Many factors make South America a respectable beacon of sustainability and responsibility in the tourism sector although considering the environmental and cultural issues the continent still faces, it’s safe to say there is so much more work to be done. The ground work is firm: collectively, South American countries have ascribed vast swaths of wilderness as protected nature reserves, limited visitors to its most famous sights (such as Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands), protected its exceptional wildlife, offered wonderful cultural programs (like homestays) to inspire and facilitate cultural appreciation and committed to preserving and showcasing the many different aspects of indigenous cultures, like the cuisine, vast archaeological cache, dance and music. At least, for the most part. Yet one fact remains: South America isn’t a single destination but a maze comprising 12 very distinct nations of varying financial and developmental statuses and, as such, displaying drastically different levels of social conscientiousness, environmental protection (or lack thereof) and responsible tourism practice. Sometimes, as one travels through South America, it feels as if one is travelling through different worlds, not only crossing borders. Some nations are cleaner, others have an obvious pollution problem. Some showcase a fervent desire to protect their indigenous inhabitants and their precious wilderness while others, not so much.
The only real common denominator, when it comes to travelling responsibly in South America, is the traveller. WE are the ones who are primarily connecting the dots, facilitating the commercialization of special spots, enticing locals to go into the tourism business, partaking in activities and buying souvenirs to take home. WE are the ones who hold the reigns when it comes to responsible travel in South America. As foreign visitors, our choices drive the market and our purchases send a clear message. Where we travel and how we travel, primarily, are great indicators of how much impact our sheer presence will have in the countries we visit, which makes us, the intrepid adventurers we are, the front-line of defence in travelling responsibly in South America.
Here are some of the biggest problems the continent faces and best solutions for travelling responsibly in South America:
People, Poverty and Indigenous Communities
Glitzy as the continent may appear on glossy magazine covers, the levels of abject poverty are still considerable although the state of affairs is swiftly improving, continent-wide. The rise of South America as a rewarding, multi-faceted and fantastic travel destination has helped improve the overall condition of locals, as the trickle-down effect of tourist spending impacts a large percentage of each country’s population, from the hotel and restaurant owners to the shop-keepers, the local guides and even the remote communities many of us wish to visit.
So what can we do?
Travel to South America: Visiting South America, first and foremost, is a wonderful way to boost the local economy. Collectively, we bring in around USD 370 billion into Latin America each and every year and that’s expected to double within the next decade. The stats are quite impressive: according to the World Trade and Tourism Council (WTTC) tourist spending accounts to a 1% yearly GDP increase all over the continent and, surprisingly, less than 40% of the revenue is made up of direct contribution. The great majority, in fact, is indirectly beneficial. It’s quite amazing to know that by the sheer nature of our tour to South America, we can effectively improve the living condition of locals who struggle to make ends meet. Tourism creates employment, feeds the manufacturing industry and drives the local economy and, despite the fact that it has shown to also cause havoc in smaller, uber-popular destinations (as recently reported in Europe) tourism has the potential to be of great benefit, most especially as our spending and our visits entice local governments to inject funds into sustainable tourism practices. Millions of Latin Americans have been lifted out of poverty thanks to tourism in the region over the last two decades. As much as continent-wide poverty can seem an unsurmountable challenge and something we simply can’t fix singularly, it’s great to know that, collectively, our visits are making a positive impact. So off we go!
Spend well but wisely: It’s easy to be generous in a South American country where prices are one tenth of what they are in our home countries. Yet over-generous spending can also have its drawbacks. Overpaying for goods and services entice local business owners to either shun local patronage (they can earn more with foreign guests than local ones) and entice a disparity between those who work in the tourism industry and those who don’t. Your local tour guide is your best point of reference when it comes to things like tipping and bargaining: he/she can give you an idea on how to pay a generous but fair price for items/meals/souvenirs whilst ensuring your well-intentioned generosity does not create a problem that wasn’t there initially. Leave tips, round up and don’t bargain so much, that’s for sure, but remember that throwing money at poverty has never been shown to work. Poverty is solved with an increase in consistent income not merely a one-off donation.
Mind the children: Children have a much greater impact on foreign tourists than adults do and that’s why you’ll see children begging in Lima, selling finger-puppets in Cusco or offering to ‘show you around’ in La Paz. As hard as it may be to deny an expectant child a few dollars, it is important that children be enticed to stay in school rather than earn money on the streets. Giving charity to children who beg does not improve their welfare and, on the contrary, will only exacerbate the begging cycle. South America is home to many exceptional, locally-run organizations whose aim it is to improve children’s education and ensure their well-being. Why not donate to them, instead? By all means, chat to them in English, play a game of soccer and ask them about their lives and neighbourhood but, when it comes to children, it is best to keep your dollars to yourself.
Keep it local: Many large-scale shopping malls are springing up all over South America and big foreign businesses, intent on staking a claim on the commercial market, are setting up shop right next door to all those ma-and-pa shops that are distinctly South American. If you want to ensure your hard-earned travel funds go directly to locals then skip those malls and buy all you need from local shops, stalls, markets and vendors. This is especially important when it comes to souvenirs: the continent is brimming with exquisite arts and crafts; hand-made treasures that reflect the artist’s indigenous and local culture. By keeping it local you’ll not only help them but you’ll bring home a real piece of the country you’re visiting. Because travelling responsibly in South America also means shopping responsibly.
It’s no secret that large swaths of the Amazon jungle have been sold off to foreign companies for drilling and farming rights, effectively depriving our planet of its much-needed lungs. This is a huge problem (and not solely related to the Amazon) and one that is currently being fought on many governmental fronts yet although you may think there’s not too much you can do about it, there is!
Visit national parks that charge entrance fees: Entice governments to protect their wilderness by actively choosing to visit national parks which have been assigned protective status and which charge an entry fee. South America is home to many bioreserves (reserves where locals are allowed to live and work) and in these regions you can stay, eat, tour and buy products and services thus boosting the local economy to boot. Only by showing governments that national parks can be a source of income, can we hope to convince them to leave the continent’s spectacularly wilderness alone. Some of the most popular parks to visit are Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares National Parks in Argentinian Patagonia, Torres del Paine in Chile and Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian/Brazilian border not to mention, of course, the magnificent Galapagos Islands National Park.
Shop responsibly – at home: When it comes to the decimation of the Amazon it’s important to note that there’s actually something we can all do, without ever setting foot in the continent. Many of our beloved products like chocolate, spices, coffee, acai berries, avocadoes, bananas and nuts originate from South America so the best thing we can do is ensure the products we buy are Fairtrade, organic and belong to brads committed to the Rainforest Alliance. Travelling responsibly in South America also means caring for the causes when we are no longer there. Check out Fairtrade.com.au to see if your favourite brands fit the bill.
Choose smaller hotels over all-inclusive resorts: Eco-tourism has become the word du jour and nowhere is this a more welcomed initiative than in South America. Whilst the term seems to be thrown around like confetti, nowadays, it is difficult to determine just how eco-friendly an establishment really is. One thing is sure: a small hotel or guesthouse is infinitely less impactful on the environment than a large, all-inclusive resort. The latter can soak up gargantuan amounts of resources from an area (especially in a remote one) and take much-needed water and waste-disposal services away from locals who live there. Go small, go local and don’t mind if the comfort or luxury level is not what you’d get, for the same stars, in other countries. Some of the most delightful experiences you can have in South America will come from the most innocuous places. Travelling responsibly and sustainably in South America is not just easy…it can be immensely memorable and none of it has to do with imported or over-commercialized luxury.
Choose travel agencies committed to responsible and sustainable tourism: We love South America (like, really luuurve South America) and are aware of the extent of the impact that all of our tours – and indeed our business – have throughout the continent. This is why we are committed to ensuring the environmental and socio-cultural impact of our presence in South America is beneficial. Whenever possible, we use local guides to show you the ropes of their beloved home countries and have set up offices throughout the continent so we can employ local staff. After all, who better knows a place than a local? All our guides boast excellent qualifications and extensive years of experience and we remunerate above the standard wage. Whenever possible, we will always choose local products over imported ones. Our guests get a better and more authentic deal and we know we’re contributing to the local economy even further. Moreover, 10% of our profits go directly to our favourite local charities and we’ve even set up our own project, called MAD (just like us!) which offers funds to local community projects throughout the continent.
Boastful, much? Yes, you could say that! Yet we wanted to highlight the fact that when it comes to traveling responsibly in South America, your choices are not only plentiful but can start even before you jump on that plane.
South America is (if you’ll allow us to say) THE most amaaaazeballs continent on the planet to discover. If we all love it, and care for it and look after it…our children and grandchildren can enjoy it too.
Visit our Chimu Adventures page for wonderful travel inspiration and check out our itinerary ideas for Latin America.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”