You know that moment while travelling when you see an obvious group of tourists following their guide through the crowded streets? Picture it, the group that is seemingly tied together, walking in unison, a tight knit little bundle of foreign.
A few years ago I wouldn’t be caught dead in this scene, small group travel was very cliché and straight up not cool. To a certain extent there are number of backpackers and overlanders who still feel this way about organized small group travel and the subject always tends to ignite interesting conversation. How can you truly connect with the people and places you visit when there are 15 others tailing behind you, looking to do the same thing? “Impossible,” is what I often here from other travellers, “there is no true cultural integration, you are a spectator”. I am a traveller who lives for the moment and dreams of the future, a backpacker, an adventurer, and a lover of all things. I am also an overland tour leader.
Let me give a bit of background info to help set this commentary. I currently work as an adventure tour leader for an international small group tour company. My job is to manage the overland logistics and reservations of the specific tour itinerary and to ensure that the “travellers” are enjoying themselves and getting the most out of their experience.
I travel with the group every day introducing each new location with a general briefing explaining the history, highlights, relevant information, and activities which are either optional or included in our stay. As a TL I have an interesting influence on to how the passengers spend their money and interact with the locals. I can steer the groups experience with certain suggestions and information. It is a personal goal to run every tour in a way that always has a focus on my view of what defines sustainable travel for the overlander.
Is it just an industry term, sustainable tourism? Or, do most travellers naturally travel in a sustainable manner without even really thinking about their daily impact on the locations they visit? I’m sure we could look up the definition online and get some sort of perfectly written answer from the hospitality and tourism management professor. However, I am more interested in what it means to the individual traveller, whether part of a group or not.
As I see it, sustainable travel is based upon four pillars; Economy, Culture, Environment, and Society. If you can mutually benefit all four of these pillars within almost any travel experience, then you are most likely travelling sustainably. The trick as a TL is doing so in a manner that engages 15 people.
Now a set fact is that travel will always have some sort of impact on the places and people you visit. An idea is to try and harness this “visit”, in an engaging way, which focuses on the people, location, and the experience. To try and balance the aspects of cultural integration, economic impact, social interaction, and environmental conservation. To always keep these four pillars in mind and to share different ideas with others as you travel. I feel that most solo backpackers and overland travellers do this somewhat naturally and they believe that a group could never have a beneficial impact on a location other than economically buying shit touristy knick knacks, etc. However as a tour leader I believe it is possible for small groups to have a beneficial impact on the four pillars of sustainable tourism and go home with a memorable
engaging travel experience. The following are a few simple examples of how I attempt fulfilled this framework.
Pushing the group to learn some phrases in the local language and encouraging the shyest of the bunch to talk to the locals and interact with the people who live and work in the place we are visiting; social. Ensuring that as a group we are eating and staying in locally run small businesses, and explaining the businesses past, introducing the owners to the group, telling their entrepreneurial story; economy. Attempting to recycle and always being aware of the groups waste and power usage, and explaining the importance of the natural environment and the impact of human occupation or conservation; environment. Learning something new about the local history or current events and sharing this with the passengers, encouraging them to visit a museum or take a day trip with a local guide; culture.
There are countless other ways to benefit your experiences while travelling and I believe that this can easily be done in a sustainable manner, whether you are aware of it or not. When I travel anywhere I try to do so with a continuous awareness of how my time in a place or with a community creates a certain impact. I will then try to guide my impact and my groups towards benefiting the four pillars mentioned above. If my impact is not clearly doing so then I will create the opportunity myself.
What is your idea of overland travel in a sustainable manner? And even better yet, do you agree with my ideas? Is it possible for a small group travelling together overland to have a beneficial impact on the places they visit?