European tourists learn about communities in Burkina Faso, Africa
Crédito: Viaggi Solidali.
Tourism with a Social Conscience Gains Popularity
Por Francesca Colombo
Some 15,000 people travel from Italy each year to experience first-hand the realities of communities in the developing South or in Eastern Europe.
Increasingly more "social tourists" are opting to spend a few weeks with residents of the Peruvian Andes or the Tibetan Himalayas, instead of spending their money in the posh hotels of the European capitals or the luxury resorts of Asia.
These travelers are saying "no" to cocktails by the pool in the Caribbean, the exclusive cruise ships of the Balearic Islands, or five-star hotels in major U.S. destinations, and "yes" to learning first-hand about the realities of the developing South or Eastern Europe, and sharing the lifestyles and the problems of local communities.
Such experiences are expanding on the idea of "ecotourism", which gained popularity beginning in the early 1990s, as travelers not only seek to live in a way that respects the environment, but also the people of different cultures -- indigenous peoples, peasant farmers or cooperative workers -- say experts.
Social tourism is growing 10 percent annually, but it is still far behind traditional tourism, which moves 622 trillion dollars a year, or seven percent of the global gross product, and provides work for 127 million people, according to the Italian Association for Responsible Tourism, AIRT.
Each year, 15,000 Italians travel to take part in providing aid to poor communities, under the auspices of 63 Italian associations. "In this sort of social tourism, the focus of interest is the host community, which has the right to decide what kind of visitors it will accept," AIRT president Maurizio Daviolo explained to Tierramérica.
"Traditional tourism only leaves the communities the crumbs of the wealth that it generates, but we give them the lion's share," Daviolo said.
These unconventional trips are long, slow, and prepared far in advance, in part to avoid harming the environment.
In the northern Italian city of Milan, the Pindorama travel agency organizes just 25 social tourism trips each year, for groups of 15 people and lasting 20 days. They target 16 destinations on four continents. The average charge per participant is nearly 3,000 dollars.
Social tourism is more expensive than traditional tourism because the trips are for small groups, so there are fewer group discounts available with the airlines or hotels.
The Pindorama clients who head to the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas stay in the homes of the local indigenous peoples; those who go to Lima, Peru visit groups of young workers; and the ones who travel to the Argentine Patagonia live with sheep herders.
"In the beginning, these trips were for activists," but today the people who choose this option are simply "responsible tourists who respect nature and the cultures of other peoples, and they are motivated to learn new things," Daniela Cazzaniga, a representative of the travel agency, told Tierramérica.
Tiziano Colombo, an engineer from Milan, spent 15 days in Cape Town, South Africa, and although he did not travel with a social tourism agency, he hired a local tour agency, which showed him the poverty of the residents living in the outlying neighborhoods of that city.
His guide, son of immigrants from India, took him to the homes of three families, who told him about their experiences under the racist regime of apartheid that ended in 1994. In exchange for the time and patience of his hosts, he purchased beverages from them to contribute to their household economies.
Groups that support development in poor countries obtain resources by providing services for social tourism. CRIC, an Italian regional center for international cooperation, based in Reggio Calabria, organizes 20-day trips, part with a social focus, part traditional tourism, to Nicaragua, Senegal, Ecuador and the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, charging around 1,400 dollars per traveler.
In Senegal, the "social" travelers visit the usual tourist destinations, but also Davio, a small northern community, where they spend 15 days, hosted by a cooperative of 70 women who produce colorful painted fabrics. The income generated by these visits is used to support the Davio community.
In the Andalusian city of Almería, the trips organized by CRIC give participants a chance to learn about the traditional Easter festivities, but also the racism suffered by Moroccan immigrants and gypsies, or Roma people.
Those are shorter visits, just 10 days, and more economical, costing around 1,200 per person. The hosts are local groups involved in fighting racism, and "the tourists meet with sociologists and anthropologists who explain the problem to them, but they also attend flamenco shows," said Gabriele Ciapparella, also with CRIC.
The non-profit Jonas Association has been organizing social tourism for the past 16 years in Padova, in northern Italia, with itineraries that have little environmental impact and promote vacations by bicycle.
In Italy, 300 hotels, guest houses, campgrounds, restaurants and family homes bear the Ecolab seal, created by Legambiente, the country's largest environmental group, to recognize services that follow the principles of sustainable management and environmental protection.
These businesses separate their different types of waste for recycling, use low-energy lighting, save water, provide bicycles for use free of charge, and prepare meals using fruits and vegetables in season, and no genetically modified foods.
The seal also requires that these services provide incentives to use public transportation and that they value cultural and gastronomic identities, Livia Molinari, head of Legambiente's tourism division, said in a Tierramérica interview.
In downtown Bologna, in northern Italy, is the bed and breakfast known as Bianca Maria Nidie, with its Ecolab seal. The showers are outfitted with water-saving devices, and solar panels provide the building with heat.
"For the health and well being of the family and guests, we offer foods grown without agrochemicals and we clean with environmentally friendly products," said the owner, for whom the B&B is named.
The promoters of social tourism call for a boycott of trips to Asian countries for sex tourism, which in many cases involves the exploitation of minors, as well as staying away from countries like Burma, governed by a military junta that violates human rights and is sustained to great extent by the money tourists spend there.
* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor.