No longer the rise and fall: Home Exchange - the future of sustainable tourism

An essay by Samantha Findlater

Tourism has risen like a great wave, eclipsing all other world industries, but there is a destructive undercurrent that is often overlooked. Cultural and environmental erosion, and regional economic decline all show no signs of abating. The pursuit of an area's beauty often feeds its ultimate degradation. As the WTO (World Tourist Organisation) struggles to free tourism from this paradox, home exchange is emerging as a social and cultural pursuit that provides a sustainable alternative to traditional travel.

Home exchange has been steadily growing into a mainstream pursuit since the 1950's with the emergence of HomeLink International, the world's oldest and largest home exchange network. Home exchange facilitates travel to places you want to go to, but puts no extra pressure on local resources. Home exchange means sustainable tourism.

Issues with traditional tourism

Since the early 1970's, the tourist industry and academics have been aware of issues endemic in modern tourism practices. Renowned travel researcher Stanley Plog identified many of these in his 1974 theory on the Rise and Fall of tourist destinations.

Mr Plog identified that the popularity of an area can create a "golden goose" mentality in those who seek to capitalise on the tourism dollar. As small villages get discovered and become more established on the tourist trail, accommodation gets built. As land prices soar, the development is pushed upwards, creating high-rise development. At the same time, pressure on the town's utilities and infrastructure struggle to keep pace with the onslaught of visitors. Locals may move out, as the last vestiges of their beloved town erode, and the opportunity to sell for a good price dazzles. Prime agricultural land is built on, and thus lost forever.

In the melee to harness the tourist gold rush, the very thing which attracted the visitors is buried beneath a monocrop of generic tourism. Perceiving the location as "spoilt", many visitors now abandon the place and seek out less-developed resorts. Economic decline in the area begins and the despoiling process begins anew elsewhere.

Attempts to stop the damage

In 1999 the WTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism was drawn up in order to foster sustainable development. However, despite the UN ratifying these, it is widely acknowledged that the code is unenforceable, with critics claiming it pays nothing but lip service to the problem. Thus, in an effort to platform global awareness of these issues, the WTO named 2002 the "Year of Ecotourism". But to many, this simply provided another business angle to market their resort. Environmental groups protested to the UN and criticised many ecotourism initiatives as "mass nature tourism", and thus continuing to destroy the destination using a different aesthetic.

With tourism firmly entrenched in our way of life, forecasts for the next 20 years will see visitor figures around the globe triple. Therefore, even with adherence to the Code of Ethics, the sheer volume of travellers will render the code powerless to protect the world's beauty spots from the scar of devastation.

The problems are a product of conventional tourism. The issues will remain unless we change the way we travel, or cease travelling. Whilst the second option will never happen, home exchange does provide an alternative to the way we travel. With the challenges posed by conventional tourism, home exchange provides a way for tourism to thrive, free from the time bomb of over-development.

Home exchange is ethical travel

Whilst most of the tourist ills do stem from the creation of accommodation (a demand that is negated by home exchange), issues with modern tourism do not end there. Sue Wheat from Tourism Concern points out that resort living takes from the local area, but fails to give much in economic returns, with chain resorts importing goods, food, and even workers to service tourists needs. With many resorts offering all-inclusive packages, some areas fail to benefit from the tourism which smothers their community. By contrast, home exchange stimulates local economic growth because a home exchange visitor is living as a local, buying local produce and patronising local restaurants.

Home exchange means living amongst the community, not shifting the community aside and taking priority over the areas resources. It means money for the local community. With their shops and restaurants patronised, it means that local business, not global companies, are profiting from the visitors.

Dislocating the local

The WTO's identified objectives of our cavorting around the world are: " contribute to the economic development and international understanding and universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms." Unfortunately, the oxymoron of modern travel produces largely the reverse. The reality of resort-driven holidays means that "understanding and universal respect" is limited to that of the multinational hotel chain that we are holidaying with: a generic standard from Spain to Singapore. Irrespective of where we go and with which hotel or hostel we stay, the reality of most of our travel experience is a universal standard, set against a backdrop of different landscapes.

Our experience of the "local" is a sanitised and sometimes divorced experience. Perhaps a local drove our taxi, or cleaned our room? The point is that our meeting with people from the places we visit is transactional, and not interactional. We leave our destination with no understanding of what it is like to live in Cyprus, Spain or Thailand. Nor do we have a better understanding of the people and their culture when we leave than when we arrived.

The Home Exchange Difference

With home exchange however, you do gain an understanding and insight. Nothing could be more real or provide a more genuine experience of a location than to live in a local's home and be welcomed into their community. Moreover, the locals have an experience of you too, as a real person and not just another "tourist".

HomeLink International was founded in order to create "possibilities for low budget holiday and cultural exchanges in an effort to improve mutual understanding among peoples of the world." The organisation has grown steadily with this mission for over 50 years, largely by word of mouth.

But now that word is out. With increased media awareness of HomeLink and the world of home exchange, might this travel alternative become a mainstream activity and help protect the world's most loved areas?

Seeking USA


Germany - Berlin

I have a lovely 86 qm, one bedroom apt with high ceilings (3,6 m); an open kitchen; close to Schlossstr. - Berlin`s second largest shopping area - with department stores, cinemas, a theatre, banks, restaurants, cafés, doctors, subways, busses - everything is really just around the corner. The apt itself is in a chestnut tree-lined, very quiet side street facing a garden. I wouldn`t mind looking after a cat.