Are there negative impacts to tourism?

When you travel to less developed countries, you might think that just by being there you’re helping give a better quality of life for the locals. Seems you, we,  could be wrong.

Just $5 of every $100 you spend stays local and  after searching I found the United Nations Environment Programme reference to the negative impacts of tourism here.

NOTE Seems the above  UNEP link is broken or has been removed  see  this one instead about sustainable tourism

Tourism is one of the most powerful change agents on Earth and we consumers must vote with our wallets and support local people with local businesses.”

I blogged about this issue (first published in a newspaper column) some years ago and reprint it here. I’ve also written a small book on the same topic A Love Letter to Malaysian Borneo  – and if you have read it I’d really value a review on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂

Here’s that column I wrote . . .

What is an eco-tourist? Ecotourism?

Like Asians need rice, Italians love pasta, British their curry, and us Kiwi’s love fish and chips, I need to travel and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to rather than have to go the destination flavour of the month.

This means I’m often in places that are not on the tourist trail. As a slow traveller I can stay longer and get to know people, to absorb the local culture and flavour. This also means that although I don’t always sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism – a word that’s often thrown around and frequently means nothing.

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are that’s it an activity that has minimum impact while providing maximum benefits to the locals.

I believe independent travellers are most likely to be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours often have paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on an Asian marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then  leave, taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – is bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags and straws are left on the beach.

Have travel agents sold us too narrow views of places to visit? Given us a list of sights we ‘must see’ or activities to take part in? This produces problems all over the world with buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors and fumes to see wonderful pristine or historic sights.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting alone with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However I know that beside me, waiting for their turn to have the moment recorded, is another busload of chattering travellers.

The problems of being poured into these tourist funnels will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

So, what can we travellers do?  I don’t know what you will do – what I do is travel slow, travel cheaply, and use local products when I can.

So, by combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints, along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’m able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.

 

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Amish in Florida – photos for Radio NZ talk

I’m talking about the ‘Amish in Florida’ on Radio NZ’s programme Nights (Our Own Odysseys) with Bryan Crump on Tuesday 24th Jan . Here’s a link to the audio and also to my blog about these photos and their pedal-powered buggiesweb3-wheeled-horse-and-buggy web84-years-old-and-still-working-long-hours webbird-houses-are-popular webonly-horse-and-buggy-in-town webquilt-is-are-a-tradition-among-plain-people

Listen in on Tuesday 24th January 2017 at 1910, or check the podcast later

Oysters & scallops in Crystal River, Florida

Scallops from Crystal River (tiny compared to NZ ones!)

 

 

 

tasty meal … I forget its name but it’s a local favourite
Not an easy job – cleaning oyster trays before the next season!

 


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Mermaids are alive and well in Florida!

Weeki Wachee Springs is a very, very small ‘city’ with a population of 4. It’s also a Florida state park and ‘the world’s only city of live mermaids’ who perform in the Underwater Theatre which was built into the limestone of the spring in 1947.

Waiting for the mermaids
Waiting for the mermaids

When the curtains parted, the sun shone into the turquoise spring, and schools of small fish and turtles swam into view. Then, from some deeper part of the spring a mermaid swam up to the glass in a mermaid tail. Waving and smiling, she swam the entire width of the glass without appearing to need to breathe. However, at some 6 metres deep, the free-divers have air hoses to get their oxygen. I was amazed at how they used the hoses, which just float in the water in between them breathing from them, and I was anxious they would find them and get to breath.

While I was a little dubious about visiting this attraction I found it fascinating about how it was done. I’m not a diver so this is not something I would ever try to do – especially when I find out they have to down a long pipe to get into the pool: I’d panic!

These are natural spring, some 50 metres deep, which feed the Weeki Wachee River, which pumps huge quantities of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico daily. The state’s goal is to keep the spring and the river healthy, and I heard someone say ‘ it’s debatable how much the show helps environmental efforts’.

Mermaids are said to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish – appearing in the myths worldwide. Sightings of them are now thought to have been sirenia (a biological order comprising dugongs and manatees) and the sightings by sailors were really encounters with these aquatic mammals. Although Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while exploring the Caribbean so I may be wrong!

Mermaids of course have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries – for instance Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid where a young mermaid falls in love with a human prince whom she saves from drowning when his ship was wrecked.  A world-famous statue, based on Andersen’s fairy tale, has been in Copenhagen, Denmark for over 100 years.

As well as watching the mermaid show, we also went on a short trip on the river with its extremely clear water. I believe canoes can be hired too.

 

many of the workers are volunteers such as these two
many of the workers are volunteers – such as these two

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Columbia Restaurant: a tradition since 1905 (& nesting birds!)

web IMG_0651IMG_0651The Columbia Restaurant has been a Sarasota, Florida tradition since 1905 with Columbia Restaurant – Ybor City leading the way as the oldest restaurant in Sarasota and it serves fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, using some century-old family recipes.

Their St. Armand’s Circle site, in Lido Key opened in 1959 and after a short wait; we choose an outdoor, footpath table.

Its menu features Spanish fare: paella packed with fresh clams, shrimp, and mussels caught my eye, but the web IMG_0667IMG_0667Spanish Bean Soup with chorizo became my starter while their signature, and award-winning 1905 Salad became my main.

The warm, crusty, homemade, Cuban bread served with the soup was excellent and the soup was well-flavoured with a tasty chorizo – seems this soup is Columbia’s signature lunch and they’ve served dished it up since the restaurant started.

Columbia’s legendary “1905” Salad is tossed tableside. Crisp iceberg lettuce with baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and the famous garlic dressing – most tasty.

Sarasota has stunning beaches, acres of recreation, superb shops and galleries and St. Armands Circle is websized IMG_0744conveniently located near the beaches of Lido and Longboat Key: after our delicious meal, we strolled around the circle – which is home to more than 130 shops – and down to Lido Key to watch the sunset.

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However, what really interested us on the beach were the birds nesting there and we spent time watching the parents delivering food for their young. They flew very low to the sand as they came back with food, and we also watched others skimming the sea – maybe drinking as swallows do!?

Like our New Zealand birds that nest on the ground, these birds too are at risk and sadly their numbers are plummeting.

 

Alligators galore in Florida – birds too

With alligators galore, and many fabulous birds, for me this park is a must-visit on your Florida travels. I’m told, ‘where there is a lake or pond in Florida, assume a ‘gator lives there‘. Seems they can, and do, travel big distances overnight too!

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One of Florida’s natural attractions is the Myakka River State Park and recently I enjoyed a day there with Sarasota friends: it’s one of Florida’s largest and, evidently, most diverse parks. Developed in 1934 it has a scenic drive, many hiking trails, a board walk, horse and bike trails, plus the first USA canopy walk (2000).  Please add your favourite canopy walks to the comments.

It also claims to have two of the world’s largest airboats.

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While cruising on board the Myakka Maiden I was surprised to hear alligators making a sound – for some bizarre reason that was something I’d not expected.  It was an aspirated hissing noise and, according to the captain of the air-powered boat, is used as a warning to other ‘gators to ‘get out of my space.’

The hour-long boat tour was accompanied by interesting facts, figures and fun by the driver-captain as we gently explored the shallow grassy areas of the Upper Myakka Lake. The flowers bloom according to the clock – well the sun really – and we are told “at 2pm the lake will covered with yellow blooms’.  And bloom at two they did!

I’m well-recommending this boat tour!

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Heather by Mallory
Heather by Mallory

 

 

Nature being watched, and photographed, by the Kiwitravelwriter

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first bite
first bite: For the first time I alligator at the cafe:

 

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