Responsible Travel Article
Making Good Choices in Samoa
by Paul Smitz
Responsible travel, it seems to me, is about making the best choices you can. This means opening up your experiences on the road instead of limiting them, and giving everyone involved a richer experience: not just you, but whomever you happen to meet along the way too. So you engage with local people – shaking their hands, talking to them, sharing some food – instead of just racing past them clutching your luggage and an itinerary. You support local initiatives rather than handing your money over to outfits that have no connection, personal or financial, with the region you’re visiting. You refuse to support businesses that cause any damage to the very places you’ve travelled all that way to see.
The thing is, at least in my experience, you can’t always make the absolute best choice. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you find yourself in a situation that looks like it is going to tick off all your responsible travel principles, but doesn’t. For me, it was a visit to the island group of Samoa that really brought this home.
Turtles for Conservation or Business?
In the mid-2000s I travelled to Samoa to research the country for a guidebook publisher. After exploring the populous main island of ‘Upolu, I caught a boat west to the bigger, wilder island of Savai’i. I headed up the coast to check out the old lava field of Mt Matavanu, which erupted in the early 20th century and blanketed the island’s north-east with volcanic rubble. At a village called Satoalepai, I spotted a sign that read ‘Turtle swimming’, and swung off the road to find myself at a tranquil, purpose-built lagoon stocked with green turtles.
My first impression was a good one. The water, a mixture of fresh and salt water, was nice and clear. The turtles looked to be in good condition and swam around their pool quite energetically. The enterprise was run by a local family, so the entrance fees presumably got shared with other villagers (in keeping with the Samoan practice of alofa, where giving is the key to living – here, it’s said that if you don’t give, you will die alone). A responsible travel experience? Check.
But it really wasn’t that straightforward. When I spoke to members of the family who ran the venture, they admitted it was less a conservation effort and more a business. This raised the question of whether animals should be plucked from their natural environment in order to make someone money. And travellers were encouraged to pose with the turtles for happy snaps, which inevitably meant the creatures were manhandled – though the host family did make it clear that lifting or riding the animals was a no-no.
Not Enough Responsibility
Most seriously of all, the entrepreneurialism was infectious, and not in a good way. The neighbouring village of Safa’i, noting the popularity of the Satoalepai lagoon, had set up its own turtle experience. Unlike the original, this one did not have a well-maintained habitat that resembled a mini-wetlands, occupied by relatively healthy animals. It was a shallow trough in someone’s backyard, surrounded by chicken wire. Trapped within were several obviously distressed turtles that paddled around miserably in the murky water. As I stood outside the wire, a boy jumped into the enclosure, grabbed a turtle by its shell, and yanked it out of the water, holding it upside down so I could see its soft underbelly. When I asked him to put the turtle down, he threw it back into the water.
Clearly, there was a huge difference in how the two endeavours were managed, and I don’t think that was just about the financial capabilities of one operator compared with the other. But at the end of the day, the premise of each was the same: capture a bunch of turtles and put them on display for the tourists. It wasn’t until I found myself staring through wire at a group of forlorn turtles in a hot, dusty yard that I realised what consequences that could have, and where my well-intentioned choices had led me.
As a footnote to this, the lagoon in Satoalepai is still running, though it seems to have remained at best a quasi-conservation effort. It promotes the fact that it simply looks after ‘endangered’ turtles until they are old enough to be released back into the ocean. But it also tells you that you can swim with turtles in their ‘natural habitat’ off ‘Upolu, which begs the question: Why can’t the animals swimming around a pool on Savai’i enjoy that privilege too?
Paul Smitz is a Melbourne-based writer and editor who has updated and written guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Paul is a strong supporter of RoundTrip Foundation and is assisting with the building of its responsible travel resource.