Thinking before we travel ... typing at Starbucks ... gap adventures is no more
Interesting conference/presentations in Toronto Tuesday night on the future of tourism.
To celebrate World Tourism Day, the company formerly known as gap adventures, started by the highly engaging and entertaining Bruce Poon Tip (see photo), staged a mini-conference at the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatre on Yonge St.
It was partly serious and partly fun, which is as it should be with travel. I mean, travel is great. But it's not curing cancer. I always tell people to lighten up a bit when it comes to travel and to have fun writing their stories.
But I digress. The evening was pretty good; better than I expected. But not always on topic.
Erika Harms of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which also sponsored the evening, talked about taking tours that are mindful of a community and also talked about how travel can change vanishing cultures to enduring cultures.
Travelling to Costa Rica might seem destructive to the environment, but she pointed out how tourism has provided money to set up large tracts of protected forest and has helped establish fisheries in the ocean.
"Tourism is the biggest employer of women in the world," she said.
Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, compared tourism to a fire.
"If you can keep it in the right place, it cooks your food and keeps you warm. If it gets out of the hearth, it can be destructive."
Stowell said some $200 billion is spent by tourists in emerging markets every year, and that one in 12 jobs on the planet is related to tourism.
Of course, speakers noted that the destinations we love the most are the ones that often fall into trouble. Poon Tip talked about how so many people have moved into cities near Machu Picchu to support travellers, many of them on trips he's helped organize.
To combat some of those problems, he's worked to set up weaving outposts along the Inca Trail so locals can sell textiles and preserve a way of life. They also have built facilities in Cuzco to help feed and shelter local youth, and they send doctors to Tibet each year to perform eye surgery on hundreds of Tibetans.
It's a tough balance, really. I mean, how many carbon offsets does one have to buy to make up for flying to Punta Cana for a family vacation? How many towels do you have to hang up in your hotel bathroom and not have laundered each day to make a difference to the environment? I never ask for hotels to be washed while I'm staying somewhere. But, hell, how much does that really help?
(I'm reminded, to digress again, of one of my favourite M*A*S*H TV episodes. Hawkeye and B.J. are faking a pilot's medical condition so he can't keep riding about Korea in his chopper and buying mementoes from kids who risk their lives in mine fields, or something to that effect. The pilot gives the doctors the evil eye and says, "I'm just one guy. You think you can change the world?" Hawkeye just smiles and says, "No, just our little corner of it." It's a cliche, sure, but those are words I try to live by.)
Some folks Tuesday night talked about the evils of enclosed or all-inclusive resorts, suggesting most of the money goes offshore. True, it's probably better to stay with locals.
Travel writer/blogger Gary Arndt, a superb speaker by the way, talked about how he landed in Saigon and ended up staying with a local family for $15 a night. That money stayed with the family, of course.
He also strayed off topic but entertained folks with talk about how meetings are the biggest wastes of time in history and how pretty soon everyone will be able to do their work while typing at Starbucks. He's got a point.
Ethical travel is important. I think most Canadians travel fairly well. I try to tip generously overseas. I try not to bargain folks down so I can buy a scarf for $5 instead of $6. The extra dollar means nothing to me but it might make a world of difference to someone in Jaipur.
I was on a CBC radio panel with Bruce Poon Tip and other travel experts a while back, and we were talking about culturally acceptable travel. Most of the panellists were pretty liberal and were talking about how we shouldn't go to China because of civil rights and shouldn't go to Myanmar and shouldn't go to God knows where else.
I had had enough at one point and started firing away, more to cause trouble and spark some conversation than anything else. I work hard. When I go on vacation, I don't want to have to worry about a government's politics. I mean, am I supposed to boycott Toronto restaurants because Rob Ford wants to close libraries?
Poon Tip made a similar point last night, saying he's in the business of selling travel all around the world.
"If I ran my business as an ethical tourism company, I'd be out of business tomorrow," he noted. "I couldn't go to China."
He also suggested Barbados might be off-limits because homosexuality is illegal in the country.
There are no easy answers. But it IS important to at least give a little thought before we travel. If we can make a choice between an eco-friendly resort and one that isn't, by all means we should take the low-impact resort.
If one resort employs locals and they've been there for 30 years and they give back to the community, such as the Ka'anapali Beach Resort on Maui, then we should give them some business.
It's not easy. And I'm not about to get on my high horse and tell folks what to do. But it's all food for thought on this incredibly shrinking planet.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about gap adventures. They've been battling The Gap in the U.S. for years, arguing that a Canadian gap adventures company isn't hurting the big clothing seller one iota. I'd have to agree, but the courts in the U.S. recently ruled against Poon Tip.
"I've had enough," he told supporters at the conference last night, revealing he's spent $5 million on legal fees and can't afford any more battles against the jeans and khaki goliath from San Francisco. From now on, the company will simply be known as g adventures, but they're keeping the distinctive g with the ampersand around it that has stood out for some time. Poon Tip earlier this year said they'd still be known as the Great Adventure People, so there's still a good link to the past there.
Not a bad solution, but too bad it had to come to this. Poon Tip took more than a few theatrical swipes at The Gap. At one point, he showed a slide with a cowering person or maybe an animal, I don't quite recall since I'm battling a bad head cold, standing up against the giant American beast. Off to one side were the words, "F--k You."
The crowd went wild. Good thing Bruce didn't see the label on the sports jacket I was wearing....