It’s World Tourism Day. Established by the United Nations and celebrated annually, the theme this year is “Tourism and jobs: a better future for all.” The aim is to raise awareness on maximizing the potential of tourism to train people and produce jobs.
As of late, it feels as if tourism has been on the more negative side of news: overtourism, climate change, developers destroying mangroves or IG-influencers who disregard sacred sites. On the other hand, there’s more advice on sustainable tourism and responsible travel – how we can explore places with meaning and impact, putting our travel dollars into locally-owned companies and cooperatives instead of corporations selling mass tourism.
This is particularly important in areas where tourism is critical to the mere survival of its people – a region like the Caribbean, the most tourism-dependent in the world.
Beyond all of the industry buzzwords and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, lies a simple and long lasting truth. It’s a belief I’ve embraced from a young age and one of the pillars of my storytelling, guidebook content and advice I share with readers.
Tourism is about people.
When we visit a country, city, village or neighborhood – whether in the Caribbean, the US, Europe or elsewhere – we are in the home of those who live there year-round. We’re welcomed into a space and everything that defines it by people who’ve never met us. It doesn’t get more special than that, as an immense privilege that tourism affords those of us who can and choose to travel.
It’s a personal exchange, whether we are on the receiving or giving end. We get to listen but we also get to explain who we are to those who might not have any idea of the place we call home.
For example, wherever I go, I remember that I’m representing my birthplace, Ethiopia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Wow, you’re the first Ethiopian I’ve ever met!” I get peppered with questions about my culture in return and that exchange is priceless.
In the Caribbean, it goes without saying that tourism is an economic force. It gives opportunities to people of all ages to grow and run their own businesses, to hire locals and uplift entire communities.
Above: Sylvia De Marco, owner of The Dreamcatcher vegetarian hotel in San Juan, and Finca Victoria on Vieques, Puerto Rico
Tourism opens doors to scholarship opportunities and travel grants for students or employees who might not otherwise afford it, so they can have meaningful, educational experiences.
Tourism lifts women out of poverty and gender stereotypes as the #1 industry to offer more opportunity for leading positions than any other.
Over the past decade in particular, focusing on sustainable tourism, I’ve seen first hand the lives that this industry has helped transform.
Women working in miserable manufacturing factory jobs, who then turned around and established their own cooperative.
Above: Tia Yesi in her guesthouse’s backyard, in the mountains of Jarabacoa – Dominican Republic. “Auntie” Yesi loves to host and meet visitors from around the world.
Single moms who never had a chance to study but whose sustainable tourism income put their daughters through university. Women who started out in other industries and are now executive directors of environmental non profit organizations and nature reserves, closely intertwined with tourism.
I’ve also seen how uncorroborated negative press can have direct effects on a destination’s tourism industry and cause entire families to suffer job losses through no fault of theirs.
Aside from providing critical income and a better quality of life, tourism continues to serve as a valuable tool for positive change. It’s a bridge that connects us all as human beings, co-existing on the same planet. It’s an opportunity to redistribute wealth and show our humanity.
When we return home, we plaster our social media walls with amazing landscapes and we gush about the food we enjoyed. But we must also ask ourselves: whose tourism-dependent livelihood did I positively and directly impact?
Because more often than not, it’s the people we meet who illuminate our journeys and who ensure we keep the memories of a place lodged in our minds and in our hearts forever.
Above: Bill Pierce, Executive Director of the Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc, Maine – with his buddy Zeke. Bill showed my colleagues and I around his favorite spots in the Rangeley Lakes area, making our time in Maine that much more memorable.
Cover image: Rocio leads food walks in Old San Juan for Spoon Food tours; she also has a second tourism-related job. Read about it in my latest feature for Lonely Planet, on exploring Puerto Rico’s exciting, growing sustainable tourism scene. You can also view more of my recent blog stories here.