During the amazing trip to Tibet and Nepal just recently, I was frustrated by the amount of cheap, plastic, identical, mass produced souvenirs that flooded local streets and markets. They were of low quality and often being sold as antique, yak bones, precious stones, amber etc. They could not fool me, but I grew increasingly concerned about the environmental impact and labour conditions in souvenir factories. I was also disappointed in the dishonesty of these people, even though I knew life was hard for them. As a tourist, I could understand the market demand for souvenirs. But I believe even tourists looking for a bargain would prefer quality and genuine products. How many crappy souvenirs you have bought that you won’t touch again? I think the problem lies in both demand and supply, and as consumers we have the ultimate power to turn things around.
Lhasa was crowded with small souvenir shops. After just one day, I was getting tired of seeing the same things and hearing the same lies over and over again. Pure by chance that I walked past a small shop hidden in a back street which had an interesting name. It stocked handicrafts made by children from a Special School. I chatted with the shop assistant, and found out that this is the only school in Tibet that provides education to children with disability. I was impressed with the quality and design of the products and made some purchases on the spot. Later I visited the school but was not allowed to go inside as it was expecting visits from the government officials. But I plan to keep in touch and develop a long term relationship with them. This is just an example of how you can find meaningful and beautiful souvenirs when you resist the temptation of being a lazy shopper.
Of course, not everyone will have time to check out back streets, but there are still other ways. For example, before you visit a city, you could seek out addresses of its fair trade shops. If there is none, you could still be a conscious shopper by actively purchasing eco-friendly products and/or purchasing from villages and schools. You will end up with lighter bags, beautiful and meaningful souvenirs and a great feeling of having made a positive difference. Happy travelling!