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A holiday for many people in the world used to be a simple thing – a well-earned rest from the grind of regular work, perhaps a few days or a week by the sea, or maybe staying with friends. As the cost and availability of flights made air travel cheaper and easier, the world suddenly shrank, and people started to demand more exotic destinations and ever more sophisticated or unusual experiences. Now, finally, there is a sense that this craze has peaked, and while tourists might still want to visit long-haul destinations, a desire for authenticity and simplicity is gradually taking over as the prevailing trend from the need for the thrilling and outlandish.
So, as tourism has matured, tourists have too. As well as looking for a good location, price and things to do, many tourists also now want to consider the implications of where they stay for the local community and environment. Are staff from the local community, and are they being paid well enough? How are hotels and tourist businesses dealing with all the waste they produce? Are locals being consulted about how they could work with tourism businesses to maximise the benefits for everyone?
You might be already feeling a little guilty about your carbon footprint after taking a long-haul flight, so you probably want to know that the hotels you stay in and the tourist attractions you visit are low-impact and that some share of the profits is going to local people. But at the moment this is not policed – so anyone can make grandiose claims with little to back them up.
In November 2005 Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) – the body that is responsible for the fairtrade brand seen on tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas and many other agricultural products – decided to commission a feasibility study on a fairtrade brand for tourism, and set up an advisory board consisting of organisations such as Oxfam, Tourism Concern and South Africa’s fairtrade scheme. After the study and consultation were finished, it seems that the idea has been dropped for now and FLO are not going to pursue fairtrade branding for tourism, other than for products in hotels such as towels.
This means that as a tourist or traveller, you are often left on your own to decide if your holiday is really ethical and really green. One of the ways to try to ascertain this is to ask tough questions. Does a hotel you are thinking about staying in claim to help the local community? Ask how. Does it claim to be green? Ask why. It's easy for hotels to pay lip service to these ideas, but they can mean more work and less cold, hard profit, so look hard at claims they make. If a hotel claims to have helped to build a local school, but the funds really came from guest donations, then it's the guests who built the local school, not the hotel itself. And what if a hotel helped to build a local school but took away much of the village's water supply?
It can be hard to know for sure it a tourism business ethical to the core or just posing - so if, for example, you have stayed in a hotel and the claims it has made on its website are patently false, you can tell others about this after the trip. The power of the Internet and Tripadvisor gives travellers a voice, and with no organisation policing fairtrade claims, tourists take on some of this role.
Also where possible, think local and act local – as in stay at a locally run hotel, eat in a locally run restaurant, shop in local shops and markets. This is by far the surest way to ensure that your cash ends up in local pockets. But also be realistic – you are in Africa, so if you want to stay in a hotel with Western style facilities then you might want to stay in a Western hotel. But bear in mind, the more local you go, the more you will learn about the real Zanzibar. It all depends how much you want to get to know the place – but even if you just want a carefree beach holiday sipping cocktails, you can at least check that your hotel is a hero not a villain.
Tourism Concern is one of the main organisations that campaigns for more ethical tourism. Campaigns manager Rachel Noble says that it is difficult to tell whether there has been a genuine rise in ethical tourism so far in Africa. “While the number of tour operators offering responsible holidays has certainly increased and some great new precedents have been set in terms of sustainable ventures, typically small-scale, this has to be offset by the widespread ‘greenwashing’ that exists within the industry. In many cases, labels such as ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ are applied to tourist enterprises simply as a marketing tool and do not necessarily equal good practice.”
“Furthermore, the prevalence and popularity of package holidays in all-inclusive luxury resorts complete with golf course and mega-yacht marina continues to dominate. The tendency towards such holidays (of the package, all-inclusive variety at least), could certainly increase in the current economic climate.”
Noble says that there is a common misconception that ethical tourism is more expensive, when in fact it can be cheaper. “Ethical tourism isn’t just about the products on offer, it’s also about how people holiday. For example, eating in local restaurants and shopping at local markets is probably cheaper than buying everything at the hotel and also helps ensure that more of your money reaches the local economy. It also involves learning about the culture of a place before you go so you don’t behave in a way that is disrespectful and offensive to local people – this costs nothing but a bit of time and consideration.”
Italian NGO ACRA, the Association for Rural Cooperation in Africa and Latin America, works mainly on pro-poor tourism – a trendy term at the moment that basically translates as making sure that those in poverty get as much benefit as possible out of local tourism.
According to ACRA, which is now supporting development schemes in the village of Bwejuu, having worked in the villages of Nungwi and Jambiani for the previous three years, the different fairtrade schemes that operate at the moment are too piecemeal. But in Zanzibar there is at least some good practice. Chumbe Island Coral Park is a shining example – a stunning luxury island hotel that has almost no impact on the environment and involves the local community. But there are others – Matemwe Bungalows is mentioned as another hotel where the management clearly cares about the local area and acts responsibly.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Italian package tourism chain Venta Club is also doing good work in Zanzibar. Zanzibaris have sometimes had to lower their eyes as package tourists wander around Stone Town in skimpy clothes, with no real notion of the local culture and Muslim sensibilities. Venta Club, however, has employed an environmental interpreter; an individual who explains to tourists all about the local culture and how to get the most from their holiday. The other big chains that offer holidays in Zanzibar have not yet engaged in the pro-poor tourism agenda, according to ACRA, but it is hoped that they will in time.
Tribes Travel is a medium-sized travel company that specialises in fairtrade travel and offers holidays to Zanzibar, among many destinations. Founder Amanda Marks says that her priority was trying to ensure that local people were getting benefit from tourism. How does this work in practice? “We send out ‘responsible questionnaires’ to the hotels we use and we give them an eco-rating. Based on this we promote those hotels and lodges which have the best policies in terms of staff, local communities, environment etc.”
Marks says that if there is an option, she believes that most people will choose the ethical option.
Another ethical tourism company that caters to tourists’ desire for more authentic travel is Explore Zanzibar. Run by Danish-Zanzibari Maryam Olsen, the company specialises in linking tourists up with local communities. Visits can be tailored very specifically to the particular interests of travellers, but can range from study trips to learn about Islamic shariah law, to expand the knowledge of law students and practising lawyers, to local cookery classes for those who want to find out more about Swahili cuisine.
Olsen says that cultural tourism in Zanzibar “is starting to come now. I remember when I started there were not that many people.” On mainland Tanzania, there are some hotspots for cultural tourism, such as the Usumbara mountains in the north-east. If Zanzibar can tap into this kind of market by developing grassroots tourism linked directly into local communities, then the benefits should be obvious. The best places for village cultural tours include Jambiani and Makunduchi, but almost wherever you stay, there will probably be some kind of tour on offer that allows you to see how locals live and work, and where the profits should go directly to the community.
One example of an innovative project is the locally owned Zanzibar Butterfly Centre, situated right next to the small village of Pete. This project has from inception closely involved locals, and the centre also has a close symbiotic relationship with the surrounding forest. Villagers are encouraged to harvest butterfly pupae for sale to the centre for use in its tropical gardens, visited by tourists and local schoolchildren on educational trips. This provides an income for villagers and also encourages the preservation of the forest. It seems like exactly the kind of project that would benefit from a global fairtrade labelling scheme.
Former manager Alistair Mould says that such a scheme would be really good because the butterfly centre is “locally owned and about poverty alleviation, and about helping an area that is not normally positively affected by tourism because it is not by the coast”. Situated close to famous Jozani forest with its red colobus monkeys, Pete has nevertheless normally been bypassed by tourists who whistled past on the main road on their way to the beach or back to town. The hope is that now more people will visit, enjoy the butterfly centre and interact with the villagers. “The idea of the project is to rely on that change of consciousness in tourism – people being more aware of what they are doing and who the money they are spending is benefiting,” says Mould.
And the promotion of ethical tourism above all makes economic sense – fairtrade-branded products are a success worldwide and enjoyed as much as 47 per cent growth in 2007. The appetite is clearly there for ethical products and services, especially amongst tourists who may be feeling guilty about long-haul flights, and in Zanzibar there is clearly a growing enthusiasm for a more ethical, authentic experience that could bring local people and tourist from all over the world much closer together.
In time, more and more people should leave Zanzibar with a lasting impression of the uniqueness of its people and culture as well as memories of its beautiful beaches.