Tourism as Direct Trade

Go directly to the source
Go directly to the source

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



  1. A really great post! The most important thing for any traveler is to really engage in the country their visiting otherwise I see little point in tourism. The best bits about trips are doing all the things that only that country can provide you with and engaging with the people.

  2. Great post, although you should always be careful of unofficial tourism services in south and central Amercia

  3. Well spoken! So many people do not realize where their money goes that they spend…See that the locals get their share. And that way, you also get to know the country so much better…travel with a local guide, stay with local people, buy the local produce, that way you travel responsibly, benefit those who need it most, and you can be sure to experience the true soul of the country…

  4. I agree! I hadn’t thought of that before, but it is so true. And sad. Definitely puts a spin on the way you think about economics and travel…

  5. Smart locals are turning their beautiful landscape of exotic foods and animals into mass-produced industries which tourists will quickly bore of and are unsustainable, anyway? Where do I sign up?

    1. You are quite right that I used the word “smart” in a slippery way; “smart” in the sense of finding ways to get ripped off less, yes. “Smart” in the sense of long term cultural and human/natural environmental sustainable forward development, maybe not. There are many more nuances to the discussion of who owns tourism, why and how they manage it than are discussed in my short post. Many angles will however be addressed-often by locals themselves- in the completed book “When Coffee Speaks.”

    1. Hi Sharon, thanks for sharing! I came to Latin America for the coffee, but I could keep an entire second blog just about the food I’m enjoying while here. There are so many simple but delicious dishes that showcase the flavors of the region. Every day I find more to love!

  6. Great post.
    Here’s what I don’t get about tourists: when they go to foreign countries and then miss the opportunity to learn about new places and new people by seeking out accommodations that make them feel “just like at home.” What’s the point of travel if you’re looking to feel just like you do at home?

    1. Tourism is a complicated experience for everyone involved; it is always the intersection of various conscious/unconscious expectations running into dynamic realities. Meaning we don’t always know what we want or know how to deal with what we get when we leave home. Traveling anywhere involves some soul searching, which we don’t usually know we need to do, so we don’t do it ’til we get where we’re going, and that’s where the complicated intersections start. And sometimes the mental onslaught of realizing we had expectations we didn’t think we had and managing realities that are so different from these unconscious expectations makes us crave someplace comfortable.

      Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it!

  7. Excellent article. I want to read this to people and say “yeah – what she said!” When I travel I do my best to support locals, much as I do at home. Why give money to Marriott when I can give my money to the land I’m visiting, and have a more personal experience to boot? It’s not always easy though – sometimes “the locals” don’t understand how to serve tourists and view it as just a money feedbag. Part of the adventure I guess.

    1. Thanks for reading- glad you enjoyed! Sometimes locals who don’t understand how to serve tourists lack that understanding because they saw people around them making money off tourism and rushed into it too without really knowing or understanding the services they’d be expected to provide. As at home, there will be people everywhere who are looking for opportunities to make a quick buck and rip people off. But if someone’s going to rob me I’d rather it be a local Panamanian than a big corporate entity. All part of the adventure indeed.

      1. I’d vote for no one ripping me off but that’s not always possible (as I experienced on my last trip)!

  8. This is such an important point! Thank you for making your voice heard for justice and equality around the world. Every time I find myself wandering a street market in a tropical country, I find myself wishing that bringing food back to the US was easier!

  9. Reblogged this on The Grange Community and commented:
    Yesterday I preached a sermon basically saying that we should do good without thought of reward. Specifically when we give a few coins to a beggar we should also give her/him the choice of what to do with the money. And the reason is simple – we have that choice, why shouldn’t they?

    That’s why I think this blog on Fair Trade coffee is very thought provoking..

    1. Thanks for reading and glad you found the ideas thought provoking! You’re very right that robably the most valuable thing one person can extend to another is the luxury of choice.

      1. When I finished a tour with the Huaorani people in Ecuador, I was horrified to watch them spend all our tips on sodas and candy within minutes of receiving the money. Then I remembered – it’s their choice, much as I disagree with it. And it’s arrogant for us to think we know better. Especially since most of us don’t spend our money wisely – most of blow extra money on crap, instead of saving it like we should.

  10. Great, if we agree to pay any amount of money for a service provided by those bigs companies why are we so skeptical for those services provided by locals? We argue with them and ask them for a “better deal” when thats maybe the only way to get money.

  11. Strangely I preached a sermon yesterday on the same theme. When we do good it should be with no thought of reward even when that reward is the recipient doing what we want them to.

    In other words, give the choices we have.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful blog.

    1. Yes, that’s an important point. Whenever we give something in charity or the name of ‘helping,’ we often think that gives us the right to dictate how that help is received and managed. But when we give something it isn’t ours anymore. And that’s difficult but important to remember. Thanks for reading!

  12. I love the way you use the phrase–“smart locals”. I also love so many other sentences yo use to get your point across, but I don’t want to repaste your entire essay in the comment box! ;)…..I agree with what you’re saying though 100% and hopefully so will more travellers who read it. Congrats on getting FP! 🙂

  13. Rachel. I love your blog. It’s great. You pose such interesting questions. Keep up the great work. Neilly

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