Book wisely to share the wealth

Tourism in poor countries does not always bring benefits to local communities. Here's how to make sure your money stays where it is needed.

Did you know that when you travel in a developing country, as little as $5 out of every $100 you spend might stay in the local economy?

That's the depressing estimate of the United Nations Environment Program, which says about 80 per cent of expenditure on all-inclusive holiday packages goes to airlines, hotels and other international companies, with further "leakage" occurring along the way.

This week, one of the world's foremost authorities on responsible tourism will tell tourism leaders in Australia that enough is enough.

The Canadian founder of adventure-tour operator G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, is on his way to Adelaide to speak at the Australian Tourism Export Council's annual symposium, where he will call for a different way of thinking about travel and how it is packaged and sold.

Speaking to Fairfax Media ahead of the conference, Poon Tip says huge growth in all-inclusive holidays, cruising and discount packages is robbing developing countries of tourism benefits.

Travellers are increasingly staying in resorts where they "never leave the compound", or sailing in and out of destinations on "Western bubble" cruise ships, leaving little money in the hands of the locals.

"We've got to move away from juggernaut holding companies making money for their shareholders; they're constantly trying to find cheaper ways to operate on the ground, so they can offer better deals," Poon Tip says.

"The consumer has been conditioned to bargain hunting and going for the best price point but they're not aware they're squeezing any kind of benefit from the local community."

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Poon Tip says travellers need to be better educated about the type of holiday they are booking and where their money goes. "Get online and do a bit of research," he says.

"Who owns the companies, where is the money going?"

Poon Tip says consumers should also be suspicious of heavily discounted deals such as two-for-one offers, as companies can only offer such deals by squeezing those down the line.

"One of the biggest challenges we face as a planet is the issue of wealth distribution," he says.

"If it's done properly, tourism can be one of the greatest forms of wealth distribution the world has ever seen."

Poon Tip is particularly scathing about cruising, saying it is the "most unsustainable model" of tourism, with cruisers spending little money away from the ship.

He does see a place for cruising, but only for older travellers who need comfort and safety.

"What shocks me is the growth of the market in the 20 to 40 [years] age range, people doing cruises when they're young. I just don't understand it for the younger generation, who should be travelling with more purpose in mind," he says.

Poon Tip says about 60 per cent of money travellers spend with his company stays in local communities. The company hires and trains local guides, only uses locally owned and family-run hotels and avoids using "middle men" who take a share.

"We pay fair prices for all services and salaries and pay in hand, direct to the operators and staff," he says.

"We have to stay competitive and we do get good deals on volume business, but we're pretty adamant about making sure we're actively benefiting local communities."

Poon Tip says those who travel independently can also bring greater-than-average benefits to local communities, by dealing direct with locals. However, making more-informed choices doesn't have to mean sacrificing comfort.

"Ritz-Carlton, for example, is doing amazing things compared to others," Poon Tip says. "In the mid-market, Hilton and Marriott are [also] doing amazing things; they're doing a lot to make their businesses better."

In the cruise sector, Poon Tip recognises the efforts of Royal Caribbean, which has a dedicated sustainability executive at a senior level in the company.

"If you have to go on a cruise, there are choices, and some are better than others," he says.

Poon Tip likens his vision for tourism to organic food, which was once unregulated and treated with cynicism, but is now a regular part of many people's diet. He hopes responsible tourism choices will gain a greater level of understanding and acceptance, so money can go where it is most needed.

Easy giving

Even a basic hotel booking can bring benefits to developing communities if you book through a new website called TravelGiver.com.

By using the website to click through to major online travel agents and operators such as Zuji, Accor Hotels and Best Western, you can donate a percentage of the booking value to a community project such as an environmental scheme or children's centre.

The business model is simple, with TravelGiver earning commission like any other agent, but donating half of it to a project of the traveller's choice.

Destination watch

If you dream of seeing the Northern Lights, this remote Finnish town offers some unusual accommodation.

They look like something out of a science fiction movie: large "bubbles" emerging from the earth in the grounds of a wilderness hotel near the tiny town of Nellim, Finland.

Each one contains a double bed and composting toilet and is designed for optimum scanning of the night sky, in the hope of a Northern Lights show.

Given their location in chilly northern Lapland, it is good to know that each bubble is well heated, providing the benefits of sleeping outside without the hypothermia.

The bubbles are in the grounds of the Nellim Wilderness Hotel and located in an area of very low light pollution, to maximise views of the night sky.

While Northern Lights viewing cannot be guaranteed, Nellim is said to be one of the best places to see the spectacular show otherwise known as aurora borealis, in which bands or curtains of coloured light appear in the night sky.

Accommodation in the Aurora Bubbles is available from September and can be booked through British company The Aurora Zone (theaurorazone.com).

Holiday packages including a night in an Aurora Bubble start from £1470 ($2286) a person for four nights, including flights from London, local transport, meals and activities.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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