Enter Kenya’s Rose Oasis

Some of the best roses in the world bloom in Kenya. While the country is widely known for its scenic national parks and wildlife reserves, it’s also a major flower producer. Winnie Gathonie Njonge is the production manager at Nini Flowers, which sits on the shores of Lake Naivasha. She knows all there is about growing perfect roses and oversees the harvesting of 300,000 to 450,000 a day. “The ultimate goal of growing roses is to make other people happy,” she says. It brings her joy to know the roses she cultivates are sent to the United States, Japan and other countries, spreading love and beauty all over the world.

Revolutionizing Ethical Travel for Women: Meet Purposeful Nomad

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

When Caitlin Murray met Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm, she’d been living in South America for two years after a solo trip that inspired her to stay.  They showed her how their commitment to regenerating Ecuador’s cloud forest focuses on sustainable farming practices and educating others. They also gave her a taste of their handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bar that won first place in 2016’s International Chocolate Awards.  Inspired by their story and commitment to the environment, Caitlin wanted to bring others to their farm.

Volunteering abroad, solo backpacking, and working in the tourism industry, Caitlin realized in order to access culture and be socially responsible, she must find measurable ways to directly give back to local communities. Driven to create opportunities for women to collectively experience this, she founded Purposeful Nomad. Purposeful Nomad is a travel company that crafts deeper, safer, more ethically responsible travel for women.  They attract women from a variety of backgrounds and ages seeking a different kind of experience.  “I wanted to use tourism as something positive in the world and not just a consumerism ‘let’s take my life and emulate my life somewhere else’ ethos,” Caitlin explains.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Two years after her visit to Mashpi Farm, Caitlin launched her first women-only sustainable social impact travel program in Ecuador - called Food, Farm, Fleece.  The 14-day itinerary integrates local experience and education.  Early on, the group meets with grassroots organization founders of Paqocha, Felipe Segovia and Lorena Perez to learn about their efforts to revive the alpaca population.  Next, they learn from Ecuadorian women how to shear, clean and spin the fleece with the opportunity to purchase handwoven wares directly from the makers.

Going through a transitional time in her life, Sara Carter signed up with Purposeful Nomad to “fulfill her desire to immerse herself in Ecuador's culture, food, and people, while affording her the chance to do it with like-minded women.” Within a few short years, Purposeful Nomad has grown to eight new locations and diversified itineraries - including Cuba, Morocco, India, and Guatemala.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

According to the World Tourism Organization as explained in CNBC’s article “Eco-Friendly Tourism” eco-travel is expected to climb to 1.8 billion by 2030.  Since 2000, worldwide destination seeking has jumped by more than 50 percent. As socially responsible travel continues to grow “we make sure our dollars stay local.  We’re not a luxury tour company,” says Caitlin. According to McColl of Ethical Traveler, the best way to travel sustainability is to get to know the local people so the “money stays in the local economy, rather than getting extracted by foreign corporations … as a bonus, it’s a more genuine experience, and a better chance to connect with local people.” Purposeful Nomad prioritizes local from lodging and cuisine to hiring knowledgeable guides.  Caitlin builds partnerships by talking to locals and finding ways to help. She doesn’t assume to know what a place needs. She asks. Would you like to work with us?  How can we help?  

According to MarketWatch, more than 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, paying more than $2 billion annually to help out while traveling.  Nevertheless, it brings into question how much lasting impact they are generating.

Purposeful Nomad focuses on tapping into established grassroots organizations that are already happening on the ground and are a proven success to help measure their impact. “Bigger volunteer organizations, can create incredible infrastructures in developing countries, but once they pull out, the schools are empty.  We don’t want that,” Caitlin explains.

With the mounting popularity of conscious travel, terms like responsible, sustainable and ethical can often be overused or misused in the tourism industry.  Epicure & Culture contributor, Daniela Frendo explains, “In the travel industry, greenwashing refers to tour operators which make eco-trips seem more sustainable and ethical than they actually are.”  Travelers can mitigate this by asking travel companies whether they employ local people and buy locally-sourced products as well as learn more about how invested the company actually is in community-based projects. Aware of greenwashing, Caitlin says, “If you take shortcuts, people are going to know.” She thoroughly vets organizations and individuals to ensure there is transparency in where the money goes.

Back at the Masphi Farm, Alejandro and Agostina’s passion for conservation and keeping the Ecuadorian traditions of the cacao crop alive balances well with dishing out delicious artisanal chocolate.  So, for your next trip, consider traveling with a purpose—it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.





JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building.  When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking.  Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at julia-roos.com.

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This Small Mexican Border Town Prizes its Human and Environmental Links with the US

Lucia Orosco holding her daughter, Arely, in Boquillas. Much of the embroidery created here reads ‘no el muro’ (no wall). Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Lucia Orosco holding her daughter, Arely, in Boquillas. Much of the embroidery created here reads ‘no el muro’ (no wall). Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

The tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen sits nestled between the Sierra del Carmen Mountains and the Rio Grande. Its Chihuahuan Desert location is strikingly beautiful, with green vegetation along the river, the brown soil of the surrounding desert and pink mountain cliffs creating splendid color contrasts.

I have been taking students to this magnificent landscape for 20 years – mostly to Big Bend National Park in Texas, just a mile north of Boquillas. My colleagues and I have also studied the ecological and economic value of this habitat, one of the most biodiverse and ecologically important desert regions in the world.

Recently I returned to study the ecotourism and conservation potential of Boquillas. In the process, I learned about a local vision for the border that is markedly different from the prevailing U.S. view.

Mexican jays range north into the U.S. through the Big Bend region and in southeastern Arizona.  NPS/Cookie Ballou

Mexican jays range north into the U.S. through the Big Bend region and in southeastern Arizona. NPS/Cookie Ballou

Here the Rio Grande forms the line between the United States and Mexico. The river is an ecological gathering place that draws humans and wildlife. For Boquillas residents, the idea of building a wall here is sacrilegious. As Lilia Falcon, manager of a local restaurant, said to me, “We have friends on both sides of the river, we want these interactions to continue.” Her husband, Bernardo Rogel, was more succinct: “We love both countries.”

View of Boquillas, Mexico. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

View of Boquillas, Mexico. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

A fragile ecotourism economy

Boquillas was originally a mining town, with local deposits of silver, lead and zinc that attracted prospectors. By the early 20th century, 2,000 people lived there and a thriving industry was exporting ore.

That boom turned to bust, and by the end of World War I the mines were closed. The town nearly disappeared in the 1960s, but in 1999 when I first visited there, it had about 200 residents. They made their living from cross-border tourism, with U.S. visitors to Big Bend National Park entering Mexico via a legal but unofficial border crossing.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, the United States closed all of these informal crossings. Overnight Boquillas lost its income source, ruining livelihoods and jeopardizing years of effort by residents and government officials to build cooperative border relations.

The nearest place to get supplies was now a 300-mile round trip over rough roads deep into rural Mexico. Just three miles away on the U.S. side, gas, food and services in Big Bend National Park’s Rio Grande Village campground were now inaccessible. Relatives who were citizens on opposite sides of the border were separated, 115 miles from the nearest legal crossing point.

After more than a decade of lobbying by residents, the U.S. government created a “remote” passport facility, where people crossing the border could present their documentation by phone to a border agent located in El Paso. Boquillas reopened and merchants and guides returned. In 2018 more than 11,000 visitors crossed over from the United States.

Crossing to Boquillas by rowboat from Big Bend National Park.  NPS / T. VandenBerg

Crossing to Boquillas by rowboat from Big Bend National Park. NPS / T. VandenBerg

Today Boquillas residents are working again to teach visitors about this part of Mexico, and ecotourism companies are expanding. People here envision a future for the border in which respect, cooperation and shared economic gain will create a prosperous and sustainable future for communities on both sides.

Welcoming visitors and valuing connections

It is obvious to me that people in Boquillas love their town and are hopeful about the future. “I want to show visitors the beauty of my home and to have a more prosperous life for my family,” Lacho Falcón, a local guide whose family owns the only grocery store in town, told me on my most recent visit as we hiked into Boquillas canyon, its massive vertical walls gleaming in soft morning light.

Lacho Falcón (second from left, rear) and his family in Boquillas. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Lacho Falcón (second from left, rear) and his family in Boquillas. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

I have heard that sentiment repeated many times as I have gotten to know more people in the town. Thanks to economic activity from tourism, “We have been able to buy a vehicle, improve our house, and most importantly, send our oldest daughter Wendy to college,” said Lucia Orosco. She sells crafts to help support her family, which includes husband Adrián, who manages the ferry crossing over the Rio Grande, and their three children.

Canoeing the Rio Grande is a favorite tourist activity. The river cuts through spectacular canyons, supports abundant wildlife and provides water for this thirsty land. I spoke with Ernesto Hernández Morales from Vera Cruz, Mexico and Mike Davidson from Terlingua, Texas about the river’s potential to unify their countries. As partners with Boquillas Adventures, a Mexican registered ecotourism company that focuses on natural and historic interpretation, they are working to expand sustainable tourism opportunities in nearby protected areas, hiring local residents as guides.

“We see our work as more than a business,” said Hernández Morales. “It’s an opportunity to show Mexico and the U.S. working together for security and prosperity.” Davidson concurs: “It is our goal to provide our guests a high-quality, safe experience…and offer them a glimpse of daily reality on this part of the border.”

Ernesto Hernández Morales helps run Boquillas Adventures, an ecotourism company in the Boquillas region. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Ernesto Hernández Morales helps run Boquillas Adventures, an ecotourism company in the Boquillas region. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

Chalo Diaz, a local guide who takes visitors on river trips, is excited about his work. “Boquillas is a beautiful town where you can visit friendly people. Now that the border has reopened, we have improved it and are connected to the world,” he told me.

United ecologically, separated politically?

In 2011 Mexico and the United States signed a cooperative agreement to conserve the spectacular Chihuahuan Desert landscape. This initiative builds on proposals dating back nearly a century to create a cross-border international peace park.

American black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and a host of smaller animals, as well as over 400 species of birds, move across this landscape. Studies show that conserving this region requires maintaining free movement for wildlife. Researchers warn that building a border wall through the area could threaten thousands of plant and animal species by preventing them from moving between patches of the best habitat.

Currently Boquillas is the only access point where people can cross between the protected areas in this region. This makes it critical to future conservation success. People in Boquillas believe that building a border wall would sever this connection, causing hardship and insecurity on both sides.

MATTHEW D. MORAN is a Professor of Biology at Hendrix College.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION.

CHILE: Patagonia

Torres del Paine National Park is in Chile’s Patagonia region and known for its beautiful mountain ranges, icebergs and glaciers, and golden pampas, which are the grasslands that shelter wildlife such as guanacos. Some of its most iconic sites are the 3 granite towers from which the park takes its name and the horn-shaped peaks called Cuernos del Paine.

The Eerie History and Uncertain Future of Japan’s Rabbit Island

Ōkunoshima and its imperiled bunny population remind us that wildlife and tourism don’t always mix.

A cluster of bunnies on Rabbit Island. Cindy Pepper. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A cluster of bunnies on Rabbit Island. Cindy Pepper. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From its many “cat islands,” which boast more feline than human residents, to Jigokudani Monkey Park, where visitors can observe macaques bathing in the naturally occurring hot springs, Japan seems to overflow with fantastical wildlife enclaves. Perhaps the most adorable of all is Ōkunoshima, or “Rabbit Island”—but the cotton-tailed denizens for which this island is known belie its sinister past and ambiguous future.

While Ōkunoshima, located in the Hiroshima Prefecture, is a popular tourist destination for those looking to get their kawaii fix, it was once hidden from maps due to its clandestine status as a World War II military location. Production of chemical weapons in the island’s poison gas factory began in 1929, and apart from factory workers and army higher-ups, few citizens were aware of its existence.

Ōkunoshima was chosen for its location: discreet enough for goings-on there to remain under the radar, and far enough from densely populated cities like Tokyo to prevent mass casualties in case of an accident. The factory there eventually produced more than 6,000 tons of gas—primarily mustard gas and the irritant lewisite—before its closure at the end of the war. Chemicals wereould be shipped to Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka Prefecture to be weaponized, eventually resulting in more than 80,000 casualties (including and more than 6,000 deaths) among Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Despite the fact that Japan was a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention banning the use of chemical weapons, none of the country’s citizens were prosecuted for employing poison gas. After Japan’s defeat in the war, most of the Ōkunoshima factory was destroyed, but laboratory buildings, the shell of a power plant, an army barracks, and a few other edifices remain. In 1988, local governmental entities and citizens opened the Poison Gas Museum to pay tribute to this dark and little-known facet of Japanese history. Displays include the ineffective protective gear worn by workers at the factory, which left them vulnerable to exposure and subsequent illness, as well as equipment used to manufacture the gases.

So where did the bunnies enter the equation? We know that a colony of rabbits was brought to the factory during its operational years to test the effects of poisons, but beyond that, theories diverge. Some suggest that the original crop of rabbits was destroyed along with the factory, while others claim that workers set the bunnies free after the war. Another theory asserts that schoolchildren brought eight rabbits to the island in 1971, where they bred until they reached their current population of approximately 1,000.

Tadanoumi Port viewed from the ferry to Ōkunoshima. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Tadanoumi Port viewed from the ferry to Ōkunoshima. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Today, Ōkunoshima is easily accessible via a 15-minute ferry, and embodies peace, rest, and relaxation for tourists and locals alike. Visitors can easily explore it on foot (the island is less than 2.5 miles in circumference), collect souvenirs, dine, play tennis, swim in the ocean, and bathe in the hot spring—apart from communing with the wildlife, of course. Rabbit Island’s website describes it as a place to seek good fortune for your own family’s fertility, and advertises whipped ice cream and “original rabbit items” for sale, as well as octopus kelp rolls, a local delicacy known to pair well with sake.

Yet even the island’s thriving tourist industry and booming bunny population has a more sinister flip side. The wild rabbits depend on visitors for their food and water, but tourists often come bearing snacks that are harmful to the creatures’ delicate digestive systems—such as cabbage or vegetable peelings, which can cause fatal bloating. And while visitors are keen to share photos of their new fluffy friends online, social media has played a key role in destabilizing the rabbit population: Viral videos and articles have led to a vast influx of tourists in the past decade, and the resultant avalanche of snacks and treats has contributed to a breeding boom that the island’s ecosystem is unable to handle. These factors have combined to lower the bunnies’ life expectancy to only two years, compared to the three-to-five-year lifespan of the average wild rabbit.

The plight of the Ōkunoshima rabbits is just one example of the widespread harm social media has inflicted on wildlife populations across the globe: For instance, viral YouTube videos of slow lorises, wide-eyed nocturnal primates native to Southeast Asia, have led to people taking home lorises from the wild to keep as their own. Unfortunately, captivity is unhealthy for the animals, and they often end up relegated to props in tourist photos—or worse, sold into the illegal pet trade, and possibly slaughtered for use in cuisine or medicinals.

A curious bunny on Ōkunoshima seems to have mistaken the camera for a snack. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

A curious bunny on Ōkunoshima seems to have mistaken the camera for a snack. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Ultimately, bunny lovers need not be deterred from visiting Ōkunoshima, but following the rules is essential in order to treat the creatures kindly and foster their health and wellness. The Rabbit Island website lays out guidelines for responsible rabbit enthusiasts—including “refill water pans” and “check under your car,” as curious bunnies might hide underneath to escape the hot sun—and travelers can use their visit as an opportunity to educate friends and family about the unique perils posed to wildlife in the digital age. Approaching this mystical island mindfully is a small yet important step in helping the myriad diverse populations of the animal kingdom survive and thrive for many years to come.


TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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Death Toll Rises in Tijuana

Tijuana is a popular weekend destination for American tourists. Author Unknown. CC BY-SA 1.0.

Tijuana is a popular weekend destination for American tourists. Author Unknown. CC BY-SA 1.0.

A few miles south of San Diego lies Tijuana, a favorite weekend getaway for Americans. Some Californians have even taken to living in Tijuana permanently to escape their state’s rising housing costs. However, life in Tijuana has changed drastically over the last few years as conflicts between rival drug cartels have caused the city’s murder rate to skyrocket. The situation presents a new set of risks for those wanting to visit the ever-popular tourist trap.

In 2018, over 2,000 homicides were reported in Tijuana, an increase from the 1,647 homicides reported in 2017. Authorities attribute the bloodshed to warring drug cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel, formerly led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman arrived in Tijuana about 12 years ago and launched a campaign to usurp the resident Arellano Felix Cartel. The fighting has raged ever since, with visitors and locals alike getting caught in the crossfire. In November of last year, two San Diego teenagers and a friend from Tijuana were found dead in an apartment bathroom. The teens had driven to Ensenada for a barbeque and never returned. Authorities said they had been stripped and tortured before being shot execution-style. Police later announced that they had arrested three suspects in connection with the killings, but did not issue any further statements. The situation in Tijuana has intensified with the arrival of a migrant caravan from Honduras intent on entering the US. The migrants arrived in December but their entrance into the US was blocked by border patrol agents. The Trump administration, implementing a practice called “metering,” agreed to only allow a few migrants into the country per day, and the remaining migrants set up a temporary camp while each waited for their chance to cross the border. Later that month, three of the migrants were killed in an apparent robbery attempt when they left the camp to visit a sports arena near the center of the city. It would seem that no one is safe from the violence that plagues Tijuana.

Authorities say wars between rival cartels are the direct cause of Tijuana's rising death toll. Author Unknown. Public Domain.

Authorities say wars between rival cartels are the direct cause of Tijuana's rising death toll. Author Unknown. Public Domain.

Still, tourism is booming. Tijuana’s vibrant nightlife continues to attract visitors who are looking for a bit of excitement and willing to navigate the risks. Some nightclubs in the city have even started offering limousine rides to and from the border, as a means of ensuring the safety of their customers and, of course, the future of their business. Local authorities continue to mitigate the violence as best they can, but the warring continues, with no end in sight.





JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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Germany's Oasis for Humanity

In the heart of Magdeburg, Germany is a mosaic superstructure known as the Green Citadel. Equipped with residential apartments, shops, cafes, hotels and a preschool, the complex was built to be an oasis for all mankind. Taking only two years to complete construction, the Citadel is considered one of the first pre-fabricated buildings in Germany. With its incredible pink exterior and bright green gardens, the building stands as the last work of architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, built to be "an oasis for humanity and nature in a sea of rational houses."

In Morocco

Morocco is a heady mix of languages, cultures, religions, ancient traditions and modern sensibilities. It conjures up images of mint tea and tagine, date plantations and minarets, labyrinth medinas and pungent spice talls. Here's some shots that were taken during a road trip from Morocco starting from Fez to Chefchaouen to Casablanca to Marrakech and all the way to Sahara desert.

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico: Ecotourism or Exploitation?

The water was about 70 degrees. When we jumped in, I had forgotten to pull my snorkel mask down—it was still strapped to my forehead. This was a dead giveaway to the tour guide that I was inexperienced, and he swam over and yanked the mask down over my eyes.  He then guided me and one more novice snorkeler to an open area of the water, away from everyone else. Gently, he pushed our heads beneath the surface, and when I opened my eyes, I was staring at a fish roughly the size of the 38 Geary back home. This was a Whale Shark, the largest fish on the planet, and here in La Paz, the capital city of Baja California and a well-known hub for shark migration, such sights were fairly commonplace. Through Cabo Expeditions, the tour company that organized these trips,anyone with $140 could see these giants up close. There were other companies operating in the area as well, and midway through the trip, our guide directed our attention to a shark in the distance being flanked by another group of tourists. They were patting the animal’s sides while it tried to feed on plankton, and as excitement overcame tact, the patting turned into light slapping. Our guide took a moment to stress the importance of enjoying these animals in a respectful way.  It was the only black mark on an otherwise magical afternoon.

Laz Paz, captial of Baja California. Az81964444. Public Domain

Laz Paz, captial of Baja California. Az81964444. Public Domain

Three years later, while attending UC Berkeley, I stumbled into a showing of "Mexico Pelagico,” a documentary that followed a group of conservationists as they tried to protect various sharks in the Sea of Cortez. It got me thinking about my trip to La Paz. In the film, it was said that 97 million sharks were killed every year, with Mexico ranking 6th among countries participating in the slaughter. While greed and envy were contributing factors to overfishing, the main factor was poverty; For many, shark fishing was the only way to make a decent living. The film went on to examine the recent explosion of Whale Shark ecotourism in Cancun, with tour companies recruiting the very fishermen who killed sharks in the past as tour operators working toward their preservation. It seemed like a practical solution that addressed both the needs of the environment and those of the fishermen. However, thinking back to that poor shark being slapped by those tourists in La Paz still made me uneasy, and I began to wonder what alternatives were available to people who wished to see and learn about these animals.

After graduation, I traveled to China and visited the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, currently the largest aquarium on Earth. The Ocean Kingdom had the finest display tank I’d ever seen, complete with two juvenile whale sharks. I also flew to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Aquarium, the second largest aquarium on Earth, and currently the only place in the US where one can see captive Whale Sharks. This aquarium had four adult sharks in a tank that was a bit smaller than its Chinese counterpart, but still gave the animals plenty of room to move around. Both aquariums had invested millions into the care of these animals and, as far as I could tell, both were deeply committed to Whale Shark conservation and education, but neither aquarium left the same lasting impression that my trip to La Paz did.  Not only were there more sharks see Mexico, but they also seemed more at ease in their natural environment. For me personally, there was a sense that I as a human being was participating in the local ecosystem, not dominating it or trying to replicate it somewhere else.

A  pair of Whale Sharks. Elias Levy. CC BY 2.0

A  pair of Whale Sharks. Elias Levy. CC BY 2.0

Is snorkeling with Whale Sharks beneficial? Is it exploitative? The evidence suggests it’s a bit of both. A study conducted between 2012 and 2014 on Whale Shark ecotourism in the Philippines revealed that over 95 percent of tourists touched the animals during their encounters with them, even though they knew It was not permitted and penalties included jail time. In Djibouti, scars from boat propellers have been observed on up to 65% of the local Whale Shark population. Now, the good news: In 2013, a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia determined that the annual revenue from shark fishing stood at $630 million and had been declining over the past decade, while the annual revenue from shark ecotourism was $314 million, a figure that was projected to increase to $780 million over the next 20 years.  These numbers suggest an inverse relationship between the rise of ecotourism and the decline of fishing. In the film “Mexico Pelagico,” it was said that Baja's’ fish biomass was projected to increase by 465% over the next 17 years. While there are benefits and drawbacks to snorkeling with Whale sharks, the former seems to outweigh the latter.   

A Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium. Zac Wolf. CC BY-SA 2.5.

A Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium. Zac Wolf. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Whale Shark Ecotourism is a booming business, and some companies are bound to be more or less respectful than others, but overall it seems like a step in the right direction.  If the shark at the mercy of those tourists back in La Paz suffered any discomfort, it was most likely temporary, as the shark was probably free to go about its business once the tourists had left. This is certainly a better fate for a shark than being hooked on a fishing line and chopped into pieces, or being confined to a tank for the rest of its life.  The fact that we are beginning to change our perception of sharks and recognize the importance of their conversation is a sign of progress- our approach can refine itself over time. In the meantime, I’m planning my next trip to La Paz.





JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.

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Crowds Overwhelm the Queen of the Adriatic

Image Credit: The Local Italy

Image Credit: The Local Italy

Venice is often called La Serenissima, Italian for “the most serene.” In previous years the island city was a haven for writers and artists who came from every corner of the world to wander its canal lined streets or write in the shade of a nearby cafe.

And yet, since the early 2000’s Venice has become anything but a peaceful retreat. Now it is almost impossible to roam those same streets of Proust and Pound without being entangled in the slow moving blockage of thousands of selfie stick bearing tourists. In fact, a total of 60,000 people visit Venice everyday, outnumbering the local population of 55,000.

Last year, Venice barely escaped being added to UNESCO’s “at risk” list for world heritage sites, where it would have joined cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and Vienna. (The city has one more year before it will be reassessed for addition to the list.)


Summer in Venice is “like war,” Paola Mar, the island’s head of tourism said in an interview with the Independent. According to Mar, the biggest problem is Venice’s proximity to many nearby summer resorts. “We’re two hours from Trieste, we’re one hour from Lake Garda, 90 minutes from Cortina, two hours from Rimini,” she said. “This is the problem.”

Residents pose with sign reading: Venice is not a hotel. Image Credit: The Telegraph

Residents pose with sign reading: Venice is not a hotel. Image Credit: The Telegraph

These resort tourists pose a greater risk to the city than the average—largely because they spend little to no money on the island, while taking up a great deal of space. They often arrive in bathing suits with packed lunches, intent on picnicing on already cramped bridges or in historic areas such as the Plaza San Marco. Mar calls these visitors “mordi-fuggi” or eat-and-run tourists. She says they perceive Venice as a kind of beach and fail to respect the historic city or its residents.

Even when these tourists spend money in the city it is usually at one of the kitchy vendors lining the streets in areas such as Rialto and San Marco. These tourist traps erode the business of the real artisans of Venice whose time-consuming crafts have no way to compete with the influx of uber cheap, made in China merchandise. “You’re asking me what it’s like to live with this crap?” Luciano Bortot, Venice native told the Guardian. “It used to be wonderful, we had lots of artisans … the problem now is the mass tourism, the people who come for just a few hours and see nothing – it’s as much of a nightmare for them.”

This influx of tourists has made it almost impossible for local residents to go about their usual lives. A year ago, 2,000 locals marched in a demonstration against the tourist industry in Venice. “Around 2,000 people leave each year,” Carlo Beltrame, one of the event’s organizers told the Guardian. “If we go on this way, in a few years’ time Venice will only be populated by tourists. This would be a social, anthropological and historical disaster.”

Despite the gravity of the tourist problem, the city has struggled to come up with a solution. Many have suggested a tax to enter the island, but this would violate the EU freedom of movement clause and the Italian constitution. The city also can’t raise the overnight tax that visitors pay when staying in hotels or b&bs because the rates are set nationally. “Our hands are tied,” Paola Mar told the Independent.

Another suggestion has been to close off Piazza San Marco to the public and charge for tickets—an action that is legal because of its designation as a closed monument site. Mar, however is reluctant to take this measure. To her, Venice “is a place where you’ve always met people. It was the first place in Europe to be a melting pot.” As Mar and many others see it, Venice is about inclusion, openness, ideas. Closing off the central monument feels dissident with the spirit of the city.

Image Credit: Comune di Venezia

Image Credit: Comune di Venezia

For now, Venice has begun a campaign called #enjoyrespectVenezia that warns tourists with signs against inappropriate behavior such as littering, picnicking, swimming in canals, wearing bathing suits, and bicycling. Officials hope that that the hefty fines for each of these actions will incentivize tourists to behave better. The campaign also encourages visitors to venture off the beaten trail and pursue activities and landmarks that interest them. It also encourages tourists to stay away from cheap, made-in-china merchandise in favor of local artisans.

 

 

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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Instravel - A Photogenic Mass Tourism Experience

Oliver Kmia came up with this idea last year while traveling in Roma. He describes his film and the backstory: "I wanted to take a look at the popular Trevi Fountain but never managed to get close to it. The place was assaulted by hundreds of tourists, some of them formed a huge line to get a spot in front of the Fountain. Needless to say that I was very pissed by this sight and left for the not less crowded Pantheon.

I was shocked by the mass of people walking all around the city, yet I was one of them, not better or worst. Like all these tourists, I burned hundred of gallons of fuel to get there, rushed to visit the city in a few days and stayed in a hotel downtown. Then, I remembered a video I watched a few months earlier from the artist Hiérophante (vimeo.com/151297208). I decided to make this kind of sarcastic video but with the focus on travel and mass tourism. Hiérophante admitted that his video was "cliché" and that he got inspired by other videos. So I'm basically making fun of something I'm part of. The irony is strong."

You can find a more in-depth article here about the idea behind the video and its creation.

International Year of Sustainable Tourism: Travel Social Good 2017 Summit

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November 16th – 17th, Travel Social Good hosted its annual summit at the United Nations in New York City. Guests included tourism ambassadors, travel industry professionals and members of the hospitality community. The core challenge and theme was Transparency and focused on the UN’s declaration of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism For Development. Summit partners included Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Sustainable Travel International, Center for Responsible Travel, and Tourism Cares. For those tweeting live or following along at home, the hashtag #TravelGood17 was created.

Every year 1.2 billion people travel the globe for business, pleasure, and familial reasons. Of the estimated trillions of dollars generated by this type of travel, less than 10 percent of it remains to benefit the local community. Some critics have described this as colonialism 2.0. The notion that the comparatively wealthy come to a place, consume and exhaust its resources, and leave the lands and oceans worse. Then, the same industries that profited from this practice dare to tell both travelers and indigenous people what’s best for the local lands, bodies of waters, and the economy. 

Whether due to criticism or a sense of wanting to do the right thing, many travel professionals and innovators are creating ways to mitigate the damage being done by the industry. “Tourism can be parasitic,” keynote speaker and Planeterra Foundation President, and VP of G Adventures, Jamie Sweeting said. 21st century travel does more harm than good, he asserted. Sweeting noted that 2002 was the UN’s International Year of Eco-Tourism, and fifteen years later, with this being the Year of Sustainable Tourism, the industry is still talking about essentially the same issues. He said the field is still too focused on destination “arrivals and visits” and not enough on generating substantive “non-menial jobs” for locals. He challenged all sectors of the travel industry— airlines, hotels, agents, restaurants, manufacturers, etc.— to do better. 

Sweeting’s financial statistics were grimmer than those put out earlier in the conference by travel experts. He said only “5 out of 100 dollars stay with developing and local economies.” “Who really benefits from tourism?” he asked the audience. Using Andrew Carnegie as an illustration, Sweeting noted that the industrialist became wealthy by manufacturing steel but did so using child labor and a “weakened” morality. He was charitable, but also created damage. The travel industry, he implored, must “reduce their harm.”

Jamie pointed to G Adventures’ G Local as an example of causing less harm within the business of tourism. Sweeting said 91% of the company’s suppliers are locally owned and 90% of those suppliers use local resources. Out of $250M generated, $200M is recycled back into the local community, Sweeting said.

Representatives from Israel, Botswana, Gambia, and Kenya were also present at TSG’s summit and spoke about tourism in their nations. They highlighted the beautiful attractions of their lands and gave historical and political information about their countries. H.E. Mr. Adonia Ayebar described Uganda’s rainforests and deserts and said the country has over 1,000 species of birds due to its unique climate and geography. Victoria Falls in Zambia, is one of the seven wonders of the world according to H.E. Ms. Christine Kalamwina. In addition to Kenya being “the most wonderful place on the planet,” the nation has also increased penalties for poaching and attacking crops, H.E. Ms. Koki Muli Grignon informed the audience.

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The idea of using data to demonstrate a destination’s value was also presented at the summit. According to Nature Conservancy’s Geof Rochester, reefs in Barbados mitigate waves and clean gallons of ocean water. 40% of the nation’s economy is tied to tourism, at $24T per year. Of the estimated 70 million trips taken to coral reefs and “reef adjacent,” (i.e. beaches nearest the reefs) $35.5B was generated according to the data collected. Data such as this can then be presented to governments, airlines, trip insurers, etc. to help “calculate value” of certain destinations.

Towards the close of the summit, attendees were asked to engage in “design thinking” to help problem solve and mitigate the negative impacts of tourism.

Jeremy Smith, co-founder of Travindy, pointed out that though “tourism only directly supports 3.6% of [the] economy,” it’s responsible for 5% of greenhouse gases. He highlighted hotels that were beginning to use plant carpets to offset carbon emissions. Conference goers broke into smaller groups to brainstorm such creative solutions. 

Gail Grimmett, president of Travel Leaders Elite told attendees, “purpose is the new luxury,” and encouraged the audience and industry leaders to be stewards of the resources we come in contact with.

For more information, please visit travelsocialgood.org.

 

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ALEXANDREA THORNTON

Alexandrea is a journalist and producer living in NY. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Columbia University, she splits her time between California and New York. She's an avid reader and is penning her first non-fiction book. 

 

CAMBODIA: Say No to Orphanage Tourism

We all start with the best intentions, and want to make a positive difference in the world when we travel. But when orphanages become volunteer tourism destinations, they create incentives to direct children with living parents away from their homes, 3 out of 4 Cambodian "orphans" have a living parent. Studies show family-based care is a far better solution for these kids. 

CONNECT WITH ORPHANAGES NOT THE SOLUTION