How to Avoid Being Branded an Ugly American : Tourism: Increasing the sensitivity of visitors who descend on--and sometimes destroy--the destinations they visit is the goal of one very concerned group.

A group of tourists from West Germany got a big surprise a couple of years ago when their charter flight arrived on the Indian island of Goa.

The plane was met by an ad hoc army of professors, Catholic nuns and local businessmen, armed with leaflets and placards.

"Go home," one of the protest signs said. "Mass tourism is destroying our society."

The incident in Goa was not an isolated one, according to Virginia Hadsell, founder of the small California group known as the North American Coordinating Center for Responsible Tourism.

"It's beginning to happen all over," she said. "Anywhere a fragile ecosystem and infrastructure is threatened by hordes of invading tourists."

For a while last year, Bhutan closed its borders to tourists in an attempt to protect the "religious integrity" of its shrines and temples from damage and disrespect that the country's leaders said was caused by unrestricted tourism.

Bermuda has limited the number of cruise ships that can visit its harbors annually.

What about the impact that tourists make on the environment they visit?

To what extent are tourists destroying the flora and fauna, simply by their presence?

Beyond that, what about the potential of cultural pollution?

"These are serious problems," Hadsell said. "They must be addressed now or the point will simply become academic."

Hadsell's center was founded five years ago. "Our goal is not to discourage tourism, which is growing by leaps and bounds, but to educate travelers to have a sensitivity to the culture around them."

Since 1985, the center, based in San Anselmo, Calif., has grown as a nonprofit education association that now claims a worldwide membership of about 1,500.

"People need to think hard about what happens when people from the 'first world' go to the Third World, when the haves visit the have-nots," Hadsell said. "Most Americans have no intention to harm the culture they visit. They're just not aware of the local etiquette, and they need to learn."

This past winter, more than 20 million people from wealthy countries spent their holiday dollars in the Third World.

But tourism's sizable economic benefit can sometimes corrupt a culture and work at destroying the environment.

At the vanguard of the ecotourism movement, the center publishes a newsletter and lobbies (with minimal resources) to fight the trashing of the planet that is often aided and abetted by tour operators, resort developers and even the countries threatened.

"We don't want the world to become a garbage dump," Hadsell said, "but the educational process to reverse certain trends is slow. It can take generations to accomplish change."

Hadsell started her movement by attending local travel trade shows and followed up by leading small tour/study groups to ecologically sensitive destinations.

In countries such as Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania and Costa Rica, she and her group met with tour operators, hotel groups and government officials.

"At first they treated us as some sort of fringe group," Hadsell said. "But events have moved too fast for them to ignore the situation. Now, more and more of them want to be responsible and take the first step."

One of the continuing problems of ethical tourism stems from ownership and management of huge resorts by multinational hotel chains.

"Many of them seem to have embraced a 'manifest destiny' approach towards their development," Hadsell said. "In the short term, it might appear to be in the best interests of the local community in which the resort is built, but in the long run, more than just that community suffers. We all do."

For example, she points out cases where multinational corporate owners convince local communities that they will protect the environment.

"They talk about fragile coral reefs and how they shouldn't be destroyed," she said, "and then they organize tours where people go out there and do just that."

Since Hadsell works with only a staff of four volunteers, the center's legislative and corporate lobbying efforts have been minimal.

"Money is our problem," she said, "but there have been some small successes."

In Europe, working with a parallel network of churches and church groups, Hadsell has been campaigning to get airlines to broadcast documentaries on responsible tourism to specific "sensitive" destinations as part of their in-flight entertainment programs. (Lufthansa was the first airline to sign on.)

The center has helped sponsor conferences on subjects from the rights of cruise ship workers and the impact of tourism in sub-Saharan Africa to the strange interrelationship between the promotion of tourism in Thailand and a similar promotion of prostitution in that country.

In addition, the center has formulated its own "Tourist Code of Ethics":

1. Travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to learn more about the people of your host country. Be sensitively aware of the feelings of other people, thus preventing what might be offensive behavior on your part. This applies very much to photography.

2. Cultivate the habit of listening and observing, rather than merely hearing and seeing.

3. Realize that often the people in the country you visit have time concepts and thought patterns different from your own. This does not make them inferior, only different.

4. Instead of looking for that beach paradise, discover the enrichment of seeing a different way of life through other eyes.

5. Acquaint yourself with local customs. What is courteous in one country may be quite the reverse in another--people will be happy to help you.

6. Instead of the Western practice of knowing all the answers, cultivate the habit of asking questions.

7. Remember that you are only one of thousands of tourists visiting this country, thus do not expect special privileges.

8. If you really want your experience to be a home away from home, it is foolish to waste money on traveling.

9. When you are shopping, remember that the bargain you obtained was possible only because of the low wages paid the maker.

10. Do not make promises to people in your host country unless you can carry them through.

11. Spend time reflecting on your daily experience in an attempt to deepen your understanding.

"We've just come through a decade of greed," Hadsell said, "but now America finds itself on a whole new forefront of social responsibility, and the best part is that there is a critical mass of people who are responding to this movement. They are now beginning to travel with sensitivity, and with a conscience."

The North American Coordinating Center for Responsible Tourism also publishes two leaflets: "Third World Travel: Buy Critically" and "Responsible Cruising." Both are available by writing to the center. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope and make your request to the center, 2 Kensington Road, San Anselmo, Calif. 94960.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World