My intest in ethical travel started when I was working in the travel industry about 8 years ago.  This was a time when carbon off-setting was becoming fashionable and while working for a large travel company, I helped establish a scheme for customers to pay to have trees planted in a forest to offset the carbon used by their flights.    This started me thinking about the impact of holidays.  I’d visited countries like India, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Dominican Republic on business trips and saw the products we were selling in the brochures.   It was clear that we were selling holidays that were keeping our customers at a distance from local communities and their money was going to the holiday company or national agents, not benefitting the local people.

I’d always been more of an independent traveller myself and shunned the package holiday but working at the heart of it really put things into perspective.  I started to research more ethical options and discovered that there were a lot of great products out there  but they weren’t well-promoted.

I went to Indonesia in 2007 on a work trip.  At the end of the visit I spent a few days in the Gili Islands, three islands situated between Bali and Lombok.  I stayed on Gili Meno, a tiny island with no roads and no cars, in a small hotel made up of beach bungalows (Biru Meno –  Everything was made of natural materials and sensitive to the environment.  The bungalows used salt water for showers, which was the only natural source of water available on the island.  The hotel was independently run by a local man and when I asked him how he marketed and advertised his hotel, he said he only had a website and was reliant on guide books or word of mouth to get business.   Myself and two women I met on the ferry to the island were his only guests that week.  Tourism was still badly affected by the Bali bombings, especially Australian travellers, traditionally Bali’s main source of tourism.  These small independently run businesses needed a way to bring in more visitors and eco-tourism seemed to be a way to market themselves.

The following year, I was planning a holiday to Thailand.  My time in Indonesia made me want to explore more of South East Asia and Thailand seemed a good choice for travelling independently.  I didn’t just want to follow the tourist trails to the islands and beaches in the south so I researched some community based tourism projects and decided to spend a few days with Anadaman Discoveries.

Andaman Discoveries grew from a not-for-profit organisation set up following the 2004 Tsunami to assist villages on the North Andaman coast to recover and rebuild.  Many lives were lost and homes and livelihoods were destroyed.  From this tragedy,  many of the communities had to look for new opportunities to earn a living.  A group of villages developed a community based tourism programme with the assistance of North Andaman Tsunami Relief, a non-profit organisation founded to support communities after the tsunami.  Tourists could visit the villages and live in the community, learning about the local way of life, seeing the beautiful coast and appreciating the ecology of the area.   The reason I chose this particular project was that it was clear from the website that the communities benefited directly and were heavily involved in how the organisation was managed and they have a long term, sustainable approach.  They were also concerned with protecting their environment. The villagers were given opportunities to learn new skills and attend workshops and everything was done in a very participatory way.

In their own words, “Villagers decided that community-based tourism would allow them to generate additional income and support their traditions, culture, and lifestyle. Community-based tourism could fit into their lives, while not displacing their traditional lifestyles.”

I spent 2 days in Ban Talae Nok village.  I stayed with a family in their home, cooking and eating meals with them.  I was accompanied by Kelly, who worked for Andaman Discoveries and acted as my guide and translator.  Although I couldn’t speak Thai and the family couldn’t speak English, I felt comfortable and able to communicate through Kelly.  I also had a local guide who took me on a tour of the village and on a boat trip through the mangroves. I made soap and a batik sarong with local women – these are two of the livelihoods of the village.  We also went for a swim in a lagoon with all the village  children.   The whole experience was very relaxed and I didn’t feel like an outsider looking in as the community embraced visitors and were keen to learn about my life in England.

The cost of the 2 days was quite high however some of the money goes into a Community fund and the family and guides are also paid.  I felt it was well worth the cost because of the experience – a real immersion into the culture of the region.