I was inspired to think about what kind of traveller I am at the recent Future of Tourism event in Vancouver. Instead of discussing what tourism will look like in 5, 10 or 15 years down the road, though, the key speaker – G Adventures’ (formerly GAP Adventures) founder, Bruce Poon Tip – gave a business presentation about successful business models and some the good things his company has done over the years in developing countries.
(G Adventures and its non-profit partner, Planeterra, presented the event, which included Paula Vlamings speaking about Planeterra’s work, and blogging couple Daniel and Audrey of UncorneredMarket.com, who gave a great presentation on technology and travelling, although not much was said about the future of it.)
As I sat watching video clips about the projects G Adventures has done (opening the 20/20 Vision Centre in Cambodia to restore sight to blind residents, fundraising over $50,000 in under two days to install two water stations outside of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya during the drought in 2011, both INCREDIBLE undertakings), I had a lot of time to think about marketing and messages that create a movement, both of which G Adventures are experts at.
Are you a traveller or a tourist?
In their video campaign that starts with the voiceover, “I’m not a tourist,” the obvious conclusion is that being a “traveller” is much better than being a “tourist”; their app is called the “untouristapp.” It’s a cute marketing twist, but whether you’re a backpacker, on a tour with G Adventures, or a cruise passenger along with 3,000 other guests, you’re still a tourist.
An example that Bruce brought up about travelling to connect with the local community – which makes you a traveller and not a tourist – was a project G Adventures did in Peru. They established the Women’s Weaving Co-operative in the Ccaccoccollo community of Peru’s Sacred Valley so that the female residents, often the “wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of [G Adventures’] porters and cooks,” could contribute financially to the household.
But because G Adventures (and other companies) brought their tours to this area in the first place, Bruce mentioned that kids are moving to the cities to get jobs working at accommodations serving tourists. In doing so, a lot of the local traditions are being forgotten. So, G Adventures started the co-operative, by request from the local women, to help keep those traditions alive and provide employment.
On the surface, these types of projects sound great, but I feel a bit uncomfortable with them. As outsiders, as travellers, we impose a new way of doing things on them and then give them the “opportunity” to make a living a new way, with a new meaning for success. Our way. Is that really progress, teaching other cultures to be like us?
Which brings me back to the message of choosing to be a traveller rather than a tourist. It’s really just a marketing term used to make us feel like we’re better than those who take mass-consumed cruises and bus tours. And it works. The live Twitter feed that was streaming at the Future of Tourism event was filled with travellers patting each other on the back for changing the world through travel. They happily devoured the message and parroted direct quotes from the speakers, which were re-tweeted again and again. It was fascinating to watch.
My take away from the event? G Adventures is smart, really smart. But I think it’s important to remember that, whether the message is coming from a company you respect (G Adventures really does seem to be filled with good people who have good hearts) or a corporation that you despise, they’re still feeding us a message that benefits their bottom line.
There is no “real” Cancun or “authentic” Cuba, referring to getting away from the “tourist areas.” Those areas exist because we created them, us travellers, and they are just as much a part of the city or country as the so-called “real” areas. Locals still work there and probably spend more time there than at their homes, so how is getting away from them any more “real”?
If we wanted to see countries that are untouched by others, the “way they once were,” we have to stop travelling to them, which I’m sure no one with an adventurous spirit wants to do. We can’t have it all ways.
As consumers / tourists / travellers, it’s our responsibility to always be thinking critically about what we’re being told. We have to keep asking questions, especially from the companies and brands we love, because that dialogue is what makes travelling so enriching.
No matter how much I travel and get to know a culture, I am still a tourist, I am still a visitor; and I’m grateful for being welcomed into so many countries as a guest.
I am a tourist.