Holidays can mean many things to many people. For some it’s lazing the day away in a hammock strung between two coconut trees. For others it’s fighting altitude sickness as they summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some prefer to spend their time volunteering in an orphanage, while still others prefer being an anonymous face in a large group, following the flag of a tour guide from shop to restaurant to shop.

Tourism is a massive industry, contributing nearly 10% to the global GDP and employing over 108,000,000 people, fully 3.6% of the global workforce. (source). But with places like Paris, New York, London, and Tokyo saturated with guides and tourists and attractions throughout the year, the developing world is now where tourism is growing fastest. Indeed, according to the United States Institute of Peace, tourism is the second most important source of foreign exchange after oil for the world’s 40 poorest countries.

But when it comes to countries that are classified as third world or developing, tourism suddenly becomes less about making memories and more about making a difference – but at what cost? This is a topic with many arguments and counter-arguments, but the big question is this: can you ever have a positive impact on a developing or third-world country as a tourist?

First, let’s check in with the four core precepts of sustainable tourism, which Smiling Albino strenuously supports:

  • Environmental: Minimizing the impact you have on the ecosystem
  • Social: Let the local population guide the development of their own community, and abide by its standards
  • Cultural: Respect the local culture and be aware of traditions, lifestyles, food, etc
  • Economic: Support the equal distribution of economic benefits derived from tourism

Ensuring that your trip – and the dollars that fund it – support these four precepts is an important step in making sure that the footprint your trip makes is not only harmless, but even beneficial.

But keep in mind that tourism is never just about your money going to the street vendor who cooks you food or the guide who shows you the sights; there are significant knock-on effects from every dollar spent. The guy who fills your tour van with gas, the woman who washes your dishes after a bowl of noodles, the young man who sweeps the floors in your hacienda, and the entire supply chain involved in supplying the gasoline, dish soap, and brooms to these people. You may not have brought those things there, but remember – there are hundreds of millions of yous, and each of you plays a part.

In the end, you have to do some research to make sure your trip is about balance. Here are a few tips to make sure that your visit to a developing country benefits as many people as possible:

  • Bargain, but don’t go crazy. You might save $5 but the vendor loses a half-day’s wages. Do some research on what acceptable prices are for common goods
  • Alternately, don’t overdo it. Throwing money around might bring short-term smiles, but in the long term, it creates dependencies and expectations of tourism that are unsustainable
  • Ask questions, examine details, and think about the activities you partake in. Being forced to shop at only one souvenir store sounds dodgy to us, and paying to ride a dolphin is most definitely not the best way to support sustainable tourism
  • Try to avoid all-inclusive packages. Their overall contribution to local economies is small, and cuts the community out of the picture. Instead, browse, wander, get lost, make friends with strangers. Buy from hidden stalls and family-run stores
  • Don’t forget you are an ambassador for all tourists. How you behave helps shape the perception a person/community/country has about the outside world
  • Spread the word. Take the memories of your trip and turn them into a positive message you share with others. Encourage responsible tourism and tell your friends and family to have their own adventure

So yes, it is possible to visit a developing or third-world country without exploiting the culture or diluting the value that tourism brings. But research your destination and ask the right questions about your itinerary before you go. Long-term, it’s the best way to ensure that tourism remains a positive force in the world!