Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 7, 2010

The Many Faces of Alternative Tourism

sunsetsail300The nature of travel

When attempting to define the idiosyncratic and rather curious human behaviourism known as “travel” ─ in other words, trying to understand the reasons why our species is also known for its peregrinations ─ I often make reference to the following:

“We travel to explore the diversity of human society; and in so doing discover the commonality.”

From the earliest migrations of human beings along trade routes, over pilgrimage trails, or through forced migration as economic or political refugees, there has always been intrinsic to that “travel” a search for ideals. And from what I have deduced from observing travellers (and travel journalists), this penchant for us to move about the planet is also a search for a sense of self ─ both of the individual and of the collective self.

Alternative travel

And in recent years the contemporary world of travel and tourism has shown a growth in such “idealistic” travel. In many ways it has become a priority. With the diversification and transformation that we have witnessed in the industry, especially with the advent of the so-called “information age,” there is no shortage of opportunity nor motivation for people to travel. Travel habits have certainly changed; they have become far more consumer-oriented and consumer-defined, but the desire to travel has never been stronger. In many respects, travel has become an activity of self-determination.

Recently I have been in contact with a young Scottish man who is, in my opinion, the 21st-century version of the explorer or idealistic traveller. He goes only by his first name (Dan) and communicates his love for travel and his interpretations of human society through an online blog simply called Dan’s Adventure. And in order to fulfill his need to travel, he uses the (relatively) new world of electronic communication.

Dan’s next stop is Africa.

The cultural products of tourism

Increasingly the cultural “products” that satisfy this kind of need on the part of the media-wise and engaged traveller in the 21st century are not “mainstream” but alternative travel experiences; journeys in which the traveller has the opportunity (and motivation) to explore a destination and a culture in a much more direct way; on a much more grassroots level.

All travel is a journey on so many levels: physical, emotional, aesthetic, philosophical and, above all, conceptual. There are some travel experiences ─ and herein lies the primary skill of the engaged traveller ─ that are not just one-way streets but reciprocal experiences, and an opportunity for intercultural dialogue.

This kind of travel experience is organic; it is travel in which the new “sense of place” that our psyches absorb is the result of so many factors: new geographical and topographical realities; the ebb and flow of history; language elements; in brief, landscape shaping culture.

But that landscape is also the realm of ideas and ideals.

Landscapes can challenge the traveller

Anyone can, from time to time, be challenged by landscapes that are both physical and cultural. Although we are a highly adaptive species, our need to acclimatize to our surroundings is not always easy. Perhaps that is another reason many of us like to move on.

I was reminded recently of how travel can be an ambivalent experience when I read Barack Obama’s early autobiography Dreams From My Father.

In the book he describes a time in his life when, living in New York City, he began to feel confused, disturbed, and even disenchanted with the environment in which he had chosen to live. Making reference to a physical environment in which he was feeling more and more alienated, he says,

“The beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess, all of it dazzled my senses; there seemed no constraints on originality of lifestyles or the manufacture of desire [my emphasis] …. Beneath the hum, the motion, I was seeing the steady fracturing of the world taking place…. I might wander through Harlem ─ to play on [basketball] courts I’d once read about or hear Jesse Jackson make a speech on 125th [Street]; or, on a rare Sunday morning, to sit in the back pews of Abyssinian Baptist Church, lifted by the gospel’s sweet sorrowful song ─ and catch a fleeting glimpse of that thing which I sought. But I had no guide that might show me how to join this troubled world…”

In many ways, his journey had only just begun.

A case study of idealistic and results-oriented travel

Recently, I had the opportunity of re-visiting the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and having some direct interaction with the Mayan people in their own unique and distinct environment. I also got to meet another young man who, for me, has come to represent the idealism and search for universal meaning through travel that I have referred to above.

His name is Jesús Mesa del Castillo Bermejo. As you may already have suspected, he himself is not Mexican, but Spanish; a young journalist from Barcelona. You may immediately wonder, as did I, what he was doing in Mexico. His story and his achievements are impressive.

Jesús came to Mexico to work with the Mayan people themselves and to set up a non-governmental organization called Kanché, a not-for-profit organization that works with the Mayan people themselves who have established their own tourism industry in this part of Mexico called La Puerta Verde (Green Road). Together, Kanché and La Puerta Verde offer travellers unique indigenous travel experiences and interaction with the Mayan people. Along the way travellers discover the centuries-old wisdom of this ancient civilization, especially in terms of its knowledge base, and its sustainable land use, above all the water resources beneath the surface.

The organization is called Kanché because the Mayan word refers to an apparatus called a germinator which is raised off the ground. In the germinator the Maya plant seeds so that the sprouts will be protected from animals and insects.

The NGO that Jesús founded is also a germinator ─ of ideas.

Redevelopment and respect

Throughout the world there is a renewed recognition of the wisdom and pragmatism of aboriginal peoples. There is also a renewed emphasis on the art and artistry inherent in their way of life; and in their contributions to human civilization.

As many nations begin to refocus and re-orient their societies, especially in terms of the challenges inherent in their physical environments, and the growing urbanization of human communities everywhere, governments and non-governmental organizations are rediscovering and reaffirming the interdependent relationships to land and sea that indigenous peoples have always had.

Today the Maya are experiencing a renewed sense of themselves; once again their language is being taught in school and no longer are young people hesitant to use it. A renewed awareness of the critical dynamics of eldership and oral history are also now increasingly emphasized.

And this I suspect is what has brought Jesús to live among the Maya.

To hear my conversation with Jesús, click on the following link:

Kanché and Puerta Verde: A Role Model for Alternative, Grassroots, and Indigenous Travel

Other role models and examples of alternative tourism

(a) The Siksika Nation of Alberta: Self-determination, Cultural Affirmation, Land, and Time

A visit to the Siksika Nation (the Blackfoot of Alberta) is a case study of an Aboriginal sense of place that differs in many ways from both the preconceived notions that many of the Europeans held before their arrival, and conceptually different from the European relationship to the land. An encounter (however brief) with the Siksika Nation (and the Blackfoot Crossing National Historic Site) south-east of Calgary, will allow you a glimpse and a new appreciation of this distinct sense of place in part because the physical landscape will have a powerful sensory effect on you. And when you delve into the history and culture of the Siksika, you will discover that the sense of place is inextricably linked to a sense of time.

(b) The Kilim Nature Park and a Langkawi, Malyasia mangrove tour

The Kilim Nature Park on the Island of Langkawi in Malaysia is one of the world’s most important mangrove swamps. Whereas the mountains of the interior of Penang Island were the “lungs” of that Malaysian island, the 100-square kilometre Kilim mangrove swamps are the filtration plant for Langkawi ─ and beyond. That is how a mangrove swamp works. The Kilim Mangrove Swamps are home to once-in-a-lifetime flora and fauna experiences: Brown Eagles, Mud Skippers (which are still emerging from the primal sludge), Multicoloured Tree Crabs, and my favourite, the Monitor Lizard.

The Kilim Nature Park is also now part of a UNESCO Geopark.

(c) A Great Yukon River Journey with Chris Vetterlein on Lake Lebarge in Canada’s far northwest

Like all great rivers of the world, The Yukon has witnessed many comings and goings. Some anthropologists believe that the Yukon Valley was the main immigration route for North America’s first human inhabitants; those who came across the frozen land bridge, called Beringia between Siberia and Alaska. I should add that some First Nations peoples dispute that theory, preferring their own traditional beliefs that their ancestors originated in North America. But like all great rivers on the planet, The Yukon has nourished human culture in its many hues and shades.

(d) The Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi Grounds

At Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand (as is the case in much of New Zealand), you can get an appreciation of how Maori culture has played a very prominent role in New Zealand. Especially important is the Treaty of Waitangi which itself established an international precedent. The Treaty made New Zealand a part of the British Empire, guaranteed Maori rights to their land and, at the same time, gave them the rights of British citizens. Still debated to some extent, the Maori consider the treaty a sacred pact; and in New Zealand, Waitangi Day is a public holiday and a significant commemoration.

(e) The Hands of Juan Quezada

In many ways, the road to Mata Ortiz in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua is a metaphoric journey to a place in which are inherent artistic integrity and the kind of altruism that is essential to integrated communities. For the outsider, this tiny, dusty pueblo in the northwestern corner of Mexico’s largest state seems the least likely place to encounter a world-class artist. Appearances are deceiving however because it is the area’s isolation and desert environs that in fact led to the renaissance of a distinct centuries-old art form. And here I met Juan Quezada, a living national treasure in Mexico.

(f) The Slovenian Tourist Farms

The principles, practices, and values inherent in the Slovenia Tourist Farms organization are not in any way old-fashioned, archaic, nor spent energy. Quite the opposite; they are as relevant today as they have always been. That is the nature of universality. As we discovered during the FIJET Congress in Slovenia, this grassroots tourism business model emphasizes natural resources. And people are also one of those natural resources.

(g) The Engaging World of Voluntourism and Joyce Major

When her children had finished college, Joyce Major set off to rediscover the world. As she herself says, “This passion for life propelled me to fulfill my dream of a year-long trip around the world; but with a twist. I knew that I wanted more than simply being a tourist looking at the world from arms-length. But how could I accomplish my goal to gain a deeper understanding of foreign cultures and benefit local people and the environment at the same time? Voluntourism seemed the perfect solution, combining a sense of adventure with active participation on local projects. It also meant that though traveling solo I would always be a part of a team and meeting new people at the same time.” The end result was her self-published book Smiling at the World.

(h) Along the Templar Trail: Brandon Wilson’s Journey of Peace

In many ways, Brandon Wilson is the ultimate traveller. His inspirational and arduous treks embody why we human beings are a species constantly in search of ideals. I highly recommend his book Along the Templar Trail. Also, watch for his soon-to-be-released new book Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking the Alps.


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