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by Claire Munday

The dark side of tourism

Whether you’re after sun, sea and sand, adventure in the outdoors or a cultural city break, there’s more to consider for a holiday than just the destination. But how many of you research the country’s economy, attitude towards wildlife or crime levels first? There’s a dark side to tourism, but unfortunately most will turn a blind eye towards it.

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You may be staying in a nice area of town, but walk five minutes down the road and you find run down buildings. In some places, the money coming in from tourism isn’t being evenly distributed in the local area, as it may be going to international hotel chains, or towards leisure facilities. On the one hand tourism creates jobs as well as facilities for locals and tourists, but at the same time these may only be seasonal. Another downside is that locals may be being forced further out, as their homes are knocked down to create room for resorts.

I can recall an experience I had a few years ago on the Greek island Santorini. The tour guide was begging us for a tip because their wages had been cut due to extreme austerity. The drivers were barely being paid, and were relying on passengers’ generosity to put food on the table. I was surprised when arriving in Brussels to see how on the surface it’s a clean city, but head down a back street and people are living in poverty. I was shocked by the level of homelessness I saw when walking the streets of San Francisco. These are all popular destinations, places that clearly profit from tourism, yet there are still pockets of inequality being brushed aside. Now, I didn’t realise the problems until I arrived, so its always worth speaking with people who have been to an area you wish to travel. They can give you an authentic account of the place, better than the glossed-up version on a tour company’s website.

Although you can’t change a country’s economic output, it may make you think twice about where exactly you stay, or make you head off the beaten track, where your money will be more appreciated.

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We’ve all seen horrible and degrading footage of chained up animals being forced to perform, or those who’ve been left crippled from being overworked, but have you considered your own interaction with animals abroad? Riding elephants sounds like an amazing experience, but it is still animal exploitation. Elephants and other animals are not born with the instinct to let humans ride them, they have to be conditioned this way. This often involves taking babies from their mothers and torturing them until they submit. Animal sanctuaries are a great alternative, but do your research first, as they still may not be treating these beautiful creatures with respect. World Animal Protection has great advice on what to look for.

Zoos may sound like a safe bet. They’re often designed as conservation projects; however, it is worth checking their track record. You may recall the story of Marius the giraffe euthanized at Copenhagen Zoo because he was surplus to requirements.

It’s not just animal exploitation to look out for though, tourism can also harm the environment. I’m not just referring to the cutting down of forests, but the impact extra people can have; more waste, pollution, erosion for example. Certain world-famous landmarks risk irreparable damage, so contemplate whether you really need to go there, or would be happy marvelling at pictures from those who already have.

Tripadvisor is a great resource in general, for researching attractions. Just remember though, the majority of people only share when they’ve either had a really great experience, or a terrible one.

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Crime can happen anywhere and it doesn’t discriminate, so it’s always worth checking crime levels before going to any destination, and also check of any scams other tourists have fallen foul too. I’m off to Thailand and have been made aware of monkeys trained to pickpocket people! A useful tool for UK travellers is the government’s travel advice page, which is full of helpful travel advice, including safety and security.

One area that can be overlooked – especially by stag parties – is the sex industry. A place you’re staying in may have what you think is a legitimate red-light district, but how many of those women do you think are there because they actually want to be there? With supply there is demand, and unfortunately that may mean the woman you are leering at, is a human trafficking victim.

Of course, there are other areas to consider, but just being aware of what to look out for and researching a place properly, will save you from feeling guilty that your money is getting into the wrong hands and that you’re not contributing to the dark side of tourism.