To Fly or Not to Fly? Let’s Talk Responsible Tourism!

Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism

In recent years there has been — rightly so — a lot of attention devoted to ecotourism or sustainable tourism. While ecotourism clearly focuses on being ecological, or not harming the environment, the term sustainable tourism is a bit more encompassing. Sustainable seems to be the buzzword of the last decade; put it in front of anything and you will convince people to buy your products or donate to your NGO. From tampons to energy resources to tourism and development, everything needs to be sustainable.

Sustainability is most literally “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. Yet, especially in the West, it has become a denominator for environmental sustainability, or the maintenance of an ecological balance on earth. With the ecological issues we are facing today, the emphasis on eco or environmental sustainability is of course very necessary, yet as it goes with buzzwords, sometimes we seem to be losing track of what is actually meant by it.

While embracing the pillars of sustainable tourism or ecotourism, Gorilla Highlands Experts have found that we feel more at home with the term responsible tourism. Aren’t we just nit-picking over slight changes in names, you might ask. Yet these kinds of terms can hold a lot of power.

In the name of sustainability, development organisations have often implemented strategies in poor countries that they think have ecological benefits, but that are detrimental to local communities. Those strategies then often prove to be harmful to the forests and the animals in the long run as well. When the first national park Yellowstone was created in 1872, indigenous people had to move out and make place for tourists and visitors to enjoy the ‘unspoiled nature’. Ironically, the removal of the indigenous population led to an ecosystem imbalance. After hunting was forbidden, the park rangers had to start killing game animals because the population got too high. So the park still needed to be constantly managed by people.

As we choose to focus on responsibility, it reminds us to continuously consider the implications of our actions. To not just follow the dominant discourses on what is considered ecologically sustainable, but to stick around and see what we can do on the long-term, to ‘embrace the difficulty’ as we have called it before. It is about positive actions that we can take to help the planet and all its residents, gorillas and humans alike.

Responsible Tourism

Founder of the Responsible Tourism Initiative Harold Goodwin narrows it down to ‘making better places for people to live, and better places for people to visit’. Notice that better places to live comes first place, making clear that the lives of local people will always be the priority.

In our Weekly Companion, we have zoomed in a bit on how tourism can help making these better places. We have asked our expert panel the question if international tourism is even justifiable, when taking one long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year. Yet, there are also a lot of (possible) upsides to tourism, such as economic opportunities for local people, cultural encounters and conservation efforts, to name a few.

Unfortunately, way too many development and tourist initiatives are still drenched in old colonial ideas of white supremacy. Even when they “mean well”, their willingness to help often (unknowingly) comes forth out of the belief that white people are superior to others, that they created the ultimate type of civilisation, and that other peoples have to follow their example to become equally ‘developed’. We also call this ‘white saviourism. It strikes out centuries of history where white people have deliberately underdeveloped other peoples with violence and looting and it does not recognize other ways of living that are equivalent to the Western model — if not superior when it comes to living in an ecological balance with your surroundings. 

Indigenous people in poor countries are often blamed for being destructive to nature because of practices such as logging, poaching, fishing, slash-and-burn agriculture and so on. Yet, rich countries in the global North have a far more destructive impact on the planet. The United States of America, for example, uses twice the natural resources and services that can be generated within its borders. This proves that environmental sustainability and development do not always go hand in hand, in fact, they can even be contradictory.

Does that mean — as some people suggest — that because Europeans were able to destroy their natural environment on their own terms, that Africans should be able to do the same? Unfortunately, right now there is something going on that is much bigger than all of us, for which we will need all hands on deck if we want human life as we know it to survive. On top of that, African people will be among the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change. This because of a combination of factors, such as high levels of poverty, fast population growth, dependency on rainfall for agriculture and an expected high degree of climate change. (Already exemplified by tropical cyclones Idai and Kenneth which destroyed parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania in 2019.)

Since rich ‘developed’ countries have been largely responsible for the ecological crisis that we are facing today, we think that they should take up a large part of the responsibility in solving it. Yet it should be done out of a sense of culpability, much more than out of a sense of superiority. This means in the first place opening up a dialogue with indigenous people and learning from them.

Are we implying that indigenous people hold some kind of magical key to solve climate change? No, they are just humans trying to make a living in a capitalist world, just like the rest of us. We are simply saying that they need to get a seat at the table, as they can bring valuable insights from different perspectives that we clearly need. 

Cultural Tourism

Gorilla Highlands Experts want local communities to have the material means to make decisions over their own land, but also to gain the confidence to take matters into own hands. One of the pillars of responsible tourism that lays at the core of what we try to do, is engendering cultural respect between tourists and hosts. We want to boost local pride and confidence. 

There’s more to tourism than just the environmental aspect. What is responsible in a particular place depends upon which environment you are in and which people you are dealing with. Therefore, a truly responsible form of tourism departs from what problems the local population deals with. And by this we mean what the locals indicate themselves as priorities. It starts from a dialogue, rather than just hopping about and doing what you feel needs to be done.

Yet, boosting cultural self-respect in areas that have suffered from decades of colonialism is not an easy task. Colonialism not only had a huge economic and material impact, it also had a devastating psychological impact, what Frantz Fanon has called the colonisation of the mind. What is therefore the place of tourists and tourism operators in this post-colonised world? How can we ensure that we boost cultural self-respect and not relapse in old ways?

Take for example the Batwa people… Living from hunting and gathering from the forest, they used to live in harmony with their natural surroundings. Yet, like many indigenous people across the world, they were expelled from their homes in the name of conservation. In 1991, the original homelands of the Batwa in Uganda were turned into Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, essential to prevent further deforestation and protect the endangered mountain gorilla. Instead of valuing Batwa’s knowledge about conserving the area — which they had done for centuries — they were evicted without support or compensation. Without anywhere to go, they became criminals on their own land, and they have met with violence every time they tried to go back. The Batwa became a marginalised group of people excluded from mainstream society and are living in extreme poverty ever since, with limited access to education and healthcare. It thus feels only right that we have put the Batwa into the heart of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative and we will elaborate on our work with them in further responsible tourism articles.

As our panelists so accurately conclude in the Weekly Companion, Gorilla Highlands Experts is about ‘slow travel’, it is about staying in the region for a while, taking your time to get to know the environment, to talk to the people and learn about the cultural values. It is not about checking off the highlights on your checklist or having nice pictures to share on your Instagram, rather, it is about human encounters and the valuable lessons we can learn from them. And hopefully, by taking up our responsibility and making one small tweak at a time, we can make better places to live and visit.

The Weekly Companion panelists and other experts will be at your service in the comment section — do not hesitate to leave your own mark on this conversation about our North Star, responsible tourism.


  1. Popolnoma se strinjam z ugotovitvijo poročevalke/komentatorke zgodovinskih dejstev. Prevečkrat sem bila priča neodgovornem ravnanju tujih (bogatih) belih turistov, ki so se v deželi domačinov obnašali kot gospodarji in ne obiskovalci. Gostitelji so bili veliko bolj tolerantni do njih, kot obiskovalci do svojih gostiteljev. Sama sem se počutila neprijetno, celo nekoliko kriva, saj sem tudi sama pripadnica bele rase. Pa nisem zato nič boljša kot prebivalci dežele, ki jo spoznavam. Trudim se čim bolj spoznati kulturo dežele, njihove običaje, navade, kuhinjo in okolje v katerem živijo. Skušam skratka pogledati za turistično “kuliso” in spoznati pravo resnico. To pa je včasih težko, a možno.

    1. I know that feeling of vicarious embarrassment. We’re not responsible for all fellow white people’s actions but we do reap the benefits of white supremacy so we also need to take steps to dismantle it… Thank you Alenka!

  2. Wow, such an in depth article and weekly companion! Thanks! There is indeed soo much to take into account when it comes to flying and sustainable tourism. I like that you have agreed on a term (responsible tourism), although it might does not sound important. Greenwashing is such a big problem nowadays when it comes to sustainability, so it’s good to get the terms right before even diving into it, especially when more people/teams are involved. I really liked the different aspects in the recorded zoom call, there is always another side of the coin. For example cutting down flights sounds good but then a region could really suffer from it. I like Marcus idea of a higher tax or one of the ladies input of re-thinking the way of how a traveler travels through the country and size down on inner country flights. I also definitely agree with slow travelling, ‘checklist traveling’ is really missing out on so much and unsustainable. Like so often there is no black or white, I see responsible tourism in people coming together and making the best of it. Like you guys did in the zoom, evaluating and exchanging instead of finger pointing. Positivity is important and Corona has given us the great chance to rethink, remodel, reschedule and decide how we wanna continue life after the pandemic. I hope more in balance (with us and the world) and mindful 🙂 so much more to say, but enough for this comment box 😉 going to be a fun and interesting road until Z!

    1. Exactly! Thanks for the feedback, please feel free to add anything you feel like, we really want to open up a dialogue about this so we can learn together, but there will be more chances coming up indeed ?

  3. I really enjoyed the discussion on responsible tourism! So many good thoughts: the taxation idea, the criticism on various so-called “sustainable” business initiatives. Interesting to recognize the opportunities that the pandemic brought to us all: rediscover how we move around (walks, bikes, boats, airplanes), reconnect with people, nature, cultures, and offer ourselves a slower yet richer experience.

Comments are closed.