Tourism, Culture and the Environment
Environment TOBAGOFor The Visitor
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Tourism, Culture and the Environment

The first rule of "culturally sensitive" or "ethical" tourism is to respect the culture and customs of your host. You don't go around judging everything by your own "enlightened" standards. You are the guest - it is not your place to be criticising the locals, even if well-intentioned. Tactfully pointing out what you perceive to be sensible alternatives to ill-advised practices is going to be interpreted as meddling in the locals' affairs. Not all tourists are sensitive to their host's culture. But many who are and who also feel strongly about environmental conservation are confronted with a dilemma.

The steady increase of foreign visitors to Tobago has brought with it many of the inherent problems of any tourist destination. Many of these are based on over-simplified preconceptions held by both the visitor and the host. The visitor may see him or herself as having a wider, more informed view and see the locals as ignorant and holding on to tired, old time superstitions and beliefs. The locals may resent this attitude and see the visitor as arrogant and insensitive. There may some truth in both views.

In the past twenty years concern for the environment has spread throughout developed countries. A high standard of living -- giving the middle and upper classes more leisure time -- and an equally high level of education with access to tremendous information resources has created a large environmentally aware and mobile population segment. From this segment come the eco or nature tourists. They come to Tobago for the very purpose of escaping their over-developed, polluted and industrialised cities to explore a natural and pristine environment. They come with every intention of showing respect to their hosts, of learning about and honouring the local customs. But what happens when they discover that what they have come thousands of miles at great expense to experience is almost totally disregarded and thoughtlessly degraded by their hosts? How should they react to littering, turtle poaching, indiscriminate year-round over-hunting, slash and burn agriculture, the mining of beaches and rivers and illegal dumping?

A recent conversation between a member of Environment TOBAGO from the USA, who visits Tobago sometimes twice a year, and a local businessman in one of Tobago's fishing villages highlights the situation. We'll call our visitor Tom. Tom is outspoken on his environmental beliefs. He explores our rainforests and coasts with zeal and feels unable to help himself when he happens upon activities such as the killing of turtles, iguanas or sea birds. Tom has reported the registration numbers of fishing boats to the authorities when he sees them coming to shore with sea birds or when they knock iguanas out of trees with bamboo poles. He tries to explain to hunters why they should manage their game species and not kill them out. One night he came upon a leatherback turtle laying her eggs on the beach. He saw several men with cutlasses eyeing the turtle. He went to some of the local guest houses and informed other visitors of their chance to witness this sight and persuaded them to stay near the turtle even after they were beginning to get bored, and until the turtle had returned to the sea.

The local businessman wanted to offer a bit of friendly advice.

"When you see people killing a turtle, turn around, walk away. There's plenty of turtles in the sea. The people here have been taking turtles for hundreds of years. They don't like you telling them what to do," he said.

"But killing turtles on the beach is illegal in Trinidad and Tobago and the turtles will become extinct if you keep killing them. Weren't there many more turtles 50 years ago than there is now?" responded Tom.

"Sure, but there's still plenty now. I want to help you. Some of these people really don't like you trying to get them in trouble. They live here, this is their home. Say, if some fisherman tries to interfere with them, he might find a hole in his boat one day. We take care of trouble our own way. The police aren't going to bother us for these kinds of things. You best not get involved," said the businessman.

As the man walked away, Tom turned to his wife and said, "That was a strange conversation. Was that advice or a threat?"

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago and the Tobago House of Assembly have recently begun to look seriously at environmental conservation. One of problems identified early on is the need to change the attitudes of the people towards the environment. It has been recommended that a comprehensive and intensive educational campaign be implemented as soon as possible. It seems clear that only Tobagonians will be able to change Tobagonians and the process should probably begin with the youth. If we begin now it may be possible to produce a generation freed from the environmentally damaging attitudes of much of the present adult community.

In the meantime, is it realistic to expect that a wise and informed government will have the courage to pass new environmental legislation and implement enforcement of environmental laws, when the politicians who make the laws need the votes of the people -- people who don't seem to want to change?

Visitors to Tobago, who are both environmentally and culturally sensitive, will have to walk a fine line. They can choose to patronise restaurants and hotels that don't serve locally caught conch or lobster. They can refuse to buy jewellery made from black coral. But when interacting directly with the locals they will have to decide - respect the culture or protect the environment?
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