In the last post in the Year of Sustainable Tourism series, I shared responsible travel stories that were contributed by travelers around the world. Those stories–everything from a breakdancing performance in Colombia to a homestay in the Moroccan Sahara Desert to a biking tour in Bali–reminded me of the many shapes that responsible travel can take and the rich, long-lasting impact it has on us as travelers and the communities we visit.
And while we can draw inspiration from these stories, you might still be wondering how to have a positive impact when you travel. What are some real-life, practical tips for responsible travel*?
There are many ways–big and small–that we can ensure our presence doesn’t harm the local community. As I continue with the Year of Sustainable Tourism series, here are some expert tips for ways to incorporate sustainability into your travels.
*If you’re new to the idea of responsible travel and wondering what exactly it is, check out this post about the difference between sustainable tourism and responsible travel. In short, responsible travel is about taking ownership of the many ways that our presence as travelers impacts the communities that we visit. It’s a mindset of traveling to connect, learn, and share experiences across cultures, all while seeking to minimize our negative impact on the local culture, economy, and environment.
What practical tips can you share about how to have a positive impact on the community when you travel?
One important thing to remember is not to enter a community assuming you know the situation. It’s important to learn from people on the ground what’s really needed in terms of assistance and volunteering.
Another thing: avoid giving to begging children. In many places begging children are employed by a mafia that takes all of the money. Children might even be beaten or worse to make tourists feel more pity for them. Don’t contribute to this cycle.
I’m a huge advocate of volunteering if you have the time to spare when you travel. Finding grassroots projects that require volunteers and where the projects fit your skill set is one of the most profound ways of having a positive impact on communities when you travel. By being able to commit to at least a month or two, you’ll find yourself seeing a country in a new light and realizing how you can travel the world in a more responsible, meaningful way.
This is much easier to do than most people think. One easy thing to do is contributing to the country’s economy by buying some gifts for friends and family: of course, choose handmade goods made by local artisans instead of going shopping at the mall! Also, avoid giving money to kids because it will contribute to their leaving school. If you want to donate some money to the local communities, do so through recognized humanitarian associations.
Support the local economy and the people living there by booking their own tours, buying their locally-produced food and staying in their guesthouses. Not only it will turn out to be a more meaningful experience, but your carbon footprint will be highly reduced and you will be helping the communities along the way!
To celebrate the Year of Sustainable Travel in 2017, I’m going to be putting much more thought into how my travel can have a positive impact on both communities of people and wildlife in the places that I visit. For me, this means searching out opportunities that involve immersive, authentic, and impactful travel, booking tours through social enterprises that give back to the communities where they operate, investing in the local economy by buying local, and always avoiding tours and photo opportunities that exploit people or wildlife.
In 2016 I was shocked to read the State of Nature Report which showed that one in ten wildlife species in my home country (the UK) faces extinction and that numbers of our most endangered creatures have plummeted by two-thirds since 1970. Some of our best-loved animals are disappearing, like hedgehogs and the song thrush. This trend is repeated in countries around the world.
So my key tip for the Year of Sustainable Travel is to use some holiday to volunteer to support either vulnerable communities or wildlife, either at home or overseas.
Instead of flashlights, buy solar powered lanterns. They save you money on batteries and also save the world from another battery floating around. The sun is free, so why not use it!
We recommend connecting with local organizations or tours that work with the community. It can be difficult to go in without any contacts and try to have a positive impact. Often, even with the best intentions, our attempts to do something good can be misguided or even have unintended negative impacts. Connecting with a local project that is already working on the ground will help you identify what skills you have to could contribute positively to the area.
If you only have a short period of time, consider taking a tour that provides financial support to community projects. If you only have a few days in an area, it’s difficult to have much of an impact. Usually, the best way you can help is by putting your money where your mouth is. You may not get the obligatory Facebook photos with you and local children, but you’ll be having a greater impact. If you have a bit longer to spend, consider volunteering for a local organization that matches your skills and strengths.
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To make a positive impact, the best advice I have is to listen to the needs and desires of the community. Something you think may be helpful may, in fact, be harmful. Be humble and open-hearted; don’t take it personally if something you had your heart set on doing turns out to be discouraged. For example, before I went to Thailand, I thought I’d ride an elephant. After speaking with people, I learned that riding an elephant is way, way different than riding a horse and involves abuse, cruelty, and even torture. As a result, I decided not to engage in any elephant tourism.
It all boils down to being humble, responsive, and flexible!
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Try to give back if you can, in whatever way you can. In the Philippines, for instance, there are still communities in need of basic items, local tribes that lack proper lighting and require solar lamps and much more. This should be planned carefully and, most of all, be beneficial. Communicate with the local government first, do an ocular of the place, and talk with the local people.
Inform yourself, ask questions, be curious what exactly a community needs rather than assuming how you can help. Local people and communities know the best what are the priorities, where are the gaps that need to be filled in their projects, or whether they prefer to help with management rather than giving you a job that could be given to a local.
If you’re looking for a souvenir to remember your travels, you can make sure your dollars support the local economy by buying directly from an artist or an artists’ cooperative. Even though mass-produced goods might cost less, they are likely to be imported from other countries, and cheap products might break and end up in landfills. Also, when you purchase something made by hand, you’ll have a nice story to take home along with your memento.
Do the research! If you really want to contribute, when you’re planning your trip, research a little bit about these kinds of tour products.
Stay with the locals, keep your carbon footprint to a minimum by carrying eco-friendly products, and leave the wildlife and natural beauty alone. Do your research and check for volunteering opportunities. Consider donating a few things you may not need to local schools or charities. Lastly, be very respectful of their homes and culture: dress appropriately, speak with respect, and leave their home as you found it.
First, respect the people and the place you’re going by doing your research and understanding the context and culture you’re about to enter. Learn what behaviors, clothing, and words are respectful and which ones might be offensive. Seek out opportunities to interact with locals, be it a Couchsurfing meet-up or a local homestay, and approach the experience with an intent to learn and better understand their values. The more we listen and learn, the better able we are to make a positive impact on the community!
Always think locally when you’re traveling. Whether it’s having meals at family owned establishments, sleeping in B&Bs, or choosing tours and excursions run by locals, you can do your part by making conscious decisions to help channel the funds you’ll spend on your travels back into the communities you’re visiting rather than into the hands of large corporations. For many small businesses around the world every dollar counts, so always consider who will actually receive and benefit from the money you’re spending. Today shopping ethically is easier than ever while you’re traveling so do a little research in advance to find artisan shops and cooperatives in your destination. It should go without saying but always leave a place as you found it, or better. Never, ever litter, and pick up and recycle trash when you have the opportunity!
Have you used any of these tips while traveling? What tips for having a positive impact would you add to the list?
This is Part 2 of a short series all about the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism in 2017–check out the rest of the series and other helpful links below, and stay tuned in the coming weeks for more tips, resources, and practical ways you can get involved!