Smart locals. These are the ones who spent their childhoods sweating on the family farm, but realized that their land could give them something more. Smart locals are the ones whose families have spent their lives being ripped off by North Americans and Europeans buying their products at prices below the cost of production; they’re the ones who saw tourists on the horizon and realized it was time to make back all that money.
Smart locals see that agriculture is a good way to stay broke. They see that as much as those North Americans and Europeans like to eat bananas and chocolate and buy so many tropical products, they like to come to the tropics. And if they’re coming, they’re coming with money to burn.
Smart locals are the ones who turn their aunt’s vacant house into a bed and breakfast, who don’t try to cut corners but who try to create mini luxuries. They’re the ones who sold half the blackberry finca to have money to invest in opening a hostel, or a restaurant, or a liquor store or a tour company. They’re the ones who built a hotel on the edge of the family orange orchard to be able to market the accommodations as having a “tranquil garden view” on the list of amenities.
Smart locals put a logo on the side of their car and turn it into a taxi service. Smart locals know that when tourists come, they come with money to spend on food and activities and drinks and sleep. They don’t see these droves of foreigners as a threat to their culture or an annoyance, they see them as a chance to make enough money to put a new roof on their house, get their kids braces and send them to college.
Smart locals are entrepreneurial and happy to pocket the piles of bills tourists’ shell out, as compensation for all the money their foreign ancestors never paid to anyone local.
When you travel, you have choices around how to spend your money. You can go to the foreign owned Hilton, or you can seize your vacation as an opportunity to exercise a small form of social justice. You can eat at restaurants owned by locals, stay at hotels owned by the same, and go on tours run by people who are in and of the place you’re visiting.
On a coffee tour of a tiny mill a local coffee farmer built from scratch, a tourist asked if the coffee was Fair Trade. The guide (himself a local) responded, “when you buy a bag of this coffee you put the money into Don Tito’s hand. That’s fair trade.”
If you’re already planning on taking a vacation and you’re already ready and set to travel, take the time to seek out locales where the money will go straight into locals’ hands. It’s not up to us to judge whether or not the local uses the money to build and orphanage or to buy a bunch of beer or to get his daughter a smartphone or to give his car a new paint job; we’re no one’s financial administrators. Truly fair trade means paying people enough so that they can survive and then some, and how they manage the ‘and then some’ is entirely up to them. Truly fair trade means letting people make just as many mistakes with their money as we do with ours.
With tourism we are able to go directly to the places that were pillaged and economically flattened by so many years of unfair and exploitative imperial trade. And here we come- two weeks off and a bonus burning a hole in our pockets. We have the not quite rare, but certainly not common opportunity to put our cash directly into people’s hands. So buy some bananas and sugar and chocolate and coffee and kiwis and avocados and all the things that normally pass through so many middlemen just to make it to our frozen homes. Pay the tropics back for a history of injustice by turning your tourism into a species