“Going Off the Beaten Track:” How “Adventurers” Are Destroying Their Environments
I’m not a geologist, but I know something about erosion: when thousands of free-wheeling tourists go meandering off into nature, they fundamentally disrupt the natural ebb and flow of the environment they came to appreciate.
The phrase “going off the beaten path” has endeared several to a life (or at least a few months) of wanderlust. While the sentiment is still valid (to a degree – even my year of backpacking isn’t that unconventional anymore), the physical reality is that many paths have already been beaten. One might even say, the world’s capacity for beaten paths has reached its saturation point. At this point, we actually need to stop beating those paths and leave them the hell alone.
From a purely environmental standpoint, humans are the bane of the Earth’s existence. We claim dominion over land (at exorbitant prices! I’m looking at you, SF), and then we take the land for granted. Rather than the sustainable option of hyper-dense, energy-regulated mega-cities (read the book Common Ground in a Liquid City by Matt Hern for a compelling argument in favor of centralized urbanization), we demand luxurious, unnecessarily wasteful homes and perfectly manicured lawns that redirect two of our most important resources: water and electricity. One of those is nonrenewable! If I were Mother Earth, I’d be pissed – but hey, global warming’s a pretty unmistakable sign that she is.
It’s ironic, then, that the noncomformists, the nature lovers, the “off-the-beaten-track”-ers, are oftentimes unaware of their contribution to the destruction of their beloved environs. I’m sure that Christopher Columbus was hailed a true vagabond, a traveling soul with many cultural insights and stories to share with his kinsmen back in the Old Country. But his cultural offerings, in the eyes of the New World, were not welcome. “Smallpox? No thanks. Oh, I get it anyway? Well, thanks for nothing. This was the most unpleasant visit. Please don’t come agai-… [dead]” Meanwhile, Columbus wonders why everyone’s dying around him, but shrugs, calls up the Spanish royalty, and invites his friends over for a party. If Columbus wrote a Craigslist ad for America, it would read: “Brand new country!! Beautiful views in quickly gentrifying area, lowest price in town!! Come see for yourself. FREE!”
A Tale of Two Situations: Koh Rong and Chiang Mai
I’m guilty of it myself. Cambodia’s Koh Rong, their up-and-coming island destination, doesn’t have any roads, and its hostels are for the most part underdeveloped. But the signs of change are apparent – the sounds of the birds were drowned out by the drilling of construction, the smell of paint overwhelms even the strong scent of the ocean, and the ocean itself is already teeming with driftwood, plastic packaging, and sewage from the drain that leads straight to the water. We came to Koh Rong precisely because it was under the radar, and we imagined it to be a romantically isolated destination. Unfortunately, our interest only fuels the need for bigger and more private accommodation, for 7/11s and imported beers and increased fishing to meet the demands of tourists craving a true “island experience.” I could pull the hipster traveler card and say that I was there “back in the day,” but that’s one of the most uselessly hollow things one could utter about a site so obviously exploited by unsustainable tourism.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I fell in love with the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. After passing it several times on scooter, I finally stopped by one day. I wandered past the picturesque pagoda and the stairs that led to the beautiful city view. Instead, I walked into the “forbidden” waterfall area, where large flat rocks naturally directed the river current into a fun slide and wading pool. It was so peaceful and serene, and a cool refreshing break from the humidity in the city centre. I came back a few times, each with a totally different experience. Once, a little boy shyly but proudly introduced me to his friends in English and yelled out, “I miss you!” when I had to leave. Another time, a young Thai couple and the younger brother showed me the awesome water slide, shared a beer with me, and protected me from an unexpected Thai police visit. I brought my hostel friends to the park to enjoy the slide and the pool, and we shared the area with a group of young men who seemed very titillated by our bikinis.
Each exposure to this park provided me with so many wonderful memories, but the police officer’s words (translated by the couple, paraphrased by me) still make me feel guilty: “You should set a good example for your country. Drinking in public is not a good example. She is a foreigner and she will think that is how Thai people are.” But my own encouragement of the behavior, as well as my introduction of “taboo” subjects, only stymie a disobeying of the law in a country whose language I can’t even speak.
The Double Edge of Travel Blogging
As travelers, we have a responsibility to sustainability support the industries and environments we choose to visit. However, as I noted, it’s difficult to balance our careful tip-toeing with the elephantine stampeding of the tourists who accompany us. Even our footprints might be possibly unwelcome, if not consciously by the individual then evident by the larger economic, social, cultural, and environmental direction of that area and the transportation methods we employ.
I love the world I live in, and have the incredible opportunity to travel and photograph and write about my experiences. But as other well-meaning travelers have experienced, one must be careful of their audience when promoting certain destinations or fragile ecosystems. Two articles recently stood out to me as cases in point: “35 Clearest Waters in the World to Swim in Before You Die” and “Stunning Portraits of the World’s Remotest Tribes Before They Pass Away.” While both are beautiful photo essays, and do a wonderful job of translating the awe and appreciation of these places and people, they also promote reckless exploitation and voyeurism. As a few commenters note in response to the first article, some of these waters aren’t legal to swim in for sustainability purposes – a point that the author had jokingly dismissed in the first draft. (Thankfully, the editors have redacted and replaced those submissions.) The second is indeed “stunning,” but takes a very passive approach at identifying the reasons for why those tribes are passing away. This might be because the photographer spent less than two weeks with each tribe, and can’t possibly speak all of those languages, but it begs a question of who is benefitting from these photos (and a subsequent book) being published.
As I write this, I wonder if my blog has somehow contributed to the degradation of these destinations. I wrote about the issue of “authenticity” in a previous blog post, so I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to isolate a culture from the modernization process. However, I think it’s critically important for those of us lucky enough to be guests in another country to observe, respect, and tread lightly. Taking a minute to ask how you’re giving back to, rather than what you’re receiving from, your environment is a positive way to restructure your travel plans such that you don’t inadvertently contribute to the same problems that have left us hopping from one hot destination to the next.
A Potential Upside of Environmental Capitalism
Unfortunately, for places like Macchu Picchu or Mt. Everest – environmental beacons heralded worldwide – the prohibitive cost of entry often only blocks the poor, which makes for a very unbalanced experience of nature and travel itself. The rich travelers dictate the agenda and the price of most things, and even basic cultural practices like haggling take on a convoluted sense of morality when tourists not haggling are allowing prices to skyrocket whereas haggling is seen as exploitative and manipulative. So I do understand the incredibly problematic reality of international travel these days, and frankly, I don’t know how to stop it – or if it’s even a good idea to.
But a good starting point is being more active about your surroundings. Stay in hostels and eat at restaurants owned and staffed by locals. Research your destination for the proper clothing and customs, and adhere to them. Stick to zoos and wildlife parks that have a positive track record for animal safety. Volunteer at organizations with transparent accounts and strong local support. Discern which international organizations to trust (while I love Rainforest Alliance’s “Follow the Frog” ad, I have to do a bit more digging before I blindly throw my weight behind it.) As festival culture dictates: pack it in and pack it out; leave no trace. Stay off the coral reefs, on the beaten path, and out of culturally specific venues. (I’m sure that crashing that Indian wedding was super fun, but it draws attention from the main event and puts hosts in an uncomfortable position of having to accommodate you.) Leave it better than you found it, and if you have any questions about what that would mean in a specific context, ask someone who lives there! They’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences.
And above all, at every step of the way, keep this in mind: ask not what the world can do for you; ask what you can do for the world. That’s a journey that’s going to last a lot longer than a few months, so start now and never stop.