Sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting a place as a tourist and trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy. I have often wondered how it could be that a 'tourist' could have a positive impact by travelling.
I enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Goa, India but also remember humid, hot summers with very little water in the wells (we had to pull water from the well in villages in the 80's)-what I remember hearing then was talk that the local five star hotels would buy water by truck loads to fill their large swimming pools. I also remember my mother complaining about how expensive fish was during tourist season - the best fish was already bought by the big chefs in the hotels before it came to market. So, I remember how tourism affected our lives back then.
As luck would have it, via a friend of a friend on Facebook (social media has its plus sides!), an opportunity knocked to volunteer for a week in Morocco.
My interest piqued, I contacted Jane Bayley who runs La Maison Anglaise, a highly rated eco resort that supports a range of community projects in Taroudant, Morocco. Jane helps coordinate volunteers for the organic farm that I was to work on and is intensely passionate about permaculture; she helped me understand the accommodation was basic, I would be living near the family and their organic farm, would need to work with earth and plant fruit trees (which would help attract bees & provide fruit to the family) and contribute towards meals. It sounded like there was a lot of interaction with locals in the village as well as the family I would stay near. For me, this was a win-win situation - an opportunity to volunteer whilst learning about community projects locally, interacting with locals & soaking up the culture, eating home cooked meals, learning about real Morocco and getting some exercise and sunshine. So, this early January, I booked my flights from Gatwick to Agadir, Morocco which I was surprised is only a 3 hours, 15 minute flight and off I went.
Now, I have done a stint of WWOOFing in my younger days, which involved working on an organic farm in Portugal but whilst on the plane, I was quite worried & started having second thoughts. What if I dislike the people I live near or what if the other volunteer is obnoxious and we don't get along. What if I can't adjust to life without electricity, what if, what if...
Luckily, everything turned out great. I had the most wonderful week in Morocco. The fields I worked in smelled of mint and around me were the snow-capped Atlas mountains. Faysal's family farm is located in located in the fertile Sous Valley which is in the southern part of the country. The best parts for me (I cannot pick just one) were interacting with real Moroccans who I found friendly, warm and open hearted and visiting the community projects in Morocco. Some of the best times were also eating meals with Faysal, exchanging stories about how our cultures are so different. Faysal spoke great English & his family were open hearted & friendly hosts.
I was surprised to learn via the Moroccan Children's trust that one of their biggest challenges was providing identity papers for the children so they could attend school & that it is difficult for unmarried mothers to get these papers. I also learnt that the Argan nut must be cracked by hand and there isn't a machine process that can replicate this.
When helping Faysal's mother cook lunch one day, I noticed she chopped the herbs like mint & parsley with a herb chopper (Nigella Lawson style) for a good 15 minutes before she added it to the meal. In London, I am sure I take less than 20 seconds to chop parsley...Moroccan time was easy, relaxed and slow cooking was the order of the day. By day three of our trip, Matthew, the other volunteer (who I liked & was actually very fun to be on the trip with), and I, learnt how to compliment our wonderful host's cooking correctly in Arabic.
As lofty ambitions go, I aimed to bring Moroccon time back with me at least when cooking but I love my kitchen gadgets too much and have failed miserably!
The highlights for me, in experiencing sustainable tourism, in no order, are listed below:
Learning about permaculture and how to plant fruit trees - it was simpler than I thought and digging was a great workout.
Delicious tagine cooked by Faysal's (the farmer's) mother - lunch could never come soon enough!
Living without wifi or electricity or heating for a week in an earth home or 'The Pigeon house' as Faysal calls it- constructed with local materials- no bricks or concrete. Head torch is a necessity if you like reading; the minimalist lifestyle was quite refreshing although I missed my electric blanket during chilly nights.
Visiting the Moroccan Children's trust with Jane, learning about the wonderful work done there. They have an office in London too.
Learning about the Argan Oil cooperative & seeing how the oil is produced. Each nut is cracked by hand by the women who are paid by the weight of nuts they produce. Their children also attend the creche where they work, which enables them to earn while their children are well looked after. The cooperative helps empower rural women, guaranteeing an income source in 'fair trade' price to women
6. Argan oil to take home with me, I also bought an Argan anti-aging cream! I hope it works.
7. Beautiful views of the Sous valley & the Atlas mountains in the horizon - we had plenty of time to see Morocco and drink lots of "nous-nous". That's Arabic for "half-half" – a small glass half-filled with frothy milk and topped up with espresso.
I hope you enjoyed reading my blog and if you have participated in responsible tourism or sustainable tourism, or just want to share your thoughts, I would love to hear more in the comments below.