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Trailblazers Q&A: Luke Mackin of Wild Sumatra

Pendung Semurup Waterfalls

Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel.

Luke Mackin: Wild Sumatra

Luke Mackin calls himself an “American by passport,” but was actually born and raised in the Philippines and feels most at home in the Southeast Asian archipelagos. In 2010, he founded Wild Sumatra as a way to promote ecotourism and support conservation and communities in the most off the beaten path parts of the Sumatran island. He lives and focuses most of his time in Kerinci, a place he describes as a highland region of idyllic rice fields and small villages, surrounded by mountainous jungles and volcanos — home also to Kerinci Seblat National Park, one of the largest protected areas in all of Asia where tigers, gibbons, and hornbills can still be found.

 

Without A Path Off the beaten path travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?

Luke Mackin I honestly am not sure if that’s true! I feel like the vast majority of travelers these days are more interested in capturing those famous Instagram shots of the same handful of places, only visiting places with lots of information online, and where internet is easily accessible. There aren’t many bloggers that go truly off the beaten path – there just aren’t sponsors available in such areas — which feeds into the lack of information online that everyone craves. Travelers also seem to want convenience. If the experience or accommodation can’t be booked easily in some app, then forget about it. Obviously, by its very nature, there aren’t many conveniences like this when traveling off the beaten path.

In Sumatra specifically, with cheap flights replacing the overland routes that backpackers used to take, tourism really dropped off in the late 90s. In the same period, tourism continued to explode in Bali with places like Kuta, Seminyak, and Ubud at or exceeding carrying capacity.

With the problems of overtourism recently being in the news in places like Barcelona, Vienna, and Thailand, and the conservation benefit that ecotourism can bring to the world’s remaining forests, now more than ever do we need those brave travelers willing to step out a bit into the unknown.

The Kerinci Valley and Lake Kerinci

WAP Tell us about your ecotourism project.

LM So, the Kerinci region of Sumatra is really remote. There are only three roads into and out of this region, and it takes an eight-hour drive to reach the nearest city. The Kerinci Seblat National Park completely surrounds this highland valley, which is a bit like a donut hole in the center. There aren’t many places in the world where a large protected area (13,791 km2 — an area 2.5x the size of Bali), encircles a populated area on all sides. It’s tremendously beautiful and diverse as well with lush rainforests, wetlands, unique lakes and waterfalls, active volcanoes (including Mt. Kerinci – the highest in Southeast Asia), cinnamon, tea, coffee plantations, and perfectly green rice paddies. Because of its isolation, the local culture is also still really strong with traditional festivals, dress, dance, and song all being highly valued. But sadly, in spite of this richness and due to its isolation, the challenges traveling here and the lack of information online, very few visitors pass through every year.

I started Wild Sumatra in 2010 in order to support local guides and rural communities interested in developing ecotourism and to help them market their services and the region and connect with would-be travelers. With a growing population in this valley, and limited land, the economy needs to diversify beyond agriculture in order to preserve the forests and wildlife here. I feel strongly that for this to succeed, it must be community-based and led, hence I see my role as one of support and advocacy. The guides I work with are all their own bosses who I assist and work with only at their request.

WAP What inspired you to get more involved in this region and why do you want more people to visit? Are you concerned at all about bringing too many people there?

LM The remaining rainforests of Southeast Asia area really under constant threat. Sumatra has some of the largest tracts of rainforests left, filled with incredible wildlife like Sumatran tigers. But every year we see more and more lost. Besides the tragedy of seeing species completely vanish off the face of the earth, something I am passionate about stopping, there is also a very real human cost. The almost yearly issue with haze, resulting from slash and burn forest clearing, sickens and kills tens of thousands every year. Drought is more common as are landslides and flash flooding when the rains do come. I felt like ecotourism in this region, being economically disadvantaged but so rich in natural beauty, could provide a dual benefit to both these rural forest-edge communities and the conservation of one of the few truly wild places left on earth.

I’m not too concerned about overwhelming this place with tourists any time soon. As I mentioned, this region is gigantic and the barriers to coming here are pretty big for most people, so I don’t foresee mass tourism ever really being possible here. That said, we make sure to limit the amount of people that join a trek to a maximum of six, and I am constantly working with local communities to find new interesting treks to spread around the visitors that do come as well as to spread around the economic benefit.

We are also currently trying to think through and come up with solutions for the trash issue that sometimes plagues Mt. Kerinci, especially around local holidays. We do not want it to get like Mt. Rinjani, a much more popular climb for local and international tourists due to its proximity to Bali. The culture of “leave nothing but footprints” is still in its infancy in much of Southeast Asia, although I’m happy that the guides I work with and their guests take active steps to clean up after themselves and regularly after others as well.

Rice Terraces Sumatra

WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since getting started?

LM I certainly expected moving to and starting a business in rural Sumatra to be difficult in an abstract, naïve kind of way. But exactly how difficult, I wasn’t prepared for. From just learning the language and how to do daily life to making the right connections to the almost impossible bureaucracy, it was far more challenging than expected. I think I’m also surprised at how discouraging the work can be at times. I remember one time feeling so excited by how a community seemed to embrace the idea of nature-based tourism with seemingly a lot of traction with a particular trek and itinerary being made, only to one day get a report from one of the guides that a huge section of the trail had been completely destroyed by illegal logging, effectively ending that trek option. Ecotourism here is definitely a slow growth endeavor, and sometimes it’s just not fast enough to keep up with some individual bad actor’s greed. When that happens, it’s incredibly demoralizing – those forests are lost forever.

WAP Do you have a favorite off the beaten path travel destination?

LM Other parts of Sumatra I’ve had the pleasure of visiting have been fantastic. The Bengkulu province a little bit south and west of where I work, Rimbang Baling in Riau province and the islands around the Mandeh region of West Sumatra are all far off the beaten path, but really spectacular places worth visiting. Growing up in the Philippines, I’m also definitely partial to boarding a bangka in that country and finding some small deserted island beach to relax on and snorkel around.

WAP How can the travel industry both preserve off the beaten path travel destinations and help those areas that have been negatively impacted by mass tourism?

LM I think preserving off the beaten path destinations is all about making sure things are community-based and led and that the maximum amount of economic benefit remains within that area. Using foreign-based, profit-focused companies that don’t have boots on the ground or real relationships with local people I think is a recipe for harming the culture and environment of a place.

I feel one of the best ways to help areas impacted by mass tourism is to start to promote more off-the-beaten-path areas, like you’re doing. Most travel blogs and outbound tour operators continue to funnel people to the same spots when there is a wide world to explore filled with endless beauty and wonder.

Kenduri Sko Festival in Semurup

WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who want to find off the beaten path travel destinations and travel responsibly?

LM I feel like I’ve heard the popular sentiment, “don’t plan, just go with the flow” a whole lot. But the reality is that if you’re going with the flow, you’ll take the path of least resistance and end up going where all the other tourists and backpackers are going. To really, truly go off the beaten path, it often takes serious intentionality and planning, especially in a place where you can’t speak the language. Transport is more difficult, knowing what sites are worth visiting is more difficult, finding guides is more difficult. Off the beaten path places are really everywhere. The places where most tourists go is an incredibly small list. So, it’s not really a matter of having trouble finding an off the beaten path place. Just stick your finger on a random place on a map and it’s pretty much guaranteed to be off the beaten path. But rather, the trouble is figuring out how to travel there.

Traveler forums like Lonely Planet or backpacker groups on Facebook can be a good place to get ideas, mostly as a starting point for crossing off places that are frequently mentioned and for starting research on places that are rarely mentioned. Asking locals, expats, or long-term travelers for ideas is also a good starting point. They often have spent enough time in a country to know where the hidden gems are. And again, to be responsible, find companies that are based locally, know the culture, and have a component of investing in conservation and the communities they work with.

WAP On a happier note, what’re you most looking forward to in your work and travels?

LM I really enjoy taking exploratory trips here in Kerinci. As I mentioned, I’m always looking to expand into new villages, which often means climbing some new mountain or taking some ancient rainforest trail to a hidden waterfall or hot springs known only by the people of that community. The feeling of exploration and adventure is incredibly exciting, especially when I’m lucky enough to come across wildlife that I may not have encountered before. And then seeing a community take ownership, to see the guides develop their skills, and see the tangible conservation and economic benefits that eventually start trickling in is really rewarding. It’s a slow, long-term process with lots of difficulties and mistakes — mostly by me — along the way, but that hope for a better world is what keeps me going.

All photos courtesy of Luke Mackin

In Trailblazers

Trailblazers Q&A: Alicia Underlee Nelson of Prairie Style File

Painted Canyon Near Medora North Dakota

Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel. 

Alicia Underlee Nelson

Fargo, North Dakota

Alicia Underlee Nelson is a freelance writer and photographer with a thing for hidden gems and overlooked stories. She covers the art, history, culture and food scene in the American Midwest for outlets like Food Network, USA Today, Delta Sky and AAA Living and she showcases uniquely local spots in the Midwest and the prairie provinces of Canada for her own website, Prairie Style File. She also writes about hidden gems and slow travel all over the world for trivago’s Room5 and Matador Network.

Without A Path Tell us a little bit about yourself

Alicia Underlee Nelson I’m based in West Fargo, North Dakota, so my beat is off the beaten path. I report on regional news for Thomson Reuters and I also contribute to several newspapers and magazines in Minnesota and North Dakota. My first book, “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History” hit bookstores this summer and it’s a good example of the kind of work I like to do — telling stories that are inspired and informed by the quirks and history of a place.

I have a fondness for people and places that most people don’t know much about. There are so many places in the world that are overlooked by travelers, simply because they’re remote or evolving or don’t promote themselves as aggressively as their neighbors. (I should know – I live in one of them.) I love shining a light on unusual spots and unconventional people and taking the time to really go deep into a story or a place I’m visiting. If the stories I tell tempt people away from more conventional trips and encourage them to take a chance and explore somewhere new, that’s even better.

San Juan Puerto Rico El Escambron

WAP What inspired you to start writing about off the beaten path destinations?

AN I’ve been writing off the beaten path travel stories since I was a columnist for my college newspaper in Minnesota. I got the idea for that column when people kept asking me for recommendations (like where to eat or what to do during a long weekend) and they always seemed surprised by my suggestions. I realized that most people are creatures of habit that tend to stick to their routines. I’ve always liked shaking things up and wandering off and having random adventures, so that gave me an unusual perspective. I gambled on making a career of it and it worked.

WAP Off the beaten path travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?

AN I think it’s about time that people realized that travel can be about more than checking destinations off their lists or doing the same kinds of one-size-fits-all tours that were popular decades ago. These old ways of traveling required lots of time or money to get to a place. And when you got there, you just ended up standing around and waiting in lines with a bunch of other tourists, which is hardly inspiring. Off the beaten path travel allows for so much more customization and gives us so many more options.

We’re not dependent on a handful of recommended hotels and tour guides anymore. Apps, blogs, social media, specialized magazines and websites and navigation tools can help us go beyond the marquee attractions, get out of the tourist zones and actually connect with local people. That’s empowering for travelers and makes it easy to get a local perspective.

Winnipeg Manitoba Exchange District

WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since getting started?

AN It kind of amazes me that working and traveling close to home still feel fresh. I started prairiestylefile.com five years ago as a way to refine my ideas for freelance articles about destinations in North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba and to build up my source network. I honestly thought I’d have run out of stories by now.

Instead, the opposite happened. I pretty much always have about 70 ideas in draft form at any given time – which is kind of absurd, really. I can’t get to them all because my travel writing work takes me out of the state and the country more and more.

I don’t think this is unique to me or to my part of the world. Most travelers – and travel writers especially – would rather get a new passport stamp than explore a new place closer to home. I’m guilty of this myself.

But if my work has taught me anything, it’s that experiencing the attractions within a few hundred miles of your home base can keep you busy for years, which is great news for people with limited time and money. And it’s environmentally responsible to start where you are and work your way out, rather than jetting all over the world for a few days.

Oxbow Overlook Landscape at Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit

WAP Do you have a favorite off the beaten path travel destination?

AN Because I have problems following directions, I’m going to give you three! When I need to recharge and get outdoors, I love the badlands of western North Dakota. I try to hike in the bluffs in Theodore Roosevelt National Park or get on the Maah Daah Hey Trail at least once a year. The landscape is harsh and sunbaked and a little otherworldly. The gravel roads are dusty red and the air smells like sweet clover. Everything feels ancient. It’s a special place.

When I want to go abroad, but I don’t have a lot of time, I head to Winnipeg, Manitoba. There’s funky design district housed in one of the best preserved historical neighborhoods in Canada, world-class museums, great food and two of my favorite spas on the planet, all in a compact (and surprisingly walkable) city. Plus, Canadians are incredibly kind and helpful and always have great travel suggestions and I can practice reading in French – two nice bonuses.

I also have a huge soft spot for the side streets and little villages of Spain. I have friends there and go back often, so while I’ve seen a lot of the must-see palaces and museums and churches, the things that really stick in my memory don’t show up in guidebooks. When I think of Spain, I think of wandering the streets for hours, just chatting and and window shopping, eating fresh fish from a beach shack and swimming at quiet, locals’ only beaches, sipping tiny cortados (espresso cut with milk) in little cafes, popping into bars for little plates of tapas and pinchos, lingering over late dinners noisy public squares and hiking gorgeous mountain trails in my friends’ ancestral villages, far from other travelers.

WAP How can the travel industry both preserve off the beaten path travel destinations and help those areas that have been negatively impacted by mass tourism?

Alicia Underlee Nelson of Prairie Style FileAN I’m all for limiting attendance at places that are suffering from too many visitors, whether it’s by starting a lottery system for tickets, staggering visits, shortening the season or charging travelers more to visit. I’m fine with paying more, as long as the locals don’t have to.  (Tourists getting access when locals don’t drives me nuts.)

The travel industry – including travel writers – can help alleviate pressure on popular destinations and promote off the beaten path spots by encouraging travelers to think about what they really want to experience on their trip — not just what they want to see. Some people taking selfies from the Eiffel Tower are thrilled to be there. This is both what they came to see and what they wanted to experience. They want the anticipation, the view, the chance to actually stand inside a monument they’ve seen on postcards since they were kids.

But others just took their places in line because they got the impression that the Eiffel Tower is something they just have to do in Paris. It ticks off an item on their checklist, but it doesn’t fulfill a single emotional need or address any of their hopes of goals for their trip, so they don’t really get anything out of it. It’s just another thing to do. It might even stress them out. If we as travel professionals can remind them that they don’t have to do anything – and help them figure out what they actually want to do instead – those travelers might make very different choices.

If their vision of their ideal vacation centers on practicing their French or enjoying the food or being in nature, they might realize they can skip the Eiffel Tower – or even Paris entirely – and still have a great vacation. They could tour the French countryside or sit in cafes for a week or rent a cottage and chat up the locals in a tiny village and be perfectly happy.

WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who want to find off the beaten path travel destinations and travel responsibly?

AN Don’t overschedule. It’s perfectly fine to include a must-see attraction in your day. But then actually block out time without any commitments and give yourself permission to slow down, open up and just wander. You can take public transportation or walk to a new neighborhood if you’re comfortable.

Look for ways to connect with yourself and the moment. Give yourself permission to do nothing at all if it feels good. You don’t have to be productive. You just have to be present. (I know that sounds New Age-y and ridiculous, but it works.)

Sit in the park and watch people walk by. Savor a coffee at a sidewalk café. Listen to the sounds of the locals chatting in the bar. Browse the stacks in a bookstore or head to the local market. Listen to a band or take part in a street festival.

Connecting with other people and taking in the world around us make travel meaningful. The tiny sensory details of a place are what stick with us. Our feelings about a place color our memories. It’s hard to be open and present when you’re treating travel like a to-do list. Wandering is where the magic happens.

WAP What’re you most looking forward to in your work and travels?

AN I really want to explore a place for at least a month at a time. My uncle has been dividing his time between Alaska, Mexico, North Dakota and Nicaragua for years and I’ve always been a little jealous. Since I freelance, this is actually pretty doable for me, so I’m looking into spots in Central and South America since they’re affordable long-term and I speak Spanish well enough to get around. I’m working on two books right now, so I’ll be able to focus on these projects, travel and practice my language skills all at the same time.

On a personal note, I’m excited to travel with friends, keep work to a minimum (I never really turn it off completely) and to let someone else share in the planning duties. I have a few close friends that travel at the same speed as I do (busy and active, with occasional siestas and adult beverages) and we share a similar travel philosophy, so I trust their judgment completely. We just met up for a whirlwind trip of Chicago that was part travel planning collaboration, part improvisation. We’re already kicking around ideas for the next meet-up. Hiking in Armenia, relaxing on the beach in Portugal and exploring a few National Parks in the U.S. are at the top of our list.