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So, just who is the conscientious traveler? Many might say it is nothing more than being an eco-traveler, however, I argue it is more – it's about traveling with one's conscience, about being aware of our environmental and social footprint as a traveler. It’s about awareness of our impact on both nature and culture. Whether buying local, selecting a green hotel, not littering, or offsetting travel with alternative energy certificates, a new breed of traveler is arriving on the travel scene; one with ethics, a disposable income in many cases, and a desire to preserve and maintain for the future. A traveler’s conscience is the beginning of the conscientious traveler.
Conscientious travelers are engaged with life, participants in travel with a passion for life. They are not merely observers, consumers to be entertained. Travel is not an act of conquering, of chalking up how many destinations one has visited; rather it is about the stewardship we share, and a touch of humanity that we impart during our journeys, which spells out the tenets of a conscientious traveler.
Ron Mader, founder of Planeta.com, defines the conscientious traveling as “traveling with one's conscience and connecting with others in a particular place. Travel encourages a deeper understanding of people and place and this concept recognizes the fact that travelers engage in various activities in the same day.” To illustrate this point, he cites as an example that the adventure traveler may also be a craft buyer and a birder.
The conscientious traveler is a deep traveler, one who considers the old Latin adage, “Cui bono?” Who benefits? In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Museum of Fine Arts features a legacy painting by Gerald Cassidy (ca. 1911), a life-size canvas that reveals the heart of this question. Depicting a stoic Native American elder listlessly standing in front of a pueblo entrance, his body is shrouded in a ghostly white wrap. A blank stare of resignation overwhelms his weathered face, as he peers past the viewer with empty despair, vacant of soul and spirit – as if caught, caged behind bars, on stage as both an oddity and spectacle for the amusement of curious travelers. Trapped between two cultures, the conflict of traditionalism versus commercialism never seems as poignant, so disturbingly penetrating, as when viewed through the glazed existence of an indigenous people robbed of their native ways – refugees in their own land. But how does such a culture strike a balance between the old ways and the new and still feed its people?
It is the ability to question these conundrums and to fearlessly examine complex social issues that defines the conscientious traveler. Living in the present with deep reverence for life, the conscientious traveler also pays homage to the past while preserving the future for the seventh generation. A precept of the Great Law of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy was to require chiefs to consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation. Today we call this stewardship.
Leave No Trace
In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Wilderness Act, protecting millions of acres of public lands while bringing outdoor recreation to the masses. This supported and promoted the “Leave No Trace” ethic – an effort to preserve the pristine while promoting outdoor etiquette. In the 70s, slogans such as “Pack it in, pack it out” and “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” found their way into mainstream vocabulary, suggesting easy ways by which outdoor travelers could preserve wilderness for the future. Today, a multitude of programs, including the Boy Scouts of America, incorporate these outdoor ethics into their activities by building awareness, appreciation and respect for our wildlands.
These are good beginnings. However, conscientious traveling is about more than leaving no trace. A pragmatic understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and nature is a fundamental and shared value. Is a shout in the forest heard if there are no humans to hear? And are natural wonders appreciated if no eyes are able to gaze at the beauty, swallow the expansiveness, and embrace the moment by being a part of the picture? The human element is a fundamental part of the travel experience, it is essential to the equation if that which is unknown and misunderstood is to be resolved. It requires a deeper discovery of self, and a greater awareness of something bigger than self.
Caring about the world, about her people, and the rich diversity of multi-faceted cultures, the conscientious traveler is one who seeks expression and experience on multiple layers, with dimensional depth that is both internal and external. The conscientious traveler travels to be altered; to be moved by experiences outside the mundane but familiar life at home. To be altered is the goal; to be permanently changed is the equivalent of ecstatic insight. How we travel, and even why, becomes the defining basis rather than where one travels.
Conscientious travelers are people who connect with their travels in environmentally and socially meaningful ways. Rather than analytically observing the space-time continuum from safe and insular distances – like a cold, sterile machine – the conscientious traveler participates in the celebration of life unique to the area, to the regions where they travel, while appreciating the abundance of difference this great planet contains.
Thomas Swick, Travel Editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel says, “Similarly, it is through human contact that we open our hearts. Enlightenment and love – there are no more compelling reasons to travel, or write about it.” Whether sharing a subtle smile with a local person, breaking bread with a farm family, or experiencing the richness of cultural ritual and diversity of a community, these types of connections provide an interactive wealth and moral fiber that have a profound impact on individuals in good ways. In greater moments, they can profoundly change the world in fundamentally better ways.
Conscientious travelers, however, do leave footprints which are bigger than self and synergistic, but serve only to show the way; they do not dominate the landscape. They produce an effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. They make a difference in ways that deepen our sense of who we are. Most of all, these footprints are quiet steps towards a greater humanity. Therefore, let us tread wisely, leaving soft footprints that others can follow. When we travel, let us strive to make a difference – for the sake of humanity and not just to satisfy our own needs.
A favorite Dakota proverb of mine says, “We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” So let us leave good tracks, tracks with a human conscience. It is my belief that the conscientious traveler is a new breed of traveler who will help define future niche markets and destinations, imprinting social consciousness and environmental awareness while nourishing the spirit. Those that recognize this trend can, as travelers, be catalysts for positive change in how and why we travel. And providers of travel services can also support the conscientious mode of travel by meeting the needs of this emerging market.
For additional information:
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)
733 15th St., NW, Suite 1000
Leave No Trace
Museum of Fine Arts (Museum
of New Mexico)
Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development,
P.O. Box 4569
The Nature Conservancy
4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100
See also our previous editorials