“The more I travel, the more conscious I am of the impact I’m having” — an interview with Nomadic Matt

We’re currently asking travel and tourism experts the question: can travel be a force for good? This week: travel blogger Matt Kepnes.

Matt quit his job to start travelling the world in 2006. He’s been blogging about his experiences at www.nomadicmatt.com ever since. He has written for the New York Times, National Geograpic, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and Huffington Post, as well as authoring ‘How to Travel the World on $50 a day’.

WTTC: What are the main positives of travel for you?

Matt Kepnes: Travel exposes you to new ideas, new cultures, and new people. By interacting with people from around the world, you put a face to the names. They aren’t some people who live “over there” with some problem you don’t really care about. Instead, they are real people with real problems. And as much as travel highlights our differences, it also highlights our similarities. Traveling around the world, I’ve found that the differences between cultures are minor and that, across the globe, people all have the same hopes and dreams. We all want to be safe, happy, work, do what we love, be loved, and make sure our kids lead a better life than we did. Those ideals are not limited to one place or ideology. While we go about it differently, we are all after the same things in life. I think recognizing that will do wonders to help heal the world.

Travel changes everybody. No one ever looks at life the same way again after traveling. We all come back with a greater appreciation for life, and for people. That’s how travel can change the world.

It won’t solve the economic crisis or reduce energy costs. But what it can change is social misunderstanding and perceptions. It can expose people to problems they would not have seen at home. It can show them that not all Muslims are terrorists, or that the French don’t really hate America.

Traveling won’t make us all sing Kumbaya and hold each other’s hands, but it will help tear down some of the walls that divide us. It will show us that we’re all in this together, and that we aren’t as different as we like to pretend we are.

And the negatives?

Travel destroys local cultures — The globalization of food, travel, hotels, and language diminishes the very culture we traveled so far to see. Instead of going out to seek the unknown, most people stay in resorts and hotels, never experiencing the country they are in.

Travel makes the world Disneyland — From the hill tribes of Thailand to the Andes to cowboys of America, travelers have a certain expectation of what a place is and how the people should act. We travel to see that expectation. We travel to see Crocodile Dundee, Mayans, Native Americans, and hill tribe cultures in Asia. Cultures around the world then put on a show to give us what we want and in the process “Disneyize” their culture. I hate seeing the little hill tribes in Thailand or Native American shows in America or “traditional” dance in Vietnam. It’s not how they really act. It’s how they act for tourists.

Travel destroys local economies — All that travel in big hotels and global restaurants doesn’t help the local economy. Most of that money is removed by corporations to the head office. Travelers go with what they know and most will stay at the Marriott before they stay in some unknown place, never thinking about where the money is going. Travel can be a huge economic boon but only if the money stays local.

Travel hurts the environment — Traveling is not the most eco-friendly of activities. Flying, cruising, eating out, and driving around all have a negative impact on the environment. Most people when they travel constantly use towels in hotel rooms, leave the air conditioner going, or forget to turn off the lights. Jetsetting around the world in airplanes or driving around in an RV all contribute to global warming. Between waste, development, and pollution, we are doing exactly what The Beach said we would do- destroy the very paradise we seek.

How can travellers become more conscious of the impact they’re having?

The more I travel, the more conscious I am of the impact I’m having. I learn about different ways to lessen the negative impacts on every trip. As a traveller with a large social media following, I share what I learn with my followers hoping that it will cause a ripple effect.

Do you feel a responsibility to promote responsible tourism?

Yes. I write, post and tweet about traveling responsibly so my followers are encouraged to do the same.

As a travel writer and a leader for many people who are planning trips, I make sure that my readers know about how elephant-tourism in Thailand and dolphin-tourism in Mexico isn’t a responsible way to experience a different country. It’s not the main focus of my website but I think by teaching people how to travel and interact with locals more I can make an impact.

What’s the most positive or inspiring thing you’ve seen?

I spend a lot of time in Thailand, where elephants can be found in any major tourist area. I quickly realized that there are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants.

But there’s a growing movement to protect the elephants, led by Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park has been around since 1996 and is the biggest conservation and elephant rescue organization in Thailand. Located outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, it is currently home to 37 elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals).

“Me and a rescued elephant at Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Great place doing great animal rescue work!” — Matt Kepnes

Me and a rescued elephant at Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Great place doing great animal rescue work!”

Demand is so high, not only for visitors but volunteers too, that you have to make reservations in advance to visit (for volunteers, that might mean up to a year in advance). When I tried to visit two years ago, they were already booked for the next month. That’s pretty impressive.

Luckily, because of organizations like ENP and more socially conscious tourists, things are changing. ENP has started to work with the riding camps to give up riding and move towards more animal-friendly practices. Thais are learning that people will pay big bucks to feed, bathe, and play with elephants, and that this can be more lucrative and popular than offering rides.

The elephant camps aren’t gone yet. They won’t be for a long, long time. But with more educated tourists and an economic incentive for locals to treat the elephants better, hopefully we can severely reduce these camps in the next few years (and eventually eliminate them).

What can governments do to make sure tourism has as positive an impact as possible?

Governments can make laws that help grow green tourism that is community-centered. Costa Rica is a good example of a government that has guided its country into becoming one that has a healthy, thriving, sustainable tourism industry.

Are there any parts of the world that should be off-limits to travellers?

No. Travel is essential to understanding. The more people get to see in the world, the smaller the global community gets and the less likely we are to pick fights (or start wars) with one another.

Is independent travel more likely to have a positive outcome than other ways of travelling?

Independent backpackers are more likely to immerse themselves in the communities they travel to, which is great. There’s a movement in group tours that favor smaller, more environmentally-focused trips worldwide (like Intrepid Travel).

Are there are any countries, destinations or travel businesses doing things that particularly inspire you?

Intrepid Travel offers good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them.

Finally, which travellers inspire you?

Shannon O’Donnell, from Alittleadrift.com, is committed to motivating students and young adults to expand their worldview through travel. She blogs with a service mindset that gives a unique lens through which to immerse people in new cultures. She also runs Grassrootsvolunteering.org, which connects travelers to local causes and communities overseas.

Image from Nomadic Matt’s Facebook page.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are the writer’s opinions and do not represent the views of WTTC as an organisation.

Next in the series we’ll speak to the travelling couple behind UncorneredMarket.com, Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott. They’re also the writers behind our 3-part series on tourism as a force for good. You can read the first part here: Faces of Tourism.

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