Responsible Travel Article
A Chat with Sue Watt
Women from the Vukuzenzele chicken project showing their wares to guests from the African Bush Camps Foundation, Zimbabwe. Credit: Will Whitford
In conversation with Sue Watt; an award-winning freelance travel writer specialising in Africa, conservation, responsible tourism and Nepal. Sue has previously shared her knowledge with RoundTrip about responsible tourism in articles about the Lower Zambezi in Zambia and gorilla conservation in East Africa.
We caught up to discuss the future of responsible tourism, how to get the most out of a trip, and other useful tips for any budding traveller.
You mentioned learning about the school life of teachers and pupils in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and about wedding traditions in Kenya’s Samburu tribe.
How did that enrich your trip?
Learning about the cultures of countries I visit is a vital part of travel for me. Most of my trips revolve around wildlife and conservation, but if I was to go home without having learned anything about the people and culture of a country, then that would be hugely disrespectful to them and it would also leave a gaping hole in my experience and understanding of a place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should just swan into villages and peer at people – many organised ‘village visits’ are more like intrusive voyeurism than an enjoyable, educational exchange for both parties. They can be uncomfortable and cringe-worthy, with local people ‘on show’ in a ‘human zoo’ scenario with little or no benefit to the communities. Community visits should only ever be a happy, shared conversation between people learning about their different worlds and a mutually rewarding and positive experience for all concerned.
The visits you’ve mentioned in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya were all arranged through the lodges I was staying at. They have excellent relations with the communities concerned – many of their staff are from the villages, and the lodges often have school sponsorships and support, healthcare projects or perhaps microfinancing initiatives. People appreciate that tourism is bringing them these benefits and are genuinely welcoming.
Schoolchildren in particular want to learn as much about our world as we do about theirs – in Zambia, I took my 75-year-old mum with me and remember they were shocked when they realised how old she was! (That’s way above their usual life expectancy.) They were asking her all sorts of questions about her life. It’s moments like this that add another dimension to the travel experience: hopefully they’ll remember ‘the little old lady’ from England as much as we’ll remember the looks of amazement, the curiosity and the smiles from the children.
In Kenya, we were staying at Sabuk Lodge in Laikipia and its owner, an amazing lady called Verity Williams, has been helping the local school for years. When we were there, a new dormitory for girls had just been built which she’d funded, meaning that girls didn’t need to walk miles to school, could avoid the issues around being made to stay at home and could study in the evenings because it had electricity. An elder contacted Verity to say they had a wedding on that day and asked whether we’d like to attend. We bought a goat for their feast and stayed for a couple of hours watching the dancing, jumping and festivities and learning all about the wedding rituals and their meanings from our guide who was from the village. We were the only tourists, everyone was very friendly towards us, and we were conscious not to intrude – we just watched from the side and took it all in, the colours, the singing, the dancing. It was a fabulous day and a privilege to be there.
Zimbabwe too was linked through lodges and safari operators out there. The country has had a rough ride in recent years and tourism suffered dreadfully through Mugabe’s tyranny, his farm invasions and desperate economic mismanagement. In areas near the national parks, it was the guys running safari operations that helped to fill at least some of the void in resources for education and healthcare, supporting schools and clinics and trying to establish other income generating opportunities to deter people from poaching.
I’ve just been back to Zimbabwe again and had an unforgettable morning with the schoolkids at Ngamo just outside Hwange National Park, which gets support from various operators including Imvelo. We gave lots of them a lift in the Land Rover and they sang their hearts out, just full of joy, as we drove to school. It really was a mutually fun and enjoyable experience – they know, just by our coming to Zimbabwe and choosing the right operators, that we as tourists are helping them and we see the benefits that brings.
What tips would you suggest for tourists wanting to engage with local communities in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, in an ethical way?
Are there types of tours or guides that you could recommend?
I think the most important tip is to imagine yourself in the shoes of the people you want to visit and think about how you would like that visit to be, how you would feel if it was conducted intrusively or insensitively. How would you like people peering into your home or snooping around your village taking photos of you as if they had every right to do so?
There are plenty of good tours and guides but you need to do your homework to be sure you get one. Ask locally and ask your tour operator, speak to people where you’re staying, chat with fellow travellers, and check out reviews especially on portals like www.safaribookings.com. Good local guides really enhance the experience – they will often know many of the people you meet and will happily give you advice on any cultural sensitivities.
Read up on issues around ethical tourism on sites like www.tourismconcern.org.uk or www.responsibletravel.com. Find out about cultural sensitivities like appropriate dress and manners. Learn at least how to greet people in their own language – it’s always appreciated and makes them smile. And if you’re a bit nervous about starting a conversation, chat about something you have in common first – football (particularly the Premier League) always seems to break the ice! And of course it should go without saying, but always ask permission to take photos of people and try chatting to them first to put them at ease. And don’t wait to buy your souvenirs at airports – get in there and buy from the local people in craft markets and stalls.
Two other points I would mention are orphanages and volunteering. So-called orphanage tourism is just plain wrong, often it’s simply a money-making scheme with no concern for the welfare of the child – you’d never visit an orphanage at home as if it were a tourist attraction, so why do that on holiday? I would avoid any tour operator that offers such visits. And there are plenty of operators who offer volunteering holidays but again, do your research – check whether you might be taking local jobs, whether the operators are simply making a fast buck and whether the local communities have had proper input into the projects you’re meant to be helping. There aresome good volunteering operators out there – but there are a lot of bad ones too.
You mentioned the importance of animal conservation, specifically gorillas. What can tourists do to make sure they’re engaging with sustainable practices while not compromising their experience in seeing and experiencing wildlife?
A highly respected Zimbabwe safari operator and conservationist once said to me that Africa’s wildlife doesn’t belong to Africa, it belongs to the world and the responsibility for its survival falls on us all, globally, not just on the people who live alongside it – who often happen to be among the world’s poorest communities. One way we can help is by simply travelling to those countries and visiting their national parks and reserves, giving them a reason to continue, and spending our money within the local economies. But obviously, you need to ensure you’re not harming the wildlife or its habitat while doing so.
The crucial factor is to respect wildlife, to give wild animals space. Sounds simple, but often people think they’re entitled to behave in certain ways so that they can get better sightings or experiences. There’s absolutely no entitlement – wild animals are just that: they’re wild, they live by their own rules and we should see them on their terms, not ours. So don’t go off road just so that you can get a better photo, or harass an animal to initiate some reaction from it, or crowd them when there are already a dozen safari jeeps all around them, or disturb them during hunting – and don’t let your driver do these things either. Again, check with your tour operator or read up about safari etiquette and bear in mind some more unscrupulous drivers and guides might behave unethically in the hope of getting a bigger tip from you.
In terms of seeing the gorillas, it may sound obvious but the most important thing is to follow the rules about gorilla-tracking. Tourism has been a major factor in the success of gorilla conservation but it has also introduced risks, in particular exposing the animals to human diseases which can kill them. It’s obviously very tempting to stay quiet if you have something like a cold or cough or diarrhoea – you’ve spent a lot of money and travelled a long way to get there after all, and the last thing you want to do is to be prevented from seeing the gorillas just because you’re a little unwell. But think twice – if your infection spreads, you could ultimately be responsible for the death of a gorilla, and surely that’s not what you came for?
Another thing to consider is the communities that live alongside the gorillas. Don’t just come all the way to either Uganda or Rwanda, see the gorillas for an hour and then leave. Extend your time in the country – support the people too, visit some of the cultural projects, go trekking with a local guide, or kayaking perhaps. So many travellers miss out on what’s all around them simply because the gorillas take the limelight. Local people need an income to stave off poverty and prevent poaching. They may be small-scale poachers leaving snares to catch an animal for the plate, but snares are indiscriminate. They can trap and kill gorillas just in the same way as they trap and kill an antelope – support local people and you’ll support gorillas too. And we’ve found that spending time with people has always enhanced our visits.
Another big issue is that of animal interactions. Again, do your homework. There are some great places – the Elephant Camp and Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust springs immediately to mind because I was there last month. I met Sylvester, a cheetah rescued when he was two days old who would never survive if he were returned to the wild. He’s become a cheetah ambassador helping to educate local children about conservation and the vulnerability of these beautiful cats. But walking with lions or riding elephants are definite no-no’s. These practices have more to do with money-making, canned hunting and poor treatment of animals than they do with sustainable conservation. There’s plenty of information online about these subjects and I strongly feel that if people want to take part in these kinds of activity then they have a responsibility to find out about the ethics of them first.
With your background in travel writing, how do you approach new, or unfamiliar places? What do you think tourists could do when thinking about overseas travel to maximise their experience?
Reasons for travelling are individual and personal, so it’s difficult to say what people should do to maximise their experience. What I can say however is that whatever your reasons and wherever you go, the most important thing is to travel with an open mind – don’t be judgemental, don’t think you know best, absorb what’s around you and learn from it. For me, travel is about exploring new lands or revisiting special places, about stepping out of my cosy, comfortable world and seeing a bigger picture, about scratching beneath the surface to understand the nature and soul of a country through its people and wild places.
As a travel writer, I spend a lot of my time researching countries, cultures, issues, people, politics, the environment and wildlife of places I’m thinking of visiting. This is something everyone should do – we have a responsibility nowadays to inform ourselves and it’s not difficult.
I also love exploring destinations that are relatively new to tourism and, where it’s appropriate, even if it’s just in some small way, help through my writing to encourage others to visit. I’m really interested in trying to help countries that are perhaps emerging from conflict or from difficult times – over the years, I’ve been to Mozambique, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and most recently Sierra Leone at times when few people travelled to such destinations and these are some of the articles that I’m most proud of.
In these days of ‘over-tourism’, we need to remember that tourism can actually still be a force for good for communities and for conservation – if it’s done properly and with due respect to local people and habitats. And as travellers and consumers, we all share a responsibility to ensure that it is done properly, that it’s sustainable and ethical, and that people in the host countries benefit from our travels just as much as we do.