The end of traditional tourism is here, say good-bye to huge resources draining all-inclusive resorts. World-wide lodges, hostels and hotels are turning more eco-friendly, and some even go beyond not changing the used towels you hang up. Worldwide new trends in tourism are developing, from eco-tourism to poverty tourism to agro-tourism, but one of the most promising is perhaps the increasingly popularity of sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism, developing the tourism industry in a way that it enhances the traditional culture and environment instead of tearing it down. We’ve been lucky enough to see true sustainable tourism twice on our trip- once in Nicaragua and once in Lesotho.
The Malealea Lodge in Malealea, Lesotho is written up in all the guidebooks as a must-do. Although they give a vague description on the lodge, its activities and the associated Malealea Development Trust, no guidebook can express the atmosphere of a place like the Malealea Lodge. Seven kilometers of dirt road through a pass known as the “gates of paradise” takes you a world away from the paved road you left. Immediately life looks more pastoral over the pass and it doesn’t take long to encounter a local on the road. Greetings take on an importance in Lesotho that they have lost in the West, and every single person we met on the road greeted us with a genuine smile and lumela (hello).
Like other parts of the world, tourism means money, and so generally the locals are happy to see you, and then again just as happy to see you go. Malealea Lodge and its Development Trust ensure that when you go, that core feeling you have that your life has changed is also the same feeling the surrounding community has. Through trial and error, the owners of Malealea have developed sustainable tourism programs to benefit the entire community. Through financial, professional and volunteer donations, the Lodge and Trust have made themselves they keystone of a thriving Basotho community where traditional customs are maintained and will continue to be preserved.
As we hiked through the surrounding countryside we saw small subtle hints of Malealea’s impact. Clean water taps to outlying villages, a reclaimed donga, a traditional handi-craft center giving local woman a fair income for their work, and even tables made from tin cans, the examples of the positive impact of tourists in the community are never too far. The hands of tourists have built the community a pre-school, a primary school, and set up a fund to subsidize school fees and uniforms. Short-term tourists turn into long-term visitors, teaching English, computer skills, moderating HIV/AIDS awareness projects, eventually passing these jobs on to locals. Tourism dollars support small business loans that help entrepreneurs build their first mill, buy their first shoe leather and set up a successful shop. The repayment of these loans helps goes back in the pool to be loaned to others. Perhaps the most positive impact of a place like Malealea is that it teaches both tourists and locals how to interact with each other in a way that isn’t disruptive but rather inter-dependent.
It’s easy to say I want to help those around me, especially in Africa where there are so many people living in sub-standard conditions, but like all aid, we struggle to balance a hand out with a hand up. The extra pocket change you give as a tip to your hiking guide or pony guide can translate to jealousy in a local community, and may not reach its intended purpose. Aid can sometimes be like a chess game, what impact does this small seemingly insignificant gesture or project have on the local community? That’s why projects like those at Malealea are so important. As a tourist we paid the same money, perhaps even less, than we would have at a traditional lodge, and not only got an authentic cultural experience, but also supported the community in such a way that in 20 years it will still remain intact.
Malealea had a very deep and profound impact on me, one that deepens every day. The owners set out just to have a small lodge, not a community supporting development project, but through their work and that of their clients they’ve positively impacted the lives of everyone in that valley. It’s leadership like theirs, which inspires us to have an impact and to think about our travel decisions which will help change the world, not just the little sign reminding us to hang up our used towels to be used again tomorrow.