travel in a conference organised by the UCLU Green Economy Society. Introducing the community-based eco-tourism model favoured by Sumak Travel, Zalamea highlighted the fallacies of the tourism industry and his hopes for change.

“When did indigenous people become merchandise?”

In many developing countries tourism can be a double-edged sword. The local economy appears to benefit enormously from foreign tourists, what with the employment of locals and the building of better infrastructure. Yet any benefit comes at a huge cost to the locals and their environment. Resources are wasted and the profits tend to end up back in the investors’ pockets. These investors are usually from more developed countries, leaving little to those who actually live in the area which depends so heavily on tourism. Such is the harsh reality of the industry.

“The industry of tourism as a whole is incredibly destructive. It won’t be enough even with the sustainable travel industry. Tourism is resource heavy. Tourists go to places, consume all their resources and leave waste. Is tourism really beneficial to the host communities? No. Who owns the land? These corporations own everything. They own the coach, they own the hotels, and they own the land. Everything you use is not of the locals’ ownership. So, what’s the point of tourism as a tool for development if the locals do not own anything?”

This is where social enterprises come in. The enterprises actively work to implement sustainable eco-tourism models in developing countries. Sumak Travel has designed several sustainable travel packages for tourists to experience the local communities of South America for a week or two. It is also launching an organic agriculture and fair trade programme that generates more revenue for the locals in those South America communities Sumak Travel works with, also decreasing their reliance on tourism.

The Karen Hill tribes have become a popular tourist destination. Source:

The company’s website provides travellers with abundant information about the various activities on offer, and an insight into how to travel more sustainably. Options range from enjoying traditional cuisine prepared by local people in Costa Rica, to overnight stays in rural Ecuadorian villages.

Although these sustainable travel packages started with the best of intentions, they still bring to mind a few questions. Will they really provide an authentic experience? How do we know that these sustainable models are any different from those offered by the common tour operators? Is this truly a better form of travel, or just a way to make us feel better about ourselves?

Granted, the recognition of the need for more sustainable models of tourism is surely better than ignoring the problem. It is important that efforts are being made to address the issue of the exploitation of local people, resource waste and contamination in the tourism industry. However, this eco-tourism model does not offer a ‘one size fits all’ solution. The industry is still plagued by many unresolved issues, including sex tourism.

“Sex tourism is a sad reality. Tour operators are aware of it, but they don’t care, and they are not doing anything about it. If girls do not have access to education, if girls do not have access to healthcare, if girls do not have access to jobs, they will end up selling their bodies to tourists.”

Though passionate in decrying unethical tour operators and sex tourism, Zalamea did not suggest how Sumak Travel might address the issue. Sumak focuses on eco-travel, but Zalamea has highlighted the problem of sex tourism and the need to tackle it.

So, are eco-tourism and sustainable travel better ways to explore the world? Or are they just means for us assuage our travelling guilt?

Tweet us your opinion @_PiTravel to join this February debate with the hashtag #pitravelfebruary.

All quotes by Felipe Zalamea.
Featured image credit: Naga people of Northeast India by rajkumar1220

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