14/05/2014 09:33 BST | Updated 12/07/2014 06:59 BST

Keep It Real and Do It Right: Is Responsible Tourism the Key to Madagascar's Future?

Opulent in natural and cultural riches, yet one of the poorest nations in the world, Madagascar is a country of contrasts. It has a culture rooted in the traditions and legacies of its ancestors, yet struggles to preserve its current resources for this generation let alone those generations to come; 90% of its forests have disappeared, yet slash and burn farming, or 'tavy', is a key cultural activity. It is a country which could be described as undeveloping, yet its wildlife has evolved to be some of the most unique in the world. And for the traveller, the country stirs a yearning in the heart, calling to our inner explorer, as a wild, magical country only for the most intrepid. With much of the country best explored by boat or foot, Madagascar offers a real adventure through deeply interesting cultures, infectious music, delicious food and eye-widening wildlife. And with increasing tourism, these are adventures which are becoming more and more accessible, yet still feel pioneering.


Going backwards

Madagascar is poor, and getting poorer. Nearly 80% of its population lives below the poverty line of less than US$1.25 per day, dependent on livelihoods and food supplies generated by clearing precious forest for equally precious rice cultivation and livestock. This has caused widespread flooding, landslides and the extinction of mega-fauna, including 17 giant lemur species. Political instability has led this intriguing nation into even deeper poverty in recent years, resulting in yet more dependence on its ever-diminishing forests and posing an even greater threat to its remaining wildlife.

Going forwards

I believe that for the poorest communities in the world, whose only assets are their natural environments and rich cultures, tourism can provide an alternative source of income; a more benign land-use to destructive slash-and-burn farming and a way to put a value on the natural riches at their disposal. Responsible tourism, practised in partnership with, and for the benefit of local communities can not only increase local peoples' prosperity, but as a result can also reduce the pressure on Madagascar's forests, preserving habitats and the unique species found within.

Responsibletravel.com's specialist suppliers in Madagascar have found that Malagasy people are keen to be involved in conservation and tourism projects, and that tour operators engaging with communities and supporting them to develop their own sustainable ways of living have been welcomed with open arms. And with a population of 22 million, world-class hiking, stunning landscapes and some of the world's most wonderful wildlife I believe the scope for community-led sustainable tourism developments, and the potential economic benefit is huge. Tourism in Madagascar has therefore become extremely important - but it has to be done right to ensure the benefits reach those who need it most.

Do it right in Madagascar

Forget the Nosy Be bubble, with its all-inclusive beach resorts, for your visit to bring benefits to local people you need to get out into the real, authentic Madagascar. With little infrastructure and most of the country only accessible by river or on foot, your best bet is to choose a reputable, responsible tour operator who works with local communities and guides. Before booking a trip I recommend asking a multitude of questions - find out whether accommodation used is locally owned and do your research. If you come across a locally run guesthouses or activities that you'd love to include in your itinerary let your tour operator know - explain that you are keen to spread the benefits of your visit as widely as possible and they should be able to help you.

Not only does using a local guide mean your money goes directly to local people, but it will give you a much closer insight into Madagascar's unique, complex, yet fascinating system of taboos or 'fady'. Underpinning its rich culture and varying from village to village, taboos range from singing at meal times and sitting in doorways during the rice harvest, to pointing at tombs or wearing swimming goggles. A local guide can ensure you know what is and isn't acceptable in each place you stay, allowing you to interact with the local communities you visit in a much deeper way.

Responsible tourism is not a one-sided deal. Not only is it better for Madagascar's wildlife and better for the Malagasy people, it also leads to a much more enriching and memorable holiday experience for you. In return for shouldering the responsibility for ensuring your holiday brings benefits to communities and environments, you end up experiencing the authentic Madagascar in all its unique, colourful and wild ways. You taste its food, immerse yourself in vibrant cultures, visit unique communities, spot weird and wonderful wildlife and have the kind of real, out-of-the-way adventures which only exist in a handful of places on Earth. Your inner explorer will jump for joy.

Read more in responsibletravel.com's open, honest 2 minute guide to Madagascar.