Musings on the Purpose of Travel, and Inspiration from Ilha Blue
A long-time lover of travel, I’ve lately been feeling that it’s time to define the relationship. It’s time to have the tough conversation about what it all means—if anything.
Perhaps I’m not the only one who has suffered this crisis of conscious while traveling. It manifests itself in the self-assurance brought by the thought that as “travelers”, we are somehow different than “tourists.” We search for places “off the beaten track”, shunning those that are too mainstream (or, god forbid- too “touristy”!) We congratulate ourselves for taking public transportation, bartering, and shopping in outdoor markets, all in the name of “connecting with locals”. But doesn’t it require a considerable suspension of disbelief to convince ourselves of the authenticity of our experiences, when at the end of the day, travel is a luxury that very few “locals” will have the privilege to enjoy?
These are my thoughts as I arrive to Ilha de Mozambique one rainy night, crammed tightly into a local minibus, or “chapa”. I’ve had my sights set on this island for over a year now; I’m finally living my dream of traveling while working remotely. I am ecstatic. And yet, there are times when the doubt creeps in, blurring at the edges of the dream.
The doubt is this: Is my travel lifestyle purely frivolous and self-serving? Does this lifestyle create any value for anyone, besides myself? And if the answer is no, then how could I expect travel to have anything but a shallow meaning within my own life? Too many hours spent introspecting through long chapa rides will do this to you.
I’ve come to Ilha de Mozambique as a Workaway volunteer to learn about responsible and inclusive tourism with Pete and Gail, the founders of Ilha Blue Island Safaris. Their vision, in simple terms, is one in which the locals of the island share in the gains created by tourism. On one level, we are talking about economic gains: meaningful employment in the tourism industry, with fair contracts, salaries, benefits, and time-off (as vacationers, I think we can all agree on this one.) These things are important for obvious reasons. And yet the more time I spend with Pete and Gail, the more intrigued I am by the second level of gains created by tourism, though they are perhaps harder to define.
Tourism, in its very best form, should be a two-way cultural exchange. The tourist immerses herself in a celebration of indigenous culture: speaking the language, eating the food, learning how the “other” lives and challenging her inherited viewpoints. And the local, in engaging with tourists, is learning too: learning English, learning about current events, global issues, and opportunities outside the local context.
The ability for two extremely different individuals to relate to each other on equal footing, to find a mutual interest in each other’s language, culture, and humanity – this is the promise of travel. But too often the tourism industry fails us. It leaves the local scrabbling for unsecured, informal employment while foreign-owned hotels and restaurants divert money out of the country. It takes the traveler on a highlight reel tour while leaving us ignorant of the real, lived experiences of the locals. And at the end of the day, it leaves us all feeling uncomfortable, perhaps even cheated, and maybe a little bit empty.
And yet, after hanging around Ilha Blue, meeting the team, and enjoying many lovely conversations with Gail and Pete (usually over a delicious meal), I’m feeling renewed and inspired on the premise of travel. Let me share a few things about Ilha Blue’s efforts towards inclusive and enriching tourism:
- Ilha Blue only hires local guides. Their personal anecdotes and perspectives of the island simply could not be paralleled by a foreign guide.
- Ilha Blue guides are happy, respected, and engaged at work. They participate fully in strategic planning, which keeps the tour offering dynamic and constantly evolving. I was lucky to sit in on a brainstorming session and even “pilot test” the idea for a new tour (it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!)
- Tours are not focused solely on the Portuguese history of the island; they include a rich perspective of local heritage. My favorite part of the bike tour was exploring the markets of Makuti Town (and sampling the street food of course).
- Pete and Gail have committed to handing Ilha Blue over to local ownership. To this end, they have made considerable investments in training and extending leadership opportunities to their team.
- Their biggest challenge has been to create pathways for local women to participate in the island’s tourist industry. We discussed this considerably during my visit. It is not an easy goal by any means; but Pete and Gail’s continued commitment to it, through tough setbacks, speaks volumes to me about their integrity (professionally and personally). I know they will be successful.
- Don’t even get me started on Ilha Blue’s efforts towards environmental sustainability; that will be the topic for another blogpost.
My time volunteering with Gail, Pete, and Ilha Blue was far too short, but it was enough for me to get a picture of the best that tourism can offer. The picture is this: two dedicated and extremely qualified Australians who have built an enormously successful business, all without compromising on their promise of ethical tourism. And happy clients, who leave the island feeling fulfilled and enriched by their authentic connections with locals.
And me? I’m feeling more secure in my relationship with travel. You could even say I’m entering into a new honeymoon phase.
Dar es Salaam
11 July 2018