From Trek Leader to the Research Track



by | Dec 24, 2002

Rob Faris and Nepalese staff member at 18,500 feet on top of Mount Kalapathar overlooking Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Photo from Robert Faris Personal Collection.

​I earned a living for many years making the world a smaller place. I led treks into the remote and mountainous terrain of Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet, escorting small armies of intruders from North America armed with cameras, journals and dreams of adventure. The allure of the high mountains and exotic cultures provided the draw. We made it possible for many who would not have otherwise come, by handling the logistics and easing the trepidations of travel.

Today, as a researcher for Harvard’s Center for International Development, I focus on the issues of economic development and environment affecting Latin America. I tend these days to resort to the tools and jargon of economics, but the questions are the very same. Today, as in those long-ago treks through Asia, I ask myself how developing countries can find a way to balance revenue generation and the protection of natural and cultural heritage.

I doubt that I had ever heard the term ecotourism when I worked in the tourist industry in the mid-1980s, although we tried to limit the detrimental impact of our treks. It’s fair to say that it borders on farcical to imply that we were low impact. For an average group of twelve tourists, we would typically have an equal number of guides and cooks, plus a team of either 15 yaks, 25 horses or 30 porters. We traveled with tents, tables, chairs and a fully outfitted kitchen. Kerosene lamps lit the dining tent for the soup, lasagna and apple pie with herbal tea.

Limiting our impact on the landscape turned out to be rather easy. We cleaned up the campsites, burned the paper, buried organic materials and waste, and carried out the tin cans. We burned no firewood despite the temptation to warm our feet under the stars at night. When I say it was easy, I wasn’t the one carrying the kerosene. When using porters, there would be porters carrying kerosene for the porters, adding more numbers to the parade. Still, this had no appreciable impact on the bottom line and was popular with our clients who were almost always conscientious and well intentioned. Selling our local guides on implementing these practices was an ongoing discussion and lesson in cross-cultural tolerance. My South Asian counterparts often giggled at my insistence that our film boxes and tea bags shouldn’t litter the trail, though in the end humored me. Not all tried as hard as we to reduce the environmental impacts of the trekking business. Dwindling firewood supplies continue to fuel most of the tourist industry, while a few initiatives, for example in the Annapurna Sanctuary, have demonstrated the viability and benefits of more sustainable alternatives.

The cultural influences we brought to bear were not so easy to sanitize. Far from being casual observers, our presence was undeniable. We were clad in bright colors and reeked of affluence “the colors of the Patagonia catalogue can be easily spotted from a few thousand feet away.” As a rule, we tried to discourage the urge to play Santa Claus that must have seemed appropriate to many of those that preceded us. The children along the trails seemed to have trained the visitors to distribute candy, pencils, money, and medicine. If only pencils could improve education or if Band-Aids were meant to be worn for weeks over festering wounds, I’d have been more sympathetic to this idea. As an alternative, we encouraged sharing songs or jokes. We also encouraged our clients to send us pictures of locals that could be distributed on future trips, so that their pictures could appear in their own houses, not only starring in slide shows across the Western hemisphere. In keeping with local practices, we recommended that our female clients wear skirts and men keep their shirts on.

Not only were we taking in the sights, but also we provided a snapshot of life in the West years before satellite dishes provided a different slice of Western culture on more than a hundred channels. The exchange of cultural norms and mores was remarkably complete. Amid the dancing and sharing of stories from home, romantic interludes were not unusual. This confluence of wealth and poverty was often heartbreaking and an enduring lesson for all. Most of the locals I worked with would have traded their mountain views and strong family ties for a ranch-style house and a 4X4 in a heartbeat. Without contemplating the wisdom or the inevitability of these changes, this contributes to an erosion of a unique way of life, a gradual tearing at the social fabric.

For the tourists—if one discounts the jet lag, altitude sickness, intestinal distress and exhaustion—this cultural interaction was unquestionably a great experience. In seven years, no one ever told me they regretted their choice, while more than a few characterized the journey as life changing. Never did I stop wondering whether this was a good exchange for the hosts, although they were always tremendously gracious, open and curious despite the parade coming through their yards and sipping tea in their kitchens.

I had the opportunity to witness the undeniable economic impact of tourism. In Nepal, a vibrant tourism sector employs thousands—knitting sweaters, baking brownies and dragging trekkers through the mountains. The tourist sector is one of the few industries that offer opportunities for advancement based on merit. In my seven years there, I saw more than a few Nepalis build a comfortable life for themselves and their family with nothing more than intelligence and hard work. In the absence of the tourism market, their options otherwise would not have included much more than inheriting a plot of land too small for subsistence or working in the match factory for a dollar a day. In Kashmir, working on the lakeside houseboats or on treks was often a welcome alternative to tying thousands of tiny knots day in and day out for the carpet industry. In Tibet and Bhutan, the tourism industry provided many fewer jobs, mainly for the better educated. Tourism is notoriously fickle, and the larger the sector grows, the greater is the number of people that are hurt by the next international crisis when tourists choose to stay at home. Even in good times, the economic impact of tourism is not all good. Inflationary pressures and competition for resources often creates winners and losers whether it be the price of a kilogram of meat in the mountains or a taxi ride in the capital city.

My context for understanding tourism and its economic, environmental, and cultural impact has changed. As I focus on Latin America, I still find the same issues. And the bitter irony remains the same. Tourism feeds off of the very resource that it relies upon. Whether in the Galapagos, the Bay Islands of Honduras or in the far reaches of the Himalaya, tourism brings both the potential to contribute to the preservation of the resources which sustain it and the potential to hasten their demise. We’ve come a long way over the past twenty years in bringing the awareness of sustainability into everyday consciousness. In the tourism industry this has taken the form of a call for ecotourism and heritage-based tourism. While tourism, as any other economic activity, is not without its negative aspects, we know that this rapidly growing segment of the market holds great promise to contribute to development that is both sustainable and equitable. The outcome is not inevitable. Achieving this vision will require wisdom, leadership and a common long-term vision. I remain guardedly optimistic.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2

Robert Faris is a research associate at Harvard’s Center for International Development. His research interests focus on the role of natural resources and environmental management in economic development. Currently, he is working on the issues of natural resource dependence and environmental regulation in the Andean countries, as well as developing a project on the management of dry lands. He has taught environmental economics at workshops and international seminars and has conducted applied policy research in numerous countries in Asia and Latin America.

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