Being a responsible traveler is, now more than ever, a must.
Traveling is an incredibly enriching experience. While we travel, we have a chance to see beautiful places; admire the most amazing wildlife; learn about different ways of life and get in touch with unique cultures and interesting peoples.
However, the way we travel, the places we visit, and even the way we spend our money do have an impact on the environment and on the communities we get in touch with. The least we can do, as tourists, is to minimize the negative impact of our travels, and wherever possible try to turn it into a positive one. This is what responsible tourism is all about.
Though we should all strive to be more respectful of the environment, people and wildlife alike, it’s important to clarify something: nobody is expected to be a perfectly responsible tourist. I know for sure that I’ll never achieve perfection. The whole point here is to make sure to at least be a more aware tourist, a person that knows the real impact of his actions and, more importantly, understands that every little bit will help to make the world a better place for everyone.
In this post, I will suggest all the things you can do to become a more responsible traveler. Before I do so, however, let me clarify what responsible tourism is.
The Declaration on Responsible Tourism was signed in Cape Town
What Is Responsible Tourism?
According to the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism of 2002, responsible tourism is tourism that minimizes negative economic, environmental and social impacts; contributes to improve the well being of local communities, including their working conditions, and has a positive impact on the local economy; has a positive impact on the conservation of natural and cultural heritage and at the same time allows a more meaningful connection between the travelers and local communities; is culturally sensitive.
With the tourism industry accounting for about 10% of the global GDP, you can see how this can have an impact on the lives of people and on the environment, in both a positive and negative way. It’s up to us, travelers, to make sure that tourism has a positive impact on the world as a whole, and that responsible tourism practices are implemented.
We all should become more responsible travelers (in fact, we should learn to be more respectful of the environment on our everyday life, and not just as we travel!), and the good news is that this doesn’t have to be costly!
Continue reading to discover how to become a more responsible traveler.
Overtourism has to be taken into account by responsible travelers
25 Ways To Become A More Responsible Traveler
Beware of overtourism
Overtourism – which refers to the presence of too many tourists in a destination – regularly comes up when talking about responsible tourism. In fact, it is one of the first things you should consider in your pledge to become a more responsible traveler.
Many destinations have become increasingly popular in the last decade or so; but while some do have the infrastructure necessary to deal with the negative impact that tourism brings; others simply don’t.
In places that have a tradition of receiving large amount of tourists, tourism can cause an increase in the cost of living. If tourists are ready to pay higher rates for common goods such as groceries, local shops may increase the prices, but locals may be unable to pay them. Owners of apartment may prefer renting to tourists so that they can charge higher rental rates; and locals who have traditionally lived in the area may be forced to leave as they can’t pay those rates.
This has been happening in many European cities – so much so that 11 of them have created a Network of Southern European Cities Against Tourism.
In countries where tourism is a more recent phenomenon, the infrastructure may not be sufficient to counteract the effects of overtourism, such as overcrowding; increased pollution; waste disposal; exploitation of animals and people; gentrification of specific areas; a decrease in the quality of life of the local community; as well as the spectacularization (with the consequent dilution) of culture.
Many countries have been negatively affected by tourism in this sense. A good example – though by all means not the only one – is Bali.
Read more about Bali in my post “Has Bali Lost Its Magic?”
While the issue of overtourism should be ultimately dealt with by local tourism boards and governments, as a responsible tourist you can certainly do something to lower your impact.
So what can you do to be a more responsible traveler when it comes to overtourism?
The most obvious thing is to visit lesser-known places. Even within a very popular destination, you can easily get off the beaten path. For example, when in Sri Lanka you can go to Wellawaya instead of backpackers’ hub Ella; when in Morocco head to the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains for a change. The locals will be welcoming, you’ll have the place to yourself and your experience will be very rewarding.
Going to Sri Lanka? Make sure to check out my post “Sri Lanka Off The Beaten Path.”
And if you really do want to go to the most popular destinations, consider going in the off season, when there will be less tourists around. The weather may not be as great, but on the plus side you won’t have to stand in line forever to visit popular sites!
Make sure that animal encounters are ethical and that animals are never abused
Be wary of activities where animals are involved
One of the most basic rules to become a more responsible traveler is to stay away of activities and tours that involve the use of animals. Keep in mind that there is a lot of money involved in wildlife tourism, and most operators are interested in profits rather than the well-being of animals.
Activities such as elephant riding, selfies with tigers, swimming with dolphins or manta rays; and shark cage diving – to name but a few – may seem harmless or plain fun to you, but they are truly irresponsible and cause lots of harm and suffering to the animals.
Read more about the use of animals in tourist attractions in this post.
Even giving money to a dancing monkey or to a snake charmer is questionable – it’s pretty much like giving money to a circus, and you surely wouldn’t want to do that, right?
But if you think that it is only activities involving exotic animals you stay away from during your travels, think again. That carriage ride through the streets of Rome or Sorrento may seem very romantic to you, but chances are that the horse is stressed by the traffic, the cars, the scooters and the noise, and all for the sake of keeping you entertained for one hour. And unless you are physically impaired, why would you want to ride a donkey or mule around Petra and why would you want it to carry your heavy backpack during a hike? Just pack as light as possible and carry it yourself!
When doing a safari, make sure that the operator is a responsible one that puts the interests of wildlife first. You should be concerned if you notice things such as jeeps speeding through a national park (speed limits help avoid hitting wild animals); or too many jeeps at a sighting – that’s what happened to my friend in Yala National Park.
Speaking of animals, do not feed wildlife
Most people mean well when they do it, but if you really want to be a more responsible traveler remember that feeding wildlife if one of the most irresponsible practices you can think of: animals should eat what they find in nature, and feeding them ultimately breaks their migration and reproduction cycle. Even feeding bread to the ducks you may see at the park isn’t good for them!
Protect local fauna
Turtle eggs, green sea turtles, sharks, river dolphins and much more. Endangered animals often become human food for the most various reasons (but rarely because of pure hunger). No matter how much the locals rave about the many advantages of eating such things, and even if your foodie self is intrigued, be a responsible traveler and avoid doing so.
For the same reason, avoid buying goods made with the leather or fur of endangered animals.
And by all means, do not pick up starfish from the water for the sake of a pretty photo or to show it to your children. These animals are very delicate and die almost instantly once they are out of water.
Always respect local laws, customs, and places of religious significance
Respect local laws, customs and culture
One of the most rewarding things when traveling is encountering new, diverse and unique cultures and ways of life. Always show respect for the local customs and traditions, and by all means for the local laws. Being a responsible traveler in this sense may require dressing up more conservatively in general; and more specifically covering your head, shoulders and legs when entering a temple or a church (this very much goes for churches in Italy and Spain as well as Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka or Hindu temples in India).
Respect sacred places
Whether it is a church, a temple or a sacred natural site, make sure to act respectfully when visiting. Avoid things that may offend the local community such as speaking loudly, running around, taking photos of people worshipping or going way overboard taking naked selfie like a group of backpackers did on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia in 2015.
Respect human rights
Unfortunately, sex tourism – the practice of traveling overseas in search of sexual activity, usually with prostitutes – is still a thing. Don’t be this person! Do not get involved in the exploitation of women and, by all means do not get involved in the sexual exploitation of children!
It may seem pretty obvious, but one of the basic things you need to do to become a more responsible traveler is to be polite to others – travelers and locals alike, and even more so the people that work in the tourism industry ie the reception staff at your hotel; the cleaning staff; the waiter at a restaurant and so on. Remember to treat people the same way you’d like to be treated: with respect and kindness.
Always ask for permission before taking photos of people
Ask for permission before taking photos of people
In some countries, people love posing for photos and in fact, the minute they’ll notice you snapping something or someone near them, they will call you to ask to take a picture of them too. In others, taking photos is a big no-no, with some groups in Mexico’s Chiapas thinking that photos will steal their soul. As a rule of thumb, make sure to ask permission before taking a photo, and if you get a no as an answer, say ok and politely walk away.
Learn the basics of local language
Always make a bit of an effort to learn the very basics of the language of the country you are visiting. Even saying things such as hello, thank you, please goes a long way, and the locals will appreciate your efforts.
Don’t give money to beggars
I know this sounds quite harsh, and you probably think that as a responsible tourist it is your duty to give to those in need. But are you sure that giving money to beggars is the right way of doing so? In fact, giving money to beggars may only encourage more people to ask tourists for money. Remember that there often is a network of exploitation even behind beggars.
Children are cute, but don’t give money to them – rather, engage with them!
Don’t give money to children
If giving money to beggars is questionable, giving money to children is simply irresponsible. In many places, children are taken out of school and sent to the street to beg for money or to work selling small trinkets. In some cases, it is not even the parents that are sending their kids to the street to look for money, but an actual network of criminals (the so called “begging mafia”) that exploit the children.
If you really want to be a more responsible traveler, look out for organizations that help supporting children in need through schooling, education and inclusion programs, and make a donation to them instead. Even a donation of books, pens and other necessary school material at a local school may be a good idea – check out with the school beforehand to see what is needed.
In fact, don’t even give them candy
Children love candies and in many countries, as soon as they see a tourist approach, they run to ask for a “bonbon.” However, there are many reasons why a responsible traveler shouldn’t give candy (or cookies, or sweets in general) to children.
First of all, sugary goods are unhealthy and you really shouldn’t encourage unhealthy eating habits. Sugar is bad for teeth, and this is something you really want to keep in mind in places where access to dental care (and in fact, access to water and a toothbrush!) isn’t a given.
Lastly, oftentimes candies come in plastic wraps, and many children won’t think about it twice before throwing the plastic wherever they happen to be, adding to an already dire garbage disposal emergency.
Play with the kids instead
Instead of giving money or candy to children, as a responsible traveler you should actually engage with them as kids. You can do so many things in this sense! Join an impromptu ball game in the street; teach them a few words of your language; play magic tricks; or even simply ask them questions. Do remember, however, to always wait for the children to interact first, and never impose yourself and your presence on them.
Are you sure you are devoting your time and skills to the right cause?
Volunteer for an actual cause
There is an ongoing trend among the backpackers’ community that suggests you can travel the world for free or at least for very very cheap, if you pick random jobs along the way. This is not the right post to get into a discussion about free travel (which is a myth, by the way). All I want to say is that, if you really want to be a responsible traveler, you really need to pick the jobs you do along the way (and where and how you do them) wisely.
You know that receptionist or hostel job in exchange for a bed in Antigua Guatemala? It surely helps you to save a whopping $5 to $10 USD per day. You will celebrate your savings; and at the same time the hostel owner will celebrate not having to actually pay a stipend; but the local who’d get that job instead will be left unable to support his family.
If you really want to volunteer, do so for an actual cause. And even in this case, put your responsible tourist hat on and do a thorough research before you surrender your time, skills (and at times even money) to an organization that is supposed to bring relief to a local community. This post by Uncornered Market puts volunteering and voluntourism in prospect.
You may also want to read my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”
Patagonia is pristine – also thanks to the fact that people pick up after themselves!
Respect the environment
It is only too often that tourists here in Sardinia, where I live, are caught stealing bags of sand from the beach. Mind you, Sardinia is hardly the only victim of this disrespectful action. I have seen people doing the same on the dunes of Sossusvlei, in Namibia, for example. Please, be a responsible tourist and leave sand (and shells, stones and plants) where it belongs: the process through which sand is formed is very complex and stealing it seriously impoverishes the environment!
Use less plastic
Plastic is an issue anywhere in the world. If you think that turtles or other marine life caught with plastic in its stomach is only an issue in Asia, think again. Less than a month ago a pregnant sperm whale was found on the shores of Sardinia and upon further examination researchers found that she had more than 22 kg of plastic in her stomach.
I know that eliminating the use of all plastic from your daily life is hard, and even harder when you are traveling. But there are some things you can do to produce less waste and to make sure you are doing your bit to become a more responsible traveler.
Use a refillable water bottle with a filter and use it to fill up at hotels and hostels. I travel with a Lifestraw and it is super handy and easy to use.
Ask for no straws in your drinks. In some countries, you’ll even get a straw in your bottle – make sure to point out you don’t want a straw when you order. And if you know you are going to be needing a straw (or else, how are you going to drink your coconut water), carry a reusable straw with you.
Use packaging-free beauty products. I am a massive fan of Lush solid shampoo and conditioner. Not only they don’t come with any plastic wrapping or bottles, but they are the best products I could be using on my delicate scalp! There are many other brands that now produce package-free beauty products.
Pack a canvas bag or two in your backpack, to use at markets or grocery shops instead of plastic bags.
By all means, do not abandon your garbage and, wherever possible, join group efforts to clean up places such as beaches and trails. Such initiatives are easy to find on the web, starting from Facebook.
All that sand in the desert? Leave it there!
Leave no trace
Make sure to leave as little footprint as possible in any place you visit – be it a city, a forest or a beach.
If you like hiking, make sure to stay on the trail as the rest of the area may be in recuperation, and if you get off you step on the local flora and endanger it. And if you need to use the bush during the hike, make sure not to abandon any toilet paper: put it in a bag and dispose of it once back.
By all means, if you have to go for a number 2 when hiking and there is no toilet, try to do it as far as possible from any water source to avoid the risk of contamination (as a general rule, at least 50 meters from a river or lake). For the same reason, avoid washing dishes or even just swimming in rivers or lakes, especially when people drink from it (this is often the case in Patagonia).
Read more about Patagonia in my post “30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia” and discover the incredible hikes in the region on my post “Hiking In Patagonia: 16 Incredible Trails.”
Water is a precious resource: don’t waste it!
Don’t waste water and other precious resources
Ah, those endless hot showers! Who doesn’t love them? Well, in some parts of the world water is scarce and if you want to be a more responsible traveler (and in fact, a more responsible human altogether), you need to change your habits so that you waste less water.
Take shorter showers, for example. Only do laundry when you have a full load. Ask for your towels not to be changed. And make sure to turn the lights and air-conditioning or heating off when you leave your room. Some cities already have strict policies regarding the use of heating and air-conditioning, to limit the levels of pollution.
Buy local products and food
One of the easiest, most pleasant and fun ways of being a more responsible traveler is by shopping locally. Whether it is a small souvenir that you want to take home, or a meal or a snack that you want to have, go for something that has been locally produced and made to support the local economy.
It’s actually very easy! For example, if you are walking around Bangkok opt to have a fresh pineapple from a local vendor rather than a fruit salad in from a chain supermarket. When you are in Nicaragua, opt to have a fresh lemonade made by the small shop next door, and shop at the local market. Chances are the fruit will taste much better and it will be much cheaper!
The same goes for food. Opt for street food rather than looking for Domino’s Pizza, and check out places that have a good mix of locals and tourists – those are the places where food is bound to be very good and safe to eat.
Buy souvenir at local markets, even better if you see the artist making them – they are way cheaper than those you’ll find at a duty free shop.
Don’t get too carried away with bargaining
Do a bit of bargaining, but don’t go too far with it
Coming from a country where bargaining is not practiced, to me one of the most fun things when shopping at markets in places like Latin America, Asia and the Middle East is that I get to bargain for cheaper prices. However, remember that a nice and easy way to be a more responsible traveler is to not over-bargaining. There is no point in pushing it to get an extra discount, when in reality that is the equivalent of no more than $50 cents.
Stay at local, sustainable places
Picking sustainable accommodation when traveling is easier than you can imagine, so you can do your share as a responsible traveler even when you simply go to bed. The most obvious thing to do in this sense is to stay at local guesthouses and small hotels that are locally owned and family run: you’ll have a far more enriching experience, and you’ll save quite a bit.
Another thing you may want to look for is eco-lodges or community lodges. Eco-lodges typically strive to minimize their negative impact on the environment, and are fantastic accommodation options when staying in a natural area ie the mountains or the jungle. In places like Guyana, local indigenous communities have created several lodges in an effort to use their resources in a constructive manner. They strive to protect the local environment, the culture and since they represent good employment opportunity for the local community.
Read more about community eco-lodges in Guyana in my post “How Three Tiny Villages Are Helping To Preserve Indigenous Culture In Guyana.”
Last but not least, do your responsible traveler research and look out for places that have been approved by companies such as Green Globe, Earth Check and Rainforest Alliance. What they do is working with hotels in order to raise their profile when it comes to social and environmental practices.
A community lodge like Surama, in Guyana, is a great ethical accommodation option
Travel with ethical tour operators
Whether going on a day tour or on a longer guided trip, be a responsible traveler and pick the operator you travel with wisely. Never take part in tours where cruelty towards animals is involved and promoted, such as elephant rides, dolphin shows, etc.
Make sure to travel with a company that shows respect for the environment; that employees members of local community and gives back to it; that is owned locally or that devotes parts of its profits to a cause.
I traveled with And Beyond in Phinda, in South Africa and Botswana, and was impressed by how much they give back to the local communities and the environment, and by how much they do for the local wildlife.
Read more about my experience with And Beyond in my post “11 Reasons Why You’ll Love Phinda Game Reserve.”
Train travel is a great alternative to planes
Watch out for your carbon footprint
Responsible tourism in terms of carbon footprint means taking less flights (overland travel can be a lot of fun!), or opting for direct ones. Indeed, taking off and landing consume a lot of fuel and increase carbon emissions.
Living in the island of Sardinia, I don’t have much of a choice and unfortunately in this sense I don’t get to be a responsible traveler: I have to fly everywhere, and more often than not, I can’t even fly directly to my final destination, as there are no direct intercontinental flights from here.
Other than taking less flights, if you really want to be a more responsible traveler start packing lighter and fly carry-on only: less weight on board means that the plane will use less fuel (why did you think Ryanair has raised the fees for checking in luggage so much?).
Do use public transportation wherever possible, and move around by train, bus, metro. Even better: walk or bike! Some cities are incredibly bike friendly!
Spread the word about responsible tourism
I must admit that being a responsible traveler is a bit of work, and while some may do it effortlessly, others may not be aware of the consequences of their (irresponsible) choices when traveling. Do your best to spread the word and help others become more responsible tourists, by politely yet firmly pointing out that certain practices may have a negative impact on the local community, the environment and the wildlife.
Are you a responsible traveler? What practices are you implementing in your every day and travel life to have less negative impact on the world?
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Gal Oya National Park is the perfect place to see elephants responsibly in Sri Lanka.
A while ago I wrote a post about responsible tourism and the use of animals in tourist attractions. I feel that, as a travel blogger, I have a duty to influence people to travel in a way that is more respectful of the cultures of the countries we are visiting, of their nature, and also of their animals.
Unfortunately, too many people still think there is no harm in riding an elephant; no harm in tipping a snake charmer; no harm in swimming with whale sharks – as long as they are out in the sea – and so on.
A chained elephant used for Buddhist celebrations at a temple near Kandy
The Use Of Animals In Tourist Attractions In Sri Lanka
When I decided to visit Sri Lanka, I knew I would find myself in situations where animals would be exploited.
My first taste of it was in Anuradaphura. I was biking around the massive archaeological site and came across a large group of people, all standing in circle to look at something. I approached, curious to see what had captured their attention. I was horrified to see that it was a dancing monkey – in chain, dressed, like it would never happen in nature.
I filmed the entire scene including when people tipped the owner. They were rather amused by the fact that I was filming. I guess they thought I was just another tourist finding this a fun scene.
I was just as horrified when, towards the end of my trip, I saw a group of tourists in Galle Fort handing down a few notes to a snake charmer. I suppose that snakes aren’t considered as animals having feelings, or suffering. I thought of saying something to those tourists, but I know that I would have come across as intrusive, and eventually the conversation would have heated up and we would have had an argument. I left it, thinking that I may as well get my message across via this blog.
On one occasion, though, I completely lost it. I was riding a jeep in Sigiriya, another of the holy sites of Sri Lanka, and an area notorious for the presence of free elephants. I was going to the Rock Fortress. But as the jeep pulled across a junction, I saw a clearly western couple riding a chained elephant, the owner walking along with them, poking the poor giant.
I stuck my head out of the car, and I yelled at the two, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves. I am quite sure they heard me – they turned around to see where the crazy screams were coming from. I am not so sure they got the message. I hope they did, and I hope they felt ashamed.
Care to be a more ethical traveler? Make sure to check my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Gal Oya National Park is one of the biggest, yet least visited parks in Sri Lanka
Am I missing the point?
Maybe it is just me… maybe I am the narrow minded one.
When I was in Koh Chang, Thailand, I met other travelers that had gone on elephant rides and when I told them how irresponsible that was, they said things such as “elephants here are much like pets” (except they are taken from their mothers when they are still very small, and tortured in order to be trained, which isn’t exactly how I treat my beloved cats).
Others use the “local economy” argument: the “poor locals” are just trying to make a living, never mind if someone is suffering for this. And forget about the fact that responsible tourism can also ensure a large revenue, one that is way more sustainable in the longer terms.
Besides, can anyone help me figure out what’s the fun in riding a chained and poached elephant – especially in a country where elephants can be seen in their natural environment, wandering around freely and happily? Which is exactly what I did at Gal Oya National Park, a gorgeous 26000 hectare protected area around Senanayake Samundra reservoir, where over 32 species of mammals live.
Mind you, I didn’t see hordes of elephants. In fact, I only saw one, from such a distance that I had to use binoculars and I hardly managed to capture the moment on camera. But it was such a sight – that huge male (so the guide explained) chewing on grass (or so it looked from a distance), surrounded by nature and other free animals.
Taking in the beauty of Gal Oya National Park
The Boat Safari At Gal Oya National Park
I was on a boat safari organized by Gal Oya Lodge, the only accommodation available that provides access to Gal Oya National Park, and for which responsible tourism isn’t just a brand, but a way of life and a mission.
Together with 5 more persons and Arun, the guide, I had left before dawn, boarding a jeep headed to Gal Oya National Park. Our mission was to spot animals. I had been told that I may be able to see crocodiles, lots of species of birds, buffalos, spotted dears and elephants. That’s it – that’s what I wanted to see. I was there to see elephants.
The staff at Gal Oya Lodge had made it clear that there was no guarantee I would see any elephant at all. They could not predict their movements in such a vast area, and sure enough they wouldn’t go about chasing them just so that I could get a photo.
I was happy to hear that, actually. Yet I kept high hopes I’d be able to at least spot one.
The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park
So we boarded a small boat, to go around the lake in search of animals. There were only two boats on the lake that day, aside from a few fishermen boats. Indeed, Gal Oya National Park doesn’t nearly get as many tourists as the more known Yala National Park.
The boat moved slowly, so that the accustomed eyes of the guide could spot animals. And he sure did! There it was, in the distance! I silently screamed (we had been clearly instructed not to make noise, so as not to scare the animals), so happy I was when I finally managed to focus my eyesight and see it too.
The morning continued with more animal sightings and a fabulous pic-nic on the shores of the lake, from where we could enjoy the nature and the silence surrounding us.
A storm is approaching the lagoon near Gal Oya Lodge
Gal Oya: A Place To Unwind
It is places like Gal Oya Lodge and Gal Oya National Park that make me hopeful that something can be done, and something is indeed being done, to protect the environment we live in and to make sure that both humans and animals can make the most of it.
The lodge is completely immersed in nature. A short and easy walk from the lodge takes to a beautiful lagoon. The scene is as rural as it gets: the odd motorbike or bike slowly pushing along the path; children playing in the water – some of them are actually bathing! – calling on passersby to join them; the odd cow chewing on the greenest grass; and a few simple houses scattered around.
Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge
The only noise to be heard is that of the wind, and of the animals that live freely in the area. It’s blissful at night. It had been a while since I could sleep so peacefully, and not having any phone reception or any internet access made me finally unwind from all the stress that owning an online business implies.
Bungalows are beautifully rustic: large, cozy rooms with incredibly comfortable beds, open air bathrooms, and in line with the policy of environmental respect and protection, no air conditioners. Furthermore, in an effort to reduce plastic waste, only purified water is provided, instead of bottled water.
There’s only an onsite restaurant, that serves delicious food prepared using local ingredients. The tilapa fish is caught in the nearby lake!
There is only one thing I regret about Gal Oya National Park and Gal Oya Lodge: not having stayed longer! Having spent 3 full weeks in the country, I can say it was by far my favorite place and I would love to visit again.
For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.
Make sure to also read Everything You Should Know Before Backpacking Sri Lanka and Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka.
Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Gal Oya Lodge during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
A few months ago, when my trip to South East Asia was still in the preparation phase, my sister (the only person I really enjoy traveling with) and I started browsing any possible material we could find in search of information about places to visit and things to do. Travel blogs, travel guides, travel magazines, travel diaries published by online travelers communities, in Italian and English – whatever it was, we wanted to read it.
I immediately noticed that a few of the travel diaries published by the biggest online travel community in Italy, as well as a number of travel blogs, mentioned visiting the Tiger Temple in Thailand, not too far from Bangkok and supposedly a conservation centre run by Buddhist monks with the aim of saving tigers and re-introducing them into their natural environment. Attached to the diaries and posts, a series of pictures, testimony of the activities that go on in this “temple”: a tourist with a tiger pup being fed on a baby bottle; with a tiger enjoying being pet as if s/he was an overgrown cat; with a tiger on a leash, being taken for a walk (as if s/he was a dog!) and the never-missing selfie.
The unmissable selfie with a tiger – photo courtesy of xiquinhosilva (flickr)
I thought it looked a bit odd that tigers – wild animals by definition – would allow people to feed them with a baby bottle. And in fact, taking a closer look at those pictures, I could see that the tigers were always chained, and they had a bit of an absent, sleepy expression on their face.
Using animals as tourist attractions
I was not born yesterday and I know that lots of attractions and shows exploit animals. Some are even considered part of the cultural heritage of a country (what with the corrida, or bull fights, in Spain and in Latin American countries) – though I can’t understand what’s cultural in killing a bull just for the sake of it.
But while some shows such as bull fights are visibly and vividly cruel, other shows or attractions look more innocent, there is no violence in them – at least none that is immediately visible. Tourist are inevitably attracted to them. They want to go on that romantic ride through the city, on a carriage pulled by beautiful horses (that have likely been under the scorching sun all day and that are stressed because of the traffic and noise); parents want to take their children to the circus; people want to see those animals that they otherwise may only see on tv, or in pictures.
All countries in the world are involved at some level in the ill treatment of animals for the sake of the tourism industry.
Indeed, as Mike Huxley, of Bemused Backpacker, says,
A huge amount of greenwashing is employed to prey on the naivety of tourists and travelers alike who think it is okay to ride on an elephants back, get a selfie with a tiger, cuddle a baby orang utan or swim with a dolphin, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved. Unfortunately too many people put their desire for a once in a lifetime experience with their favorite animal above any ethical concerns, and are either unaware of, or don’t care about the abuse and exploitation that occurs just so these wildlife tourism companies can turn a profit.
I hoped my gut feeling that the Tiger Temple was just another horrible tourist attraction to be linked to animal abuse may be wrong. I told myself I may well be paranoid for doubting one of the best known online travelers’ community in Italy. Surely, they would have made a clear statement against such tourist attractions if they really were exploiting animals, and invited their members not to pay for them, right?
I decided to investigate a bit. After all, I am terribly curious (I may well qualify to be a CIA agent). I did a very basic search on the web by inserting a few simple key words on the search engine. If I managed to clear all my suspects and doubts, my sister and I may well be able to pet a tiger and scratch her behind the ears, and spend the money we had been working hard to save for a good cause.
A bit too sleepy not to raise suspicion. And on a chain – photo courtesy of Nick Hubbard (flickr)
A few clicks and a whole bunch of information popped up – without really having to put much of an effort. Right there, available for anybody to read, was a piece on the Tiger Temple by National Geographic (not exactly comics or tabloid, in case anybody doubts its reputation) where the journalist told of a series of “bizarre” events in the conservation centre. Nothing to worry about (*sarcasm*) other than the fact that the tigers are “beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors,” and that they are likely drugged so that they wouldn’t be aggressive and the visitors would be able to pet or take the unmissable selfie without risking their life; or the sale of tigers to the Chinese black market where they’d be used to extract a little bit of everything. All in the name of conservation and protection.
The same issues had been already denounced in 2008 in a report by Care for the Wild International, which concluded that an attraction like the Tiger Temple was not only not contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild, but it in fact increased the illegal trafficking for the sake of keeping the captive population.
It looked like we wouldn’t be going to the Tiger Temple, after all. Because as long as tourists make it profitable for the monks to run such an attraction, they will continue in their abuse.
But we didn’t despair. We’d spend a month traveling across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and we would surely come across the possibility of living unique experiences.
So we left. And we saw some amazing places and lots of weird things too. And we got confirmation that this part of the world isn’t exactly a champion in environmental protection (I don’t think I have ever seen so much garbage as I have in Vietnam) and animal welfare and protection, including that of species that are at risk of extinction.
I had noticed this already during my trip to Indonesia, where the horses meant to carry visitors to the crater of Mount Bromo looked malnourished, sick and distressed. And already then I understood that for any one tourist that refuses to ride the horses because they are ill treated (guess who that was?) there’s at least 50 who don’t care at all. I was so angered by that situation that I even wrote a post about it.
Read more about my experience on Mount Bromo on my post “Ring of fire or circle of hell?”
If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.
I should have been prepared for more of this kind of scenes on my second trip to South East Asia. Yet, I was deeply saddened to see that the gorgeous complex of Angkor Wat was packed with elephants used to take around groups of tourists – in the scorching 40 degrees Celsius (plus the unbearable humidity). In a place where there hardly is any want for tuk tuk and bikes are easy to use, as the terrain is almost entirely flat and easy to ride, what is the exact need to ride an elephant? Oh right… people do it for fun. I am not really sure where the fun is in riding elephants, but hey different people have different tastes, right?
Read more about my experience in Angkor Wat and get some good tips on how to make the most of it on my post “Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap.”
Too bad that some of these “tastes” have a negative effect on animals. But not everyone thinks of these effects, not even well-meaning people. Mike recalls how during one of his first backpacking trips, he joined an elephant safari – something he is now ashamed of and an experience which he used to change his way of traveling altogether, now having become an advocate for responsible tourism.
Tourists riding elephants in Angkor Wat. I was hoping not to see such things…
Since riding an elephant is not to my taste, but I do love the idea of seeing them up close, I thought that I may be able to find an elephant camp in Koh Chang, to have fun in a more responsible way. I know that a few recovery and conservation centers have opened in South East Asia, so I was hopeful. Besides, Koh Chang is packed with “elephant camps,” so I figured at least one of them would be a conservation centre. I started enquiring about them, and concluded that I would not see elephants on this trip. All these camps would offer are elephant safari. Fun! (more *sarcasm*)
Read more about my experience in Koh Chang on my post “Why Koh Chang is one of the best islands in Thailand.”
Evidently, though, the revenue such businesses generate is still quite big, since they continue existing. And it didn’t take me long to meet people who had enjoyed such attractions. I would have thought that in 2016 getting online would be enough to be literally bombarded with news just about anything, including those about animal abuse in attractions where animals are involved.
The fact that elephants are subjected to any sort of abuse to be trained to carry people isn’t exactly recent news – but a fact that has been known for a while now. In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, which has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more pliable and submissive. They are then confined in small cages or pits, so small that they can’t move around. Finally, they are tortured and beaten constantly for a long period of time with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. Elephants are starved, they are not allowed to sleep, they are tortured and abused both mentally and physically.
All those elephants seen carrying around tourist have gone through this process. Furthermore, carrying people actually causes the elephants a lot of harm and physical pain. As Mike explains, their spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, even less so when they have to do it all day long, every day, without the chance to rest and eat. Yes, they are huge but despite their size their backs hurt when they carry people as well as the wooden saddles strapped to their backs, causing skin and tissue damage. Elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries and crippled as a result of these activities. Not to mention the emotional pain of being abused, the fear they feel constantly, and the stress that such a social animal – used to living in groups – feels when forced to live alone.
All in all, a tourist that decides to take part in an elephant safari is in a way stating that no, s/he really doesn’t care if his or her actions lead to the atrocious suffering of an animal. Or to death, even – just as it happened a few weeks ago in Angkor Wat, where an elephant died due to exhaustion.
Baby elephant chained by all fours, men pulling on his/her legs – this is how elephants are trained for circus or to carry humans – photo courtesy of Sam Haddock (PETA)
It isn’t just elephants that are trained to do things that don’t come to them naturally just to entertain people. The same sad fate is faced by dolphins who work in dolphinariums. Giulia, of Travel Reportage, shares her experience:
As a person who had the chance of working with dolphins in captivity but also of encountering them in the wild, I have learnt about the way these beautiful beyond words animals are treated and threatened so that they will keep performing and entertaining the human spectators. Dolphins are trained to follow their trainers’ instructions, and if they don’t they will get no food or some other kind of punishment. They are very stressed as they have to work continuously, every day and many times a day.
Giulia used to work in dolphinariums and knows what goes on behind them
But, as Giulia adds
Most people will take part in the so called “dolphin encounters” and “dolphin shows” without knowing nor asking themselves what is behind this reality.
I only know too well. Years ago, as part of a tour I was doing, I was taken to a dolphinarium. I don’t even know why or how I ended up there. The show kind of made me sad – seeing those gorgeous animals in a tank, and the entire environment around. But when I was approached by a member of staff asking whether I’d want to swim with the dolphins, I was happy to do it. I don’t know what had gotten over me, I can’t really explain why I did it, even though I had a gut feeling that it was wrong. I just did. Years later, I am still ashamed of what I did.
Giulia underlines the importance of raising awareness when possible, and of
Encouraging others to take some important factors into consideration: No dolphin (or any other animal) would choose captivity over freedom (so simple right?). Furthermore, it is possible to meet dolphins in their natural habitat. They come close to the boats out of curiosity, following them, jumping, playing with people, disappearing and reappearing, often in large groups formed by old and young individuals – so obviously families! – speeding just below the water surface… This makes us understand how the vastness of the oceans is where dolphins belong; no tank, of no size, will ever replace the sea.
What about seeing animals in their natural environment?
After my shameful experience of swimming with dolphins in a dolphinarium, I have seen dolphins in their natural habitat, in many countries – Peru, Panama, Argentina above all, and recently even in my very own hometown. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, and every time that happens, I get very emotional and tear roll down my cheeks, expressing how thankful I am to see them and how sorry I still feel for having contributed to their ill treatment in the past.
Yet, the fact that it is possible to see animals in their natural environment doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being endangered.
Emily, of the incredible duo Along Dusty Roads, regrets her experience with whale sharks:
We still feel ashamed. A quick survey of the options down by the beach and we all too quickly agreed to meet a man at 5 a.m. the next morning. “And we’ll definitely see them out in the sea?” “100%”, he told us. And the price was cheaper than we had expected.
We first thought something may be amiss when the boat had been going for a couple of hours without a word from our captain. However, we were on holiday in the middle of the ocean with some serious sun-bathing to be done. Why stress?
Once land came into full view – plus dozens of other boats and tourists – it was clear that our request to see whale sharks swimming in the wild was not really understood. Instead, huge majestic creatures, doped up on constant food chucked from rowing boats, surrounded by far too many snorkeling humans and penned into a small section of water was the “attraction”. We too went in the water, but the guilt was already weighing us down.
Did you know that whale sharks are attracted with food? – photo courtesy of Klaus Stiefel
Jules, one of the two bloggers behind Don’t Forget to Move, stopped himself short of doing the same:
When I first heard that you could swim with whale sharks in Cebu, Philippines I was set on making the experience part of our itinerary. The thought of being able to experience the world’s largest fish up close is just incredible! But, like any animal tourism activities that you come across during your travels, it’s always best to do research to make sure that engaging in an activity that doesn’t have a negative affect on the animals.
Unfortunately, the more research we did the more we learned that the whale shark experience in Oslob isn’t an animal-friendly activity. After speaking with marine biologists from the Philippines we discovered the tour guides actively feed the whale sharks to encourage them to stay in the area for the tourists. This may not seem harmful at first, but the practice is having detrimental effects on the whale sharks. It is changing migratory patterns of the whale sharks, which may alter their breeding habits in the future, as well as providing them with an insufficient diet for repopulation.
When we passed through Oslob on our trip, after deciding not to participate, we could see the scene from shore. All of our lingering regret for not doing the activity faded then and there when we saw snorkelers crowded in a small buoyed area, crammed in with dozens of other boats, all vying to get up close with these majestic animals. All unknowing that they could actually be contributing to the decline in their species.
And even the places that feign a responsible tourism badge are not entirely trustworthy. Michaela, of Travel Intense, remembers her negative experience in Dominica:
During my trip to Dominica I stayed at a resort that claimed to take part in sea turtle conservation. Their beach is a major nesting ground for leatherback and green turtles. So, they created a small group that is supposed to save the eggs and turtles from local hunters and at the same time educate visitors and let them experience the nesting and hatching process. During our stay, a couple large leatherbacks came ashore; the resort notified me and some other guests, and we all headed for the beach. However, we did not receive a briefing on how to behave around turtles. Originally, I thought this was because the staff knew it wasn’t my first turtle-nesting encounter.
Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need – photo courtesy of Michaela
But when I saw the crowd around me taking pictures with flashes and using flashlights without red filters (even when the turtle wasn’t in “trance”), and chatting away like they were at a beach party, I realized that none of the guests had been briefed, and they had no idea about how to safely watch turtles lay eggs.
Too make matters worse, the staff even allowed people to touch the turtles. I started to really feel very bad about this uncontrolled frenzy and retreated under a palm tree down the beach. While lost in thought, pondering how people could show such interested in wildlife and nature and yet be so careless, I suddenly heard a tired sigh just a few feet away. Another leatherback had made its way to this quiet part of the beach and started to dig a nest.
I left my flashlight and camera where they were, enjoyed Mother Nature’s show under the moonlight, and decided to keep my little secret and not risk letting anyone potentially disturb this already exhausted mother (even though the staff was supposed to take measurements and bury the turtles eggs in a different place). I simply felt that sitting there in the dark and letting the turtle do what her ancestors have done for countless generations without man’s interference was the best call.
The duty of travelers and travel bloggers
What can we do to make sure that animal abuse and practices in the tourism industry that have an adverse effect on animals stop for good? It actually is more simple than we think. We must read. We must ask ourselves questions. And we should never participate in activities that have a negative impact on animals.
Read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Emily has learnt from her mistakes, and now makes it a point to show other travelers the way to become more responsible tourists:
Since , we’re happy to say that we haven’t actually visited an attraction like that; the lesson has been well and truly learned. Our golden rule now is that if animals are involved in an attraction, it’s likely something that we shouldn’t be doing. And, if we want to see them in the wild (the proper wild), we do our research online to ensure that the tour is done in a wholly ethical, responsible and safe manner – unfortunately, the majority are not.
As Mike puts it, travelers should
do research before travel, take the time to educate elves on the issues involved, don’t support organizations that profit from animal cruelty and abuse, and instead search out and support the truly responsible wildlife tourism activities. Watch and observe from a distance instead of getting up close and personal, walk alongside elephants instead of riding on top of them, support good zoos, not unethical ones.
Travel bloggers in particular should never miss the chance to educate other travelers on responsible wildlife holidays, especially when it comes to tourist activities that involve animals.
Hoping that within the next few years all dolphinariums and other kinds of animal confinement will not exist anymore, Giulia says that
In order to reach this very important goal everyone can do their part, first of all by not paying for such shows and encounters, but also by educating the new generations teaching them the true value of nature, whose beauty reaches its greatest expression only when far away from our exploitation.
Similarly, Jules points out the importance of educating the wider public about the consequences of irresponsible tourist practices. He adds:
That’s why we prioritize responsible tourism practices in our travels and articles that we write. Not to make people feel bad about their choices, but to educate them. Little by little we can all start to shift the tourism industry to become more responsible.
Thankfully, more travelers, more people working in the tourism industry and even more authorities are now understanding that responsible tourism isn’t just a trend. As Mike points out,
It is still possible to have an awesome experience, and at the same time help the animals instead of contributing to their abuse, exploitation and ultimate extinction.
Some may argue that local communities still need these kind of attractions to make a living, but indeed, local communities can still earn a living and the tourism industry profit if attractions involving the use of animals are run in an ethical way, that emphasizes the need of caring for them and if they actually offer tourists the chance to interact in an actually constructive way.
Soon enough, responsible tourism will be the only way to travel – or else, we should be ready to say goodbye to dolphins, elephants, tigers and so many other species that make this world a wonderful place.
Pin It For Later
I am really bad at keeping secrets, so before the word gets out and someone else says it for me and there is a huge misunderstanding, I suppose it is better that I actually say what I have been holding down for a while, since the day I got back from my trip to Indonesia. The truth is that I really didn’t enjoy Bali. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I spent nearly long enough there in order to develop a proper, informed opinion on it.
I went to Bali as part of a very large press trip to Indonesia where I did not get to establish the itinerary (or else, I would have never picked to stay in Kuta Beach) let alone the food I ate, and I stayed along a little longer after the trip was over, to explore on my own. To be fair, I have seen a thing or two that were quite nice and I have actually enjoyed. And had I researched a bit more, I would have found good alternatives to the most touristy attractions in Bali. But that was definitely not enough to make me fall in love with Bali and make me want to go back. It was more like a good and welcomed distraction from all the things I did not like.
Read more about the Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”
Living Up To The “Eat, Pray, Love” Legacy
It would be fair to assume that I arrived Bali having in mind the images of tropical paradise as portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love. That very popular movie (and book) has fed a lot of people with beautiful sights of empty tropical beaches, interesting traditions, and an overall peaceful place.
Eat Pray Love picture-perfect Bali – photo courtesy of Anna and Michal (flickr)
Or so I have been told, because I haven’t watched the movie and I haven’t read the book, and so I had no Eat, Pray, Love – induced expectations to meet. In fact, I have never really had Bali in my bucket list, so I did not have in my mind the fantasy of a location I would have to look for to quench my thirst for something beautiful and take that exact same perfect photo. All I had were recollections of some friends who had been – some coming back very enthusiastic (but they are into surfing), other a bit less so. I had not even seen their pictures. If anything, what I have learned in Bali is that it is actually fairly easy to take the perfect photo even in what may be the most imperfect place (more of this later).
Capturing the perfect shot in Monkey Forest
The whole problem is that I am all about first impressions, with people and even with places. I either love something or someone at first sight, or I don’t. There is either an immediate spark, or there isn’t. There is either a special chemistry, or none at all. And if there isn’t that famous chemistry, the only thing I can hope for is a honest friendship. It is not even a matter of how beautiful a place is. It is a question of vibes. And it hasn’t happened often (although it has, to be fair) that I went somewhere for a second time and finally, magically liked it and enjoyed it. And Bali really didn’t spark in front of my eyes. It’s like I went on a date with a man and he put up his worst attire for the occasion, stick his fingers up his nose, burped loudly and talked on the phone during dinner – that is how Bali was to me.
Relaxing at the pool – the only way to escape the heat in Bali
I may even try to justify the fact that I didn’t like Bali by saying that the extreme heat killed whatever little energy I had in me at the end of a very demanding and at times truly exhausting trip. I may say that the persistent stomach bug that caused me a lot of discomfort did not exactly put me in a good mood to let myself be infused with the magic of Bali. But really, that is not the case. I have still managed to enjoy Cartagena, in Colombia, or Leon, in Nicaragua, despite the suffocating heat. I have been sick all over the world (now, that is something to be quite proud of!) and it has hardly put me off a place (unless there were other reasons involved, obviously). What happened in Bali is that the first impression I got of it is that of an extremely congested, incredibly polluted, very dirty, truly commercial and way too crowded place for me to be able to enjoy it. I am not even sure it is fair to talk about “impressions” because, I’d dare to say, Bali is congested, polluted, and crowded. I really couldn’t wait to get out of Bali. So much so that the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy to me was more like a “Fast, Wish for the best and Get Out ASAP”.
Bali Is Too Congested And Polluted For My Taste
The impression I got in Bali is that nobody likes the idea of walking or biking. I like walking, and I tried to do that. But the minute I stepped out of the hotel, I was invested by a stream of cars and motorbikes, none of them taking notice of me, unless it was to honk loudly so that I would move out of their way. Each and every person in Bali – locals as well as tourists – moves around by car or, even better, by scooter or motorbike. All I saw were scooters and motorbikes: entire local families jump on one, keeping the Indonesian tradition alive (they take bonding really literally) and making the most of the gasoline. It was quite common to see 4 persons riding the same tiny motorbike, none of them wearing a helmet and a small child literally tied to the chest with a rope, to hold him tight while zipping through traffic. I stared at them, curiously and, at the same time, terrified of what may happen if a stray dog crossed the street all of a sudden and they had to break. Those drivers do have skills, because (as anybody who holds a motorbike license would say) keeping a balance when carrying that much weight is no easy task. I guess they were just as curious to see my stare, as they often smiled back at me as they passed (but never stopped, God forbid!).
As rural as it gets – photo courtesy of Josh (flickr)
My first taste of Bali’s extreme traffic was the night I landed in Denpasar, its main city. I hopped on the bus, hopeful for a short ride to the restaurant in Jimbaran, right by the beach. I told myself it couldn’t take that long – it looked quite close on the map. I soon realized that I could have not been more mistaken. It took the bus I was on a good hour to get out of the airport terminal (a total of, perhaps, no more than 500 meters). Scooters zipped through the buses and the cars, left and right, in those narrow streets, careless of pedestrians and other vehicles coming from other directions, causing the bus driver to hit the breaks all the time (forget about being car sick!) and to press that horn at regular intervals. Too bad I did not have my iPod to listen to some music, so that loud horn noise was as close to music as it got for me. Not pleasant, especially for someone who is very sensitive to noise.
As I got off the bus, I tried to cross the street. Nobody (cars, motorbikes and buses alike) would ever stop to allow me and other pedestrians to cross. Scooters would rather drive around me than stop. I was pretty certain that they would have hit me had I not run, screaming in terror, to get to safety. No distraction was allowed, unless I wanted to risk my life. I have later on tried lots of tricks to demand drivers to stop – including putting my arm out, rigidly – with little or no success. The only thing that worked when I wanted to cross the street was finding a policeman or even a hotel employee that, whistle and torch in hand, would stop the traffic so that I and other tourists could cross the street.
Safety first – photo courtesy of Simon_sees (flickr)
I found it really hard to get away from traffic in Bali. If Denpasar and the nearby Kuta – which didn’t take me long to realize that is not another city, or a resort: it pretty much is just a huge neighborhood of Denpasar, and there isn’t any city interruption, let alone traffic break – are the most congested places on the island, I didn’t exactly have a joyride when I tried getting to other parts of Bali. In order to get from Kuta to the theoretically more rural Ubud I had to fiercely haggle a taxi which would have gladly ripped me off (although I had a very clear idea of the price I would have to pay). I was told it would take about 1 hour, I expected the ride to last about 90 minutes, and it eventually took 2 hours. I guess by then I was used to the different perspective on timings that Indonesians have compared to Europeans.
As if the traffic was not a problem in and of itself, I was exhausted by the pollution that plagues the most crowded destinations in Bali. I spotted several locals and the occasional tourist wearing a mask to block the exhaust smoke and the bad smell coming from the piles of garbage being burnt, but I have doubts that it helped much. I was surely disappointed at this. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bali, but sure enough, coming from a city, I would never pick to go on holidays to a place that is seriously polluted and where traffic is a huge issue – it just isn’t my idea of a relaxing time.
I found Ubud a bit better in terms of traffic and even more so Bedulu, a smaller city right next to it where traffic seems to slow down at least at night, and there are a few and very welcomed oasis of peace where I could enjoy some much needed silence.
Not exactly a secluded beach – photo courtesy of Aaron Toth (flickr)
The Bali I Saw Is Dirty, Crowded And Commercial
Bali isn’t nearly as rural and pristine as I imagined it would be. I had to check a few facts when I got there, because I could not really understand what I was seeing unless I put it in perspective. So, what I have discovered, is that it is a rather small island (a little over 5600 square km) inhabited by a whopping 4.5 million people. That isn’t a small number for such a small place. Just to give you an idea, I come from Sardinia, which is 5 times as big in size and has a quarter of the population. Not exactly crowded!
I then added to the already large population of Bali the huge intake of tourists that visit the island all year long and I got a better understanding of how crowded it was. Most of the time I just felt that there were people everywhere and it was hard for me to get away from them, and from an urban area altogether (because these people do have to live somewhere, so houses and apartment buildings have to be built).
A gorgeous sunset in Kuta Beach – it doesn’t show what’s behind the scenes
For each postcard picture of Bali that circulates on the web, showing a tropical beach, a perfect sunset and a beautiful rice field portraying a lost paradise, there should be one that shows what is going on behind the scenes, and what the rest of the landscape really looks like. Admittedly, I could not resist the temptation of making Kuta Beach look way better than it really is, to get all my friends back home a bit jealous in front of the magic I was experiencing. But that was just a perfectly concocted show, where I waited for the perfect time to take a shot. I took a few pictures at sunset and the light was lovely and looking at the waves breaking on the shore was quite an impressive show.
But as I looked back, right behind me, all the magic was gone and I could once again see Kuta Beach for what it really is: not a lovely, white, sandy and secluded beach, but one where the sand is dark, there is garbage all over and right behind it there is mall after mall, shop after shop, chain restaurant after chain restaurant.
Try and find a quiet spot there – photo courtesy of Surf 30 (flickr)
And, just to make it even less appealing to me, there were the crowds. Not just the crowds there are on a Sunday in any popular Sardinian beach. I am talking about so many people that I thought I would never find a spot to sit and relax, and just stare at the ocean. I am talking about crowds that exasperate the desperate conditions in which the island verses. I am talking hordes of drunk tourists that find it ok to casually forget plastic bottles and bags on the beach, as if it wasn’t dirty enough already and Bali wasn’t struggling with its garbage. So much garbage there was, that when I saw rats roaming among the piles of trash I was actually not that surprised but just a bit disgusted.
This isn’t exactly my idea of pristine – photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (flickr)
So many people there were on that beach, that I just wondered how they could surf without risking hitting others in the water.
It was not a pretty view, at least not to me. And between all the garbage, the dark dirty sand, all those people everywhere and the vendors who tried to push flowers, trinkets and what not on me, I just thought I’d better leave and go back to the hotel and find tranquility in the privacy of my room.
I am not sure where the image of a lost tropical paradise comes from, because the more I saw Kuta, the more I thought it looked like the Benidorm of Indonesia.
Care to be a more ethical tourist? Make sure to read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Had I been a shopaholic I would have seen the benefit of visiting a huge mall-city. Bali surely is a shopping paradise and one could spend days browsing through the shops and the market stalls in search of a good deal, which inevitably implies the ability to haggle fiercely with the vendors in order to avoid being ripped off (the same goes for taxi rides, by the way). Too bad I can’t be bothered with shopping!
I may have noticed all of this because I am a spoiled girl from Sardinia, used to beaches that despite getting crowded in the summer months, never get dirty and most definitely never get commercial (it is actually forbidden to build anything even just close to the beach, that is how much we value our territory). I do understand that being from Sardinia is at times a limit, as I can’t help compare whatever place I visit to my beloved homeland. Perhaps someone who isn’t as spoiled as I am is able to enjoy the beaches in Bali.
To be fair, I found Ubud to be better than the rest of the Bali I saw. It has a bit more of a genuine feel and a bit more of character. But I can see that the impact of mass tourism and commercialization is seeping deeper and deeper here too, with more“high street” and chain shops opening to replace the smaller boutiques and the local businesses. I saw taxi drivers becoming more aggressive – they would not take a “thanks, I do not need a ride”. But at least, it was not as loud, not as “right in my face” and not as tacky as Kuta. Here’s a guide to Ubud with plenty of things to do.
Is Bali Really That Bad?
I don’t like being completely negative. And I would lie if I didn’t point out that Bali actually does have its charms and that there are a few cool things to do in Bali. I saw some really beautiful sunsets and sunrises – so gorgeous they were, the light so beautiful, that for a while I forgot about all the other things I did not like about Bali. I thought that seeing the traditional boats as they navigated the ocean, at sunset, from the view point of Ulu Watu temple, was a mesmerizing view.
Read more about Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”
The striking sunset seen from Ulu Watu Temple
The rice fields took me to a world that I hardly knew existed, with their bright green color.
The gorgeous rice fields in Bali – photo courtesy of Juan Jerez
I was captured by the traditional dances such as the Kacak – yes, it is mostly a show for tourists but it was fun to watch and experience, it was engaging and I really laughed hard at the jokes. I enjoyed spots such as the Elephant Cave. And I had a blast in Monkey Forest, where monkeys always put up a good show and I had to fight with a naughty one who thought it would be ok to steal my sunglasses (I got them back, I won!).
I found a few good restaurants in Bali – from the most traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine, to other international cuisine, I could have a different meal every day (that is, as soon as the trip was over and I could actually make my own orders!).
I saw some gorgeous resorts and hotels in Bali where I managed to relax and unwind for a real steal.
Bali has some fantastic resorts
And, when I looked around, asked and haggled, the prices were really convenient and it was a real budget destination where it was easy to splurge without breaking the bank.
All in all, my impression is that tourism has had an overly negative impact on Bali and I am afraid that this once beautiful island has lost much of its character and its uniqueness for the sake of mass tourism. While I understand that tourism can give the local economy a huge boost (again, I shall point out I am from Sardinia and tourism is the biggest revenue here), I appreciate the need to protect the environment, the authenticity of a place, its culture and traditions.
I would have liked to see a more traditional, more slower pace, more cultural Bali – where people, locals and visitors alike, can still appreciate the little things in life. I would have liked to have more interaction with the locals, one that involved more than begging them not to hit me with their scooters while I tried to cross the street. I am sure there is a better Bali – I just did not get to see it, and that is a shame because it should be everywhere and not just in the hidden spots.
I really hope that the Balinese people can take the protection of their culture, traditions and environment a bit more seriously and invest in them, even as a way to attract a more responsible kind of tourism, one that has less impact on what could otherwise be a really nice place. Till the day this happens, I will prefer to stay away from it. And perhaps travel to Raja Ampat, where apparently my friend Margherita found plenty magic.
Have you been to Bali? What were your impressions on it?