‘Eco’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Ethical’…the many names for responsible tourism

Labels are difficult things. They provide shortcuts to understanding, but we tie ourselves up in knots over choosing which to apply to what. Cynthia Ord, managing editor of The Travel Word newsletter, attempted to define the NINE labels she had discovered that are applied to ‘ethical travel’. Some you’ve no doubt heard of, and use, others attempt to better define a complex concept – all prove that describing ‘ethical travel’ is not simple!

hut in Elephant Valley, Moldulkiri, Cambodia

‘Ecotourism’ – a term coined as early as 1965 and widely defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Its common usage means it’s a good one to use, but the flipside means it is also vulnerable to misuse – used as a lifestyle definition for holidays full of ‘feel good’ gloss but offering little in the way of real, positive impacts for local people.

‘Green tourism’ – another overly misused label and often at odds with trips that involve long-haul flights (the greenest holidays could mean staying at home in the back garden!) ‘green tourism’ is often used to describe holidays that meet stringent environmental/eco standards. As an extension, the ‘slow travel’ movement, appreciating the journey not just the destination, is growing in popularity and aims to encourage greater appreciation and connections with local people and environments.

‘Voluntourism’ – a slightly embarrassing blended word but the best way to describe holidays based on volunteering projects, especially as many projects are realising that there is a huge market out there of people who have only two-weeks’ holiday but want to volunteer their time. Travellers have to be sure that the projects they choose really are making a useful, positive impact and are not glorified package holidays of little real benefit to local environments and communities.

‘Community-based tourism’ and ‘pro-poor tourism’ both define travel that improves local communities economically. Many people extoll the benefits of visiting struggling tourist spots: tourists simply spending their holiday money in local restaurants, hotels and shops in disaster-hit areas (such as tourism-dependent towns hit by the 2004 tsunami in SE Asia) is important, but ‘community-based tourism’ and ‘pro-poor tourism’ more accurately describe how travellers can spend their time and money on micro-tourism enterprises such as staying in homestays or eating in community cafes, often in developing countries.

As Cynthia Ord points out, there are plenty of critics of ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible tourism’ – conjuring up images of patronising First World do-gooders participating in a kind of ‘poverty voyeurism’ – but tourists who want to make travel choices to be greener, more ethical and more responsible, need a steer or two on what to choose. More travellers sharing their experiences of hotels and resorts, tour operators and volunteering projects using these labels, both good and bad, can help us sift the real responsible travel options from the ‘greenwash’.

 

 

Malihom, Penang, Malaysia

Malihom

Kiri N/T168, Bukit Penara, Mukim 6, Balik Pulau 11000 Penang, Malaysia

www.malihom.com

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You don’t have to love the exotic durian fruit to love staying on this private estate (durian fanatics descend on this hilltop estate during durian season June-July). It provided one of the highlights of our Malaysian trip.

After arriving tired, frustrated two hours after arriving at the Georgetown ferry port (our taxi driver got lost navigated the windy roads into the hills – Malihom is very remote!), our hosts Mim and his family (who look after the estate year round) could not have been more welcoming (the chef had finished for the evening but Mim cooked up a welcome and delicious meal within minutes). The following four days followed a similar pattern of friendly staff, fab food, and peace and relaxation.

Accommodation: The name Malihom means ‘village of the fragrant rice’ and nine converted rice barns are available to rent (we stayed in BaanMai – meaning ‘house in the woods’) mostly accommodating 2 people and all en-suite with balcony/platform areas. All are decorated to a high standard and enjoy a variety of views – the estate is on top of one of the highest hills on Penang so you can enjoy panoramic views across to the mainland or out to the ocean on the western side.

Restaurant: All meals are included (alcoholic drinks are extra) with a mix of SE Asian and European dishes available for breakfast, lunch and dinner (it’s a set 3-course meal at dinner, no choice but always good). You can choose to dine on the upper or lower decks, both ‘semi-al afresco’ which offers a rather special setting day or night.

Facilities: As a boutique retreat, Malihom offers the expected spa treatments (massage, aromatherapy), swimming pool and yoga, but also encourages guests to enjoy its unique surroundings (there are a number of trails around the estate – take some binoculars as bird-watchers will get a thrill from spotting species including the Japanese sparrowhawk and crested serpent eagle). We visited out of season (early January, just before Chinese New Year which is one of Malihom’s peak periods) and, apart from one night, had the entire estate to ourselves! We didn’t leave (the nearest town is several kilometers away down a long, windy road) but spent our days strolling around the pretty gardens (and counting dozens of frogs in the ornamental ponds), taking in the scenery from the look-out tower, exploring the orchards and woods surrounding the estate, and on one particularly rainy day, reading and relaxing in the communal living room. If you do like durian fruit, visit during May-August (book well ahead) when you can taste some of the best durian around!

Recommended for… Complete relaxation! Best to visit out of season when you need a break from a hectic schedule, or June/July if you love the ‘King of Fruits’.

Be aware that… Malihom is a retreat on top of a high, remote hill so once you get here, you won’t be going anywhere else for a while! As an otherwise private estate you won’t have a choice of bars, places to eat, shops etc – but once you’re there, you’ll realise you really don’t need them…

‘Good’ credentials:

  • Most of the stuctures on the estate are built from reclaimed/recycled wood (the barns were unused rice barns from Chang Mai in Thailand; the decking around the main living areas are made from reclaimed railway sleepers)
  • Cleaning products for furniture and flooring are 100% biodegradable and natural
  • Bathrooms are stocked with organic handmade toiletries made at Malihom
  • Malihom encourages guests to appreciate the wildlife and natural surroundings of the estate

 

Date of visit: January 2011

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Our Jungle House, Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

Our Jungle House

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

T: (from outside Thailand) 6681-417-0546; (from inside) 081-417-0546

www.khaosokaccommodation.com

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‘Our Jungle House’ is well away from the (small) town on the edge of the Khao Sok National Park, and is nestled deep inside 25 acres of privately owned rainforest. You will only hear the sound of gibbons, hornbills and the running stream! Run by American Bodhi and his Thai family, they are committed to responsible tourism and ensure that everything they do at ‘Our Jungle House’ has minimal impact on the environment and a positive impact on the local community. Bodhi has been working at similar tourism ventures (including Golden Bhudda Beach Resort also recommended on this site) and is always happy to suggest ways to expand your experience by volunteering in the area.

Accommodation: Over four nights we stayed in three of the thirteen tree houses and riverside cottages (due to a busy booking period!) so feel quite well-versed in their accommodation facilities – all very impressive! The Romance Tree House (with its ‘outdoor’ bathroom and large, secluded balcony overlooking the river and incredible limestone cliff face) was the best, closely followed by the Thai House riverside cottage (high on stilts and spacious with two floors – balcony does face the pathway though). The Hideaway Tree House is cute but is rather cramped in comparison with a tiny balcony! Cottages and tree houses suit from 1-2 people or 1-4 people (with one suiting up to 5).

Food: Thai, American and European food (breakfasts , lunches, snacks and dinner) is available at the restaurant and bar, both downstairs and upstairs (choose the upstairs open balcony seats for cocktails under the stars).

Facilities: Being on the edge of the Khao Sok National Park means you can’t stay here without booking a trek in the jungle. You can arrange a number of treks and tours (half, full day or overnight treks; treks to see the Refflesia flower; survival treks; wildlife tours; night safari, a trip to Chiew Larn Lake etc). If the river is high enough you can try river tubing or relax with a Thai or oil massage. Free internet available (they’ll even lend you their computer if needed at less busy times).

Recommended for… The fantastic tree houses (especially Romance Tree House) make the very most of the jungle environment – and what a view with those limestone cliffs on your doorstep!

Be aware that… Size and aspect of each tree house and riverside cottage can vary greatly – the small difference in price doesn’t reflect this so if it really matters to you (although all three of the choices we tried were very good), check this out before booking (via website pictures or asking staff).

Good credentials:

  • Energy conservation: by foregoing air conditioning, hot water, and televisions
  • Respectful building: treehouses and riverside cottages are made from natural materials, and even more importantly, over 80% of the property is undeveloped
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle: all waste is sorted into compost, glass, plastic, metal, and paper.  Since beginning this program, trash sent to landfill has been reduced by 50%. Even empty juice boxes are reused by an artist in Phuket who builds furniture out of them.
  • The owners love the forest: they’ve created a wildlife trail around the property and intend to live in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem
  • Food is bought locally: organic limes, cucumbers, green beans, and chili peppers are among the vegetables purchased from neighbours.
  • Staff are local: most of Our Jungle House service providers are locals, from guides and bartenders to the electricians and tree trimmers, so they make a big contribution to the local economy.
  • Supporting education: in 2011, Our Jungle House raised over 2 million baht to build a school for Burmese children who lack access to education.  In 2012, they are building a new kindergarten for children at the local Bang Pru school (ask them about it – guests are invited to help if they wish)
  • Conservation and community development projects: the people behind Our Jungle House are involved in many projects including scholarships, building community centres, a youth conservation network, and community-based tourism

 

Date of visit: February 2012

 

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Golden Buddha Beach Resort, Koh Phra Thong, Thailand

Golden Buddha Beach Resort

Koh Phra Thong, A. Kuraburi, Phang-nga 82150 Thailand

T: +44 (0) 208 123 2053

www.goldenbuddharesort.com

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This place has ‘responsible travel’ weaved into every possible aspect of your stay – a true definition of the term ‘eco resort’. Not only that, but it has a ‘down-to-earth’ luxuriousness about it, and is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place to stay. The hosts describe it as “luxury created by nature, not man”.

Accommodation: The resort consists of 25 individually-decorated bungalows (Premiere, Luxury or Deluxe; either immediately facing the beach or behind the path) all of which are secluded in their own garden area, and no more than 80m from Golden Buddha beach and the Andaman Sea. We stayed in the lovely Baan Tao Tanu (Green Turtle) which was spacious for two people with its large raised deck and ‘look-out’ perch (we weren’t overlooked by anyone leaving us free to open the bedroom doors each night and keep cool by the sea breezes).

Restaurant: Just a two-minute walk to the ‘clubhouse’, guests can expect a fantastic multi-dish Thai meal every lunch and dinner time from a set menu that changes daily – no choice but you’re always guaranteed expected favourites and new discoveries (a free-to-choose buffet takes place on Wed and Sat nights alternating between meat and vegetarian). A fully-licensed bar, including daily cocktail specials, is open throughout the evening. There were two other small, low-key beach bars on the island (from what we could find) which would probably appreciate some passing custom when you fancy a change.

Activities: Yoga groups visit the island and there is a purpose-built yoga platform overlooking the bay which is perfect for sunset yoga sessions. You can hire kayaks and snorkeling gear (or book scuba-diving trips if experienced) from the Blue Guru dive shack on the beach or from the locals and explore the smaller islands and reefs around the bay (you may get a chance to spot a green turtle or sting ray while swimming). The Naucrates Turtle Conservation Project based on the island is happy to welcome guests who may wish to volunteer a few hours monitoring turtle activity. Surrounding mangroves make for a leisurely kayak trip or walk. Massage and spa treatments are available, and the kitchen staff run cookery lessons.

Recommended for… Peaceful and beautiful location; very friendly and helpful staff; delicious food; ‘affordable’ luxury; nature (bird life and marine life)

Be aware that… This really is the definition of ‘escape’ – if you need lively nightlife, shops, multiple restaurants, in-room TVs etc, this isn’t the place for you!

‘Good’ credentials

  • Energy conservation: power is restricted to 6pm to 11pm; no air-con or fans used; no hot water except two houses heated by solar power; minimum use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles/machines
  • Water conservation: water is taken from showllo wells; rainwater is collectef for drinking and treated with aeration; low water-user toilets installed; biodegradable detergents and soaps used
  • Recycling and waste: food is bought fresh and locally to reduce packaging and food miles; paper, glass and aluminium is recycled; the kitchen is ‘zero waste’
  • Nature conservation: low-impact construction for all buildings; minimal external lighting; plants that prevent erosion; supporters of the Naucrates Turtle Conservation Project, and run programmes with dive group Blue Guru on coral restoration, whale shark and turtle awareness
  • Community: over 90% of staff are local and paid above the local prevailing wage; use local suppliers, income is re-invested locally; supporters of projects in local village and school of Baan Lions

 

Date of visit: February, 2012

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