Travel with a purpose

Last year around this time the US Ambassador to Panama, Barbara Stephenson, visited a variety of USAID funded projects in Bocas del Toro. I was fortunate to be included in one of those meetings as the Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance was created out of one of these USAID funded projects. The ambassador suggested that I look into Rick Steves’ books. So I did.

All of Rick Steves’ books and most of his website are related to travel to specific locations or tours, etc. that he himself offers. He has radio and television shows on public broadcasting in the United States. So, you could say he is well-travelled and has been exposed to many different countries and cultures. Given that I wasn’t going to be traveling to any of the specific locations for which Rick Steves has books, I selected a book which struck a cord with me: Travel as a Political Act.

Travel as a Political Act is a bit of an extreme title. I found it to be more of a book about traveling with a purpose. The book works through how to travel more thoughtfully to any destination. This is something that is extremely important to anyone who wants to participate in sustainable tourism. Our world is so interconnected at this point in time that to better understand people outside our own country helps us even within our own country or country of residency.

I personally came to realize how interconnected our world was several years ago. Do you remember when the oil and gas prices were climbing on a daily basis? It was crazy. All of my former colleagues in Houston, Texas were thrilled with the increasing prices as it meant their own personal incomes would increase. Bonuses, etc. are based upon the financial health of the corporation. Makes sense. Or does it?

As that oil price goes up for developed countries, it also goes up for developing countries. Granted, in developing countries the amount of oil and gas used is far lower than in developed countries. The cost of oil was driving up the cost of transportation for everything. So the cost of living here in Panama increased drastically. The cost of living on an archipelago went up even higher since most things must be transported over to the islands in one form or another. Only certain things can be produced right here in the archipelago. A large contingency of people living here in Bocas del Toro are below the poverty line. How do they deal with this increase in cost of the very basic things they need? It isn’t easy.

Now, the price of oil went down about six months later. The price of the goods on the islands did not go down. The blame was based upon the transportation costs. Baloney. People somehow stomached the increase and therefore the store owners refused to reduce the price. The difference in transportation costs was now going directly into the vendors’ pockets. The price of fuel went down but the cost of goods did not. All of this was before the world economy began taking hits. So it was before the blame could be based upon inflation. Panama has since raised its minimum wage to offset some of this increase in the cost of living. It was a pretty substantial increase, fifteen percent or more, with less than one month’s notice to employers, but it still isn’t enough for these people living below the poverty line as most of them do not work regular jobs.

What this process taught me was that those of us in the developed world have no idea how these types of price increases effect the rest of the world. We see only what affects ourselves.

Rick Steves brings out the point that people who travel with a purpose have a much broader outlook on life than those who do not. When you expose yourself to other countries and other cultures you learn to look at things differently. The book as 9 chapters and is about 210 pages long. The first chapter goes over how to travel with a purpose. The last chapter brings some of the different things that you have learned during your travels home.

To me, traveling with a purpose goes directly along with both sustainable tourism and geotourism. While everyone may want to take a trip to a Disney park at some time in their lives, this trip is not travel with a purpose. Traveling to Central America, spending time in nature and amongst some of the different cultures located there can fit within all three: travel with a purpose, sustainable tourism, and geotourism.

If you are interested in sustainable tourism or geotourism, I would suggest you check out Rick Steves’ book Travel as a Political Act. I didn’t consider it political, but I did take away a variety of different points that will help me make more out of all of my future travels and work here in Panama.

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