Don’t Eat the Snake

Don’t Eat the Snake

Travelling and reporting: responsible tourism takes its lead from responsible travel writing. Leading from the front, travel writing is supposed to set an example for those who follow. What happens if it’s a bad example?

Did you read about that lovely pristine Thai island a while ago, the one that no one visited? It was in all the backpackers’ magazines. It’s not pristine any more. Another full moon party has landed and the plastic rubbish left behind on the beach each month stays there. The island has no recycling system or rubbish removal. It doesn’t have a sewerage system either. What a pity about all the garbage on the beach and the raw sewage in the water. It has lost all its appeal now.

Do you feel the need to get away from it all? Siberia? Tibet? The Amazon? Alaska? Borneo? The Congo? Did you read the feature in the glossy monthly magazine about the trip of a lifetime? It all seemed amazingly attractively remote. The trackless wildernesses that remain are either being logged wantonly or rent with sealed roads to engender free access for more tourism to benefit the economy simultaneously allowing mining, wildlife poaching, more logging and eventually permanent settlement without the infrastructure to support it. The short-term jobs created by short-term pillage pay little to the locals. The big profits nearly always go somewhere else. But let’s not focus too much on the facts; they get in the way of a good story, right? By all means, go there while you can. See it while it lasts. Before everyone else does at least…

In an article that recently appeared in the weekend travel section of a respected newspaper, the author gave an account of his lunch at a restaurant located near Hanoi. He ate a snake. In increasingly vivid detail, he described the preparation of the meal with meticulous remarks about flavour, texture and the apparent male sexual energy boost derived from drinking the live snake’s bile stirred into Mekong whisky, a kind of serpent Cialis shooter.

I question the story’s failure to address the ethical dilemmas that it clearly presents: that it is wrong to bring a live snake to a table to kill it with a razor blade and extract its bile while its heart still beats, to remove its lung, liver and other organs and finally to skin it in order to carve its flesh from its skeleton to put into a soup. That snakes are being harvested in the wild to serve a trade which harms the local environment and ultimately the people who live there.

My respect for snakes is maintained through mutually well-defined distance; we are not close companions. However, I would not authorise via payment the torture of any animal, no matter how little regard I had for it, nor would I endorse its slaughter to provide a cocktail mixer and a bowl of soup. The reporting of its death was neither fair nor balanced.

What is important is the journalistic nonchalance that uses a cheapened life, even a snake’s life, to milk a story out of cultural difference perceived as ersatz exoticism. Will the article influence its readers to include a snake banquet on their next trip to Vietnam? No, it probably won’t. What it will do however is encourage its readers to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to buy a snake when they do visit Vietnam (cobras are more expensive by the way) and have it executed without bearing a guilty conscience. “What’s the chef’s special? Snake you say? Ah yes, I read about that. It sounds good. Let’s have it. Gosh, I can’t wait to tell my friends at home about this.” Possibly, more underpaid snake wranglers will catch more snakes to sell to restaurateurs because they’ve had an increase in business from other countries, where this meal would likely be illegal.

The environmental ramification implicit in the ensuing snake vs. rodent population imbalance was not discussed in the luncheon of snake travel article. There was no consideration made in regards to the environmental and moral issues. The natural scarcity or rarity of the species of snakes on the menu was not investigated. The writer’s gauche lunch in Vietnam panders to the tourist as voyeur. The subject is moral turpitude posing as an easily obtainable thrill. I consider this a sad tourism fantasy. It’s a metaphor for the tip of the sinking iceberg of global tourism with nary a thought given to the inherent social, environmental and ecological consequences. Disaster looms on many dot points. To connect the dots is to see a bleak outline.

I believe the snake lunch in Vietnam to be an example of the worst sort of ubiquitous gonzo travel writing that encourages misguided travellers to ignore their collective impact wherever they go. I offer the snake lunch article as an insight into how a too cute story can result in unforseen, possibly dire circumstances. Multiply this type of story hundreds of times, written by irresponsible journalists around the world, read by millions of people and it’s little wonder that so much of the world is being literally trampled underfoot, eaten into oblivion, trashed indiscriminately and lost forever to gross popularity.

If we’re not being coerced for the sake of “the experience” to eat a snake in Vietnam, we’re being dared to sup on another expensive bowl of shark’s fin soup in Hongkong when visiting on a “shopover”. Have you seen a shark off the coast of Southeast China lately? There are almost none left. They’ve gone into the famous soup you have to try at least once, right down to the last shark left in the world’s oceans. The shark is caught, its dorsal fins are sliced off and its crippled body is thrown back into the water where it dies shortly thereafter. The special soup was featured in an article on the exciting Hongkong food scene in another mass circulation newspaper. Score ten for the ignorant gourmand and zero for the shark.

Responsible travel writing has the potential to help secure the ecological and environmental health of the planet we share. It is possible to tell the truth objectively, to help the reader to manage his/her expectations, to illuminate, perhaps to educate without accompanying patronising cant and to write a jolly good read that fosters a desire to venture forth responsibly. I believe it is necessary to help preserve the destinations described or perhaps help to improve them. Responsible tourism needn’t take the fun out of travel. Nor should the reporting of it take the fun out of reading about it. There is certainly no dearth of options when a responsible traveller decides to go on a trip somewhere to benefit the locals, their environment and perhaps their culture. The numerous study trips available through universities, scientific foundations, charities and eco-friendly tourism operators are myriad in their reach and price range. A conscientious travel writer need only pay attention to his creative ethic as he nurtures his sense of responsibility in helping to assure that the destination will be preserved for everyone instead of just the lucky few that may travel there before all the rest.

The environmentalist’s mantra of “leave behind only footprints”, while not rejected is hardly endorsed universally by the greater tourism industry. Many industry opinion makers, i.e. travel writers, do not appear to adhere to a Code of Practice regarding what is widely known as Responsible Tourism. Are these one-eyed writers to be believed when they express dismay about the corner of the world they always held dear, wrote about glowingly, promoted to readers far and wide, when they discover it has been subsequently ruined by eager tourists (readers) whose feet left behind a hell of a lot more than footprints? Fellow writers, beware what you sow, so shall you reap and that snake will come back and bite you.

What is Responsible Tourism?

Eco-tourism is described by the The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as:

“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment
and improves the well-being of local people.”

Responsible tourism takes the principles of eco-tourism, but recognises that they apply to all tourism, not just to natural areas.

Responsible tourism can be more-or-less defined as travel that takes into consideration the ‘triple bottom line’ issues of:

• Environment: travel that minimises negative environmental impacts and, where possible, makes positive contributions to the conservation of biodiversity, wilderness, natural and human heritage. Where travellers and locals learn and share information leading to better appreciation and understanding.

• Social/Cultural: travel that respects culture and traditions and recognises the rights of all peoples to be involved in decisions that affect their lives and to determine their future. By involving and engaging local people, there is authentic interaction and greater understanding between travellers and hosts, which builds cultural pride and community confidence.

• Economic: travel that has financial benefits for the host community and operates on the principles of fair trade. Monies spent by travellers remain in the community through the use of locally-owned accommodation, staff and services; funding community initiatives, training or other in-kind support. *

* Excerpt from Code Green: Trips of a Lifetime that Won’t Cost the Earth, by Kerry Lorimer, Co-ordinating author, published by Lonely Planet, April 06.

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