5 Ways to Be an Effective Cultural Tourist in Mexico
Cultural tourism is a slippery slope for travelers. Some think that tourism is an industry that contributes greatly to poverty reduction and economic stability in developing nations. Not everyone agrees, however, as many attest that tourism in more rural, traditional areas are catering to tourists, reducing the authenticity of the culture and exploiting locals and their traditions in the process.

One of the most popular tourist destinations is Mexico; tourists flock here from all over the world every year. While Mexico often gets unfairly stereotyped, different areas within the country provide a much different experience. Two of the most popular tourist destinations are Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, and the state of Chiapas, where 70% of its people live below the poverty line. Deciding where to visit is a challenging decision, but tourists’ responsibility doesn’t end once they arrive at their destination: it continues until they return home.

When visiting any country — especially a country like Mexico, which changes on a dime depending on the area — there are certain tips to follow in order to be an effective cultural tourist and help support the local economies.

  1. Eat local. Yes, there is a McDonalds almost anywhere you go in Mexico City, but why eat at a place you can go to every day back in the States? Being in another country gives you the opportunity to experience new things; local cuisine is both delicious and cheap. Try some of the local taco stands. Most are fresh, quite delicious and will be a good economic contribution in the end.
  2. Learn proper bargaining. While much of what is for sale in Mexico is at a fairly responsible price, it is still a common practice to bargain and is done daily among locals as well. However, don’t haggle too far below the asking price. Tourists should remember that while they want to get the best value for their money, those working in the markets and shops do this for a living and need to provide for their families back home.
  3. Respect the culture (especially in rural areas). In states such as Chiapas, most of the population is indigenous (ethnic minorities who have been marginalized as their historical territories became part of the state) and have a different way of doing things. Behavior that might be commonplace in the States might not always be accepted as openly by those who are not used to the American way of life. Make sure you ask before you take any pictures of the locals or their children. Many feel that this is disrespectful and inconsiderate. Cameras are also not allowed in church and locals will become very aggressive and demand payment for disrupting their ceremonies.
  4. Buy goods from local vendors. Although some tourists think that visiting rural areas and buying from locals exploits their culture and dilutes their traditional way of life, the reality is that tourists make contributions that are appreciated greatly. Take time to speak to the locals, especially in lower-income areas like Chiapas. Visitors will often find themselves engaging with people who love what they do. Often the locals work more than one job, selling items on the street while holding down another position in a bigger city to help make ends meet.
  5. Be careful about the environment: Locals in rural areas appreciate their traditional way of life. Try not to leave articles of yours behind and clean up after yourself. The environment is also very important in rural areas, so to reduce your carbon footprint walk through towns instead of taking a taxi or bus.

Traveling to a country like Mexico is a wonderful experience, one that should be had by anyone who has the chance. In tough economic times, tourists should maximize their time and tight budgets, but also respect the land, culture and environment that they are visiting. These tips should come in handy for the traveler and help stimulate the local economy.

– Taylor Rae Schaefer

Sources: Imagine Mexico, World Nomads
Photo: History Martinez

Is Somalia the Next Tourist Hotspot?
Business is booming in Mogadishu, the capital of war-torn Somalia. This economic renaissance of sorts might come as a surprise considering the recent history of the nation, which has suffered from political instability and terrorist insurgency for the past twenty years.

However, after the people of Somalia elected their own president to represent them just last year, the economy of the nation has already shown considerable signs of steady improvement. On top of this, Somalia’s recently adopted provisional constitution, which has been praised as “one of the top legal documents in the world,” has had a powerful impact on the Somalian economy as well. According to many Somalian businessmen, peace inevitably leads to prosperity.

Bashir Osman, a real estate developer, knows that he took a huge risk by buying land for a luxury beach resort in Mogadishu, but he also is very confident that his investment will pay off. “[The tourists] were so excited when they saw how Mogadishu looks like, how beautiful city we have, how beautiful beach we have and that is what we want to show them again and again,” Osman tells.

Many believe that the economic resurgence in Somalia is not only because of businessmen like Osman but also because of the diaspora returning to rebuild the country. Somalian citizens who escaped the country to avoid the violence and political upheaval that plagued the last two decades are now coming back to reshape Mogadishu and other major cities.

The recent success of Somalia’s economy is not only found in the real estate sector but also in the telecommunications and aviation industry, further facilitating Mogadishu as a tourist hotspot. The nation’s economy is supported by aid from donor governments; Somalia’s pending success story is a testament to the vitality of these programs.

– Sagar Desai
Sources: Xinhua, CNN
Photo: Go Africa

africa-seychelles
Though African countries may not be the most traditional tourist destinations for the average Westerner, the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013 ranked five African countries in the world’s top twenty-five most welcoming places to travel. This report, which evaluates destinations according to their “attractiveness and competitiveness,” also indicated that several African countries are frequent destinations for business trip extensions. While these measures cannot wholly encompass the subjective factors that draw people to specific tourist destinations, the WEF’s report highlights the burgeoning role of African countries in the global economy and encourages people to travel to Africa for their next trip abroad. Here are the top 5 countries to visit in Africa:

1.  Seychelles – Ranked as the top country for travel and tourism competitiveness in Africa, the Republic of Seychelles is a group of 115 islands located off the east coast of Africa. The islands’ scenery is replete with luxury hotels, sandy beaches, and palm trees, vastly different from the diverse climates of continental Africa.

2.  Mauritius – Mauritius came in second on the WEF’s list of Africa’s most competitive travel destinations, ranked highly because of its high safety and security ratings and desirable island environment. Located to the east of Madagascar, Mauritius is a popular destination for golf and deep sea fishing and is home to countless resorts and spas.

3.  South Africa – South Africa has become an increasingly popular tourist destination due to its historical significance, outdoor activities, and cultural opportunities. Listed as the third most competitive travel destination in Africa by the WEF, South Africa’s visitors embrace the country’s climactic and cultural diversity.

4.  Morocco – Ranked third in the world on the WEF’s list of the most welcoming nations for tourists, Morocco is home to many sites of cultural and historical significance. Visitors flock to the country in pursuit of its grand architecture, exciting bazaars and monumental cities such as Casablanca.

5.  Rwanda – Placed third on the WEF’s list of the African countries most recommended for business trip extensions, Rwanda is finally moving past the days of its 1994 genocide to become a popular travel destination. The country boasts mountainous scenery, hidden beaches, and extensive rainforests, a prime destination for visitors wishing to experience Africa’s beauty without traveling to its more frequented sites.

Katie Bandera

Sources: How We Made It In Africa, WEF, Lonely Planet
Photo: Vacation Rental Times

O'Sullivan's Travels
Chris O’Sullivan may not be a celebrity, but he definitely is not your average wait-for-the-employer-to-call college graduate. O’Sullivan’s Travels is much closer to Gulliver than Sullivan. Unlike Gulliver, however, he not only reaches out to the world but lets the world reach back—the world of South African students struggling with disadvantages and the world of donors given the opportunity to really make an impact and watch their money make a huge difference.

After graduating with a degree in Education from Shippensburg University, O’Sullivan traveled to the Stellenbosch region of South Africa to aid a school of 1,800 students divided amongst only 40 teachers with few supplies at their disposal. Despite the creativity, passion, perseverance, and best intentions, one teacher can only do so much with 50 students and limited resources.

O’Sullivan taught English and math to 6th grade students and experienced first hand the disadvantages these students and their teachers faced. In a world numbered one to three, first world students have pencils, pens, markers, crayons, posters, desks, charts, graphs, computers, iPhones, and 20 peers. In the second world students have pencils, pens, maps, graphs, paper, a few posters, a computer, mobile phones, and 35 peers. In the third world students have a pencil, some paper, their creativity, ambition, determination, and their teacher’s knowledge to rely on.

Two years later, 2 months from now, O’Sullivan is returning to Kayamandi to again lend his skills and experience. O’Sullivan is not returning empty-handed. He is bringing his network of support. His goals for this trip are twofold: First, he wants to give South Africa to the South Africans. Having a slim-to-none chance of ever going on vacation to a domestic or foreign destination, O’Sullivan wants to bring the beauty and wonder of South Africa to the students of Kayamandi. “Imagine living on the doorstep of Disney World and never being able to step inside.” So many of the students have never ridden in a van, slept in their own bed, eaten in a restaurant, or even seen the ocean (South Africa has 2,798 km of coastline!). His second goal is to stock the school with supplies. Pencils, paper, posters, books and magazines will go a long way towards improving the education the students receive.

The count down has begun. Two months to go. O’Sullivan has spent the last year working numerous part time jobs to pay for his trip and received support from friends, family, and a larger network.

Chris O’Sullivan is not a celebrity. Not by television standards anyway. But, ask any student in Kayamandi, South Africa, and you can bet they’ll know who he is.

Katherine Zobre

Sources: O’Sullivan’s Travels, CIA World Factbook
Photo: O’Sullivan’s Travels

How to avoid getting sick overseas
As any traveler knows, after a long plane, train, and/or bus ride, all you want to do is take a shower, change your clothes, take a nap and get some grub! The last thing you want is to wind up back in bed or the bathroom with a sour stomach…or worse, the hospital. While there are several sources of health risk to travelers, the most common is contaminated food and water. Travelers trying exotic and exciting foods should follow these simple rules: cook it, wash it, peel it or forget it! And do not forget about ice. Freezing water does not remove contaminants and even alcoholic drinks are risky with contaminated ice.

There are several other sources of risk: poor sanitation and other diseases. Before you go, check out the World Health Organization (WHO) and with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for risks at your destination. It is also extremely important to get any vaccinations recommended for your destination. The CDC has detailed documentation on requirements for each country.

Many diseases and infections are transferable between people. Sick people are also an indication that there may be a disease source near by—such as insects or poor sanitation. It is also important to be aware of how much sun/cold/oxygen you are exposed to. Too much sun exposure can lead to severe sunburns and dehydration. Sun block is expensive and not a common feature in many developing countries’ convenience stores. Observe local customs for avoiding the extreme weather and bring sunblock with you.

Most importantly for food, however, cook it, wash it, peel it or forget it.

– Katherine Zobre

Source: CNN
Photo: Lee-Reid Family Travels

Biking in Bangkok is More Than a Tour
For two bicycle tour companies, biking in Bangkok is more than a tour. These two extraordinary companies not only give excellent guided tours of the hidden gems of this city, but also have significant impacts on the poverty in and around Bangkok.

Bangkok, the coastal capital of Thailand has two seasons, covers 606 sq miles, and 18 million residents, and approximately 1.5 million slum dwellers. There are over 400 Buddhist temples and thousands of other tourist attractions including the Royal Palace and the famous Khaosan Road.  One could spend a lifetime discovering new parts of Bangkok. As a tourist with limited time, the best way to see the real Bangkok is to pound the pavement with locals.

The first bicycle tour company is Co van Kessel. Mr. van Kessel, a Dutch ex-patriot, started the tour company over 30 years ago. Frustrated with the image of Bangkok as a city of uninhibited urban sprawl, grid-lock traffic and suffocating pollution, Mr. van Kessel started a bicycle tour company to change this image. His was the first bicycle tour company in Bangkok and has been working towards making Bangkok a cyclist-friendly city ever since.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Co van Kessel bike tour company is also generous with their time and money. They often donate money to local charity organizations. Additionally, every year they donate bicycles that are unfit for tours but still in good working condition to villages in the north of Thailand. The bicycles serve the villagers as their primary form of transportation thereby allowing them to pursue livelihoods otherwise unavailable.

The second, Recreational Bangkok Biking (RBB), is also run by a Dutch ex-patriot, Andre Breuer. RBB offers several different tours each with their own extraordinary sights. They offer a variety of walking, biking, rickshaw, boat and combination tours throughout the city. Their goal is to give tourists a chance to see what Thai life is really all about—colorful markets full of sounds and smells that make your whole body tingle, daily life along the canals that wind through the city, and stretches of green space one could hardly imagine existed when limited to main tourist areas.

What makes this company stand out is not only the high quality of the tours but also the social commitment Mr. Breuer insists on. His employees are local, mostly low-class Thais. The employees start out as bicycle mechanics and learn English through interacting with foreigners—two skills that are extremely valuable to enhancing their living standards. The restaurants, food stands, boat drivers, and bicycle repair establishments are locals, mostly slum dwellers. Mr. Breuer also uses his influence and business network to help fund a local orphanage, the Mercy Center, and a kindergarten. (Mercy Center is located in the largest slum in Bangkok, Khlong Toey and serves as an orphanage and rehabilitation center for those with AIDS.)  Tourists have the option of stopping at the school and talking to the children, who learn English from their frequent interactions.

It is easy to get sucked into the tourist traps in Bangkok. Everyone wants to take you for a ride. Let yourself be taken by Recreational Bangkok Biking or Co van Kessel and you will not regret it!

Katherine Zobre

Sources: Co Van Kessel , The Mercy Center
Photo: Google Plus

pro-poor-tourism-development

The World Travel & Tourism Council predicts that travel and tourism will be one of the world’s fastest growing industries between 2013 and 2021, and the best part is – this will create about 66 million jobs.

According to the World Tourism Organiza­tion (UNWTO), international travel to developing countries is on the rise and the tourism boom is driving development, exports, and jobs. Tour­­ists are increasingly looking for cultural and natural attractions in rural areas, thereby exploring more developing countries. Overall, two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty live in rural areas, so these communities will benefit from this pro-poor tourism according to the Rural Poverty Report 2011 (International Fund for Agricultural Development).

Tourism requires local labor and thus presents more employment opportunities for even low-skilled people. According to the UN International Trade Center (ITC), “tourism offers superior poverty reduction opportunities.” And the UNWTO points out that women and young people, who are generally proportionally disadvantaged, have more opportunities to find jobs within tourism.

It is not all trouble-free, tourism is vulnerable to natural disasters and political instability, and poor communities do not automatically benefit as some companies prefer to import supplies and services. But the ITC is taking measures to promote “inclusive tourism” and elevate the priority of this industry with international organizations and corporations. In 2003 it launched a project in Brazil’s Coconut Coast to increase capacity building activities for  agriculture, arts and crafts, the hotel business, computer science, English, environmental education, design, and culture, all as part of the tourism industry. They even installed an organic waste processing plant, providing balanced fertilizer at subsidized rates to 300 farmers. Today, 70 percent of the 3,000 beneficiaries of the project have found employment (mostly in nine five-star partner hotels) and the monthly income of 390 local women artisans has risen from $40 US to $250 US. The portion of the population earning less than one minimum salary has also decreased from 40 percent to 28 percent. The success of this and other projects confirms the fact that tourism represents an important opportunity for developing countries in their fight against poverty.

– Mary Purcell

Source: UN ITC

Tourism in Sri Lanka Mount Resort Hotel
The recent developments in the Sri Lankan tourism industry were made with the welfare of the citizens in mind, according to the Sri Lanka government and the Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The government wishes to increase tourism to their country to bring in the new revenue and stimulate the economy with outside sources. Other countries have also been using this tactic in order to eradicate poverty.

How does tourism help eradicate poverty? Well, in addition to bringing in money from outside of the country, it also helps the country become more known as a whole and attempts to put the country on the global radar. Rajapaksa says that most of the tourists that have traveled to Sri Lanka enjoy staying in small hotels in the region, which primarily aids small businessmen. This is certainly a positive; rather than giving money to the rich, it helps buffer the country’s inequality and aids those who are actually at risk of poverty. Recently, Rajapaksa opened the Mount Resort Hotel located in Kithulkanda, Meepe. It is a hotel with multiple rooms giving 19 different views of the area. Plus, it is an environment-friendly hotel on a wooded hilltop. The hotel also gives a beautiful view of star observation through a facility provided by the satellite station, Padukka.

The boost to the small businessmen has led to an increase in food production by small-scale entrepreneurs, as well as an increase in the production of clothing and souvenirs that serve to attract foreign visitors. The World Tourism Organisation has predicted that in the next decade, tourism will rise to three times greater than what it is now in Sri Lanka, with tourists coming from countries such as China and Japan.

Overall, tourism has proven to be helping boost the economy of Sri Lanka while it reduces poverty at the same time. This is a model that many other countries with high levels of poverty can replicate in order to help their own economies.

– Corina Balsamo