2017 is officially designated as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the UN, which sounds both intriguing and like maybe I’ll need to read a college textbook to figure out what exactly it means. You might be thinking that it belongs on the list of “things people say and I pretend to know exactly what they’re talking about while smiling and nodding intently.”
So, if you’re wondering what in the world the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is or what it means for you–the everyday traveler–you’re going to want to hang around for the next few weeks. In this Year of Sustainable Tourism series, I’ll be sharing tips, resources, and practical ways you can get involved.
To kick things off, I asked fellow travelers to share their favorite responsible travel* experiences. I absolutely loved reading these stories and finding out about some great organizations and tour operators around the world–I’ve definitely added some of these to my list of places to visit!
One of the things I noticed as I read these stories is that responsible travel can take a lot of forms, and it’s something that we can all incorporate in big or small ways. Maybe you’ll join the Peace Corps for 2 years, or maybe you’ll simply add a tour that benefits the local community onto the itinerary of your next vacation.
So grab some coffee, get comfy, and enjoy these stories of travel experiences that in various ways supported the local community, engaged with culture respectfully, or protected the environment.
*Head here if you’re curious about the difference between sustainable tourism and responsible travel. Hint: it’s really just a nuance with these terms, and I use them fairly interchangeably. I see sustainable tourism as the umbrella term for the industry, and responsible travel as the way that we as travelers take ownership of the way we travel.
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What has been your favorite responsible travel experience?
I volunteered for a few months with Up Close Bolivia in La Paz, a social organization established by a Bolivian/British couple to support local community development. I helped teach English to students in the village school, while other volunteers supported the local women who ran the children’s center or helped out at a project giving equine-assisted therapy to disabled children and their families. By stopping and volunteering for a period during my travels, it allowed me to engage with local people and their culture in a far deeper way than I would have ever achieved traveling. I truly got to understand the community and the country, learning so much about Bolivia and South America as a result.
For my husband and me, the experience that stands out the most was our Peace Corps service together. We had ten weeks of in-country cross-cultural and skills training while doing homestays, followed by two years sharing life with a rural Jamaican community. The focus was on building relationships, promoting cross-cultural understanding, and working alongside local counterparts. Our projects were in literacy tutoring and launching a new community center, but the greatest impact we saw was in the cultural exchange and friendships. It’s often a slow, unquantifiable approach to community development but it’s one we strongly believe in and were proud to be a part of.
Last year I went on a Kinabatangan River three-day safari in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo with Borneo Eco Tours, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. During the trip, we were based at the tour operator-owned Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which can be found in the list of “Unique Lodges of the World” by National Geographic. Each day we went on multiple safaris on electric motored boats, and we were able to spot all kinds of exotic animals: orangutans, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, monkeys. The company only employs local people and really cares about protecting the environment and the local communities. For example, the rainwater is filtered, organic waste is composted, and Borneo Eco Tours run many different projects giving back to the communities.
I spent a magical 9 days living in a bivouac tent in the Moroccan Sahara Desert with the Khamlia Association. The Gnaoua family has lived on this land since 1950 after they were emancipated from slavery at a sugarcane plantation. They initially supported themselves through agriculture and built homes along the river, but since 1995, there hasn’t been much rain. They turned to tourism and launched the Khamlia Association to raise funds to support their community, teach local women tactical skills and offer lessons to local youth. They finance the nonprofit by sharing their family’s Gnaoua culture, traditions, music and cuisine with travelers from around the world.
I was welcomed into their homes as they taught me of their history and way of living. Every day I was treated to musical performances by Les Pigeons du Sable who are keeping alive the ritual music of their ancestors by sharing the lyrics of perseverance, religion, and freedom. I was treated to homemade Moroccan vegetarian meals daily and was welcomed into the kitchen to watch the women of the family prepare the dishes. This experience was life altering and one of the most authentic interactions I have ever had in my travels.
Perhaps walking St. James Way (el Camino de Santiago) is the one thing that would top my list of favorite responsible travel experiences around the world. Surely it has something to do with the fact that I was born and bred in the same region, Galicia, just a couple hundred kilometers away from the ending point of this pilgrimage route, Santiago de Compostela.
But the fact is that this one shines on its own. Hiking enthusiasts from across the world come to Europe and start hiking at different points towards Santiago, which makes the carbon footprint of this activity almost zero. Not only is it eco-friendly and sustainable but it helps the local economy, promotes another way of traveling beyond the all-inclusive packages and massive hotel complexes that seem to be taking over the world and leaves everyone that tries it wanting to come back.
What’s not to love?
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We are currently traveling around Africa and find that many local lodges in many of the countries often give back to the community. Our recent stay at Travessia Beach Lodge in Mozambique led us to discover the good that the lodge is doing in the rural village. The beach lodge is actually donating solar panels and helping the villagers to build schools. This supplies the rural community with electricity and also gives the kids a roof over their head while they learn. When we stayed there, we were able to walk through the village and engage with the community. I love seeing things like this, as it preserving the culture while also truly helping the community.
When I travel I try to ensure the activities I enjoy have a positive social impact. So, in October I joined the Strasbourg Discovery Tour: Local Art & Culture through Visit.Org to get an introduction to the work of local Alsatian artisans, gain insight into the city’s unique history and culture, and provide a community benefit.
The Strasbourg Discovery Tour is promoted by YFD Innovation Forme et Design Boutique (YFD), a social enterprise that works with Artisans Solidaires to support young professional craftsmen around the world. Their mission is to promote local production and entrepreneurship in Alsace, France. They have a boutique in Strasbourg, which helps local artisans get their products to market. They are also involved in international projects, including supporting the Batik Femmes Solidaires Project in Sénégal, which empowers rural women through a fabric dyeing cooperative.
The tour begins with a visit to the boutique, where you can discover more than 30 different traditional Alsatian crafts. You are then treated to a 2-hour guided tour of the stunning old city of Strasbourg, including the Palais Rohan, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the city’s historic Petite France quarter. A great opportunity to immerse yourself in the rich culture of Alsace and gain an insight into the city’s unique history!
I did a homestay outside of Ljubljana, Slovenia in the Soča Valley. Called Herbal House, I stayed with a family of herb pickers who taught me their craft. We went into the forest to pick all our own food, then did the cooking, crafting…even made our own soaps!
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I loved going on a biking tour in Bali with the company Bali Eco Cycling! We visited a tea and coffee plantation and biked through rice terraces. On the cycling tour, we had an opportunity to visit a local Balinese compound and interact with the people who lived there, asking them questions about local life and their village. We ended our tour at a local organic farm, where the owners of the farm/restaurant made us a delicious farm-to-table buffet lunch in a variety of Indonesian flavors!
My favorite travel experience that supported a local community is when I traveled with a group to a then-unknown island in Quezon Province, Philippines. Basically, we just wanted to see the island’s beach and purported “golden sands.” Before the trip, we learned a little bit about one of the communities there and got in touch with the local government. On our trip, we brought with us school supplies and other items such as Vitamin C supplements to be given away to the local school children. These items were a great need, particularly the notebooks and writing materials. In the end, we successfully visited the beach and gave back at the same time.
One of the most memorable travel experiences we’ve had during our travels was volunteering for Bring The Elephant Home. It’s a non-governmental organization based in Chiang Mai that focuses on recreating a natural habitat for elephants in Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries.
We spent four days learning about a human-elephant conflict in Thailand and helped to build rock check dams where elephants could have a refreshing dip in dry season. Together with 26 other volunteers we made the firebreaks, salt lick ponds in Thai forest, planted a few hundreds of trees and had a chance to see work of the rangers of National Park in central Thailand “from inside.”
It was a great opportunity to see the activities of a dedicated NGO and local communities that actually changed the way of how we had been traveling up until then.
Three hours outside of Phnom Penh deep in the Cambodian jungle is the village of Chambok. Thanks to Intrepid Travel and other international tour companies, the families who live there are thriving in a region where jobs are scarce. I spent a night in the village during my 14-day Cambodia Adventure tour with Intrepid–the homestay was a major incentive for me when booking the trip.
I was pleased to learn during my time there that support from the tour companies is responsible for keeping families intact, and children safe and healthy–parents don’t have to move to Phnom Penh to find work or engage in risky activities. And the natural surroundings benefit as well because the popularity of ecotourism activities like hiking and biking encourages preservation of the land and wildlife. Our group certainly appreciated having the unique opportunity to experience Khmer culture through sharing a meal, watching children perform traditional dance, and talking with community members. And even though the houses had no electricity, plumbing or running water, we didn’t want to leave.
Our favorite experience was the Graffitour with Casa Kolacho in the wonderful city of Medellín, Colombia. Young people showed us a different aspect of Comuna 13, a formerly dangerous neighborhood that is now a cultural center where hip hop and graffiti take over the community. This is one of the best examples of a complete social transformation of a city.
I lived in India before moving to London where I have traveled extensively. In Sikkim (northeast India), I only chose homestays because I wanted to give back to the community in any way that I could. The people in the Himalayas are incredibly warm and hospitable–they will open up their homes and feed you, practically adopt you as their daughter or sister. I tried this uber-potent local brew called chaang that the locals swear by, danced with them during their festival, and chatted with the kids in remote villages about working in a newspaper. It was heartening to hear the girls say they wanted to study further–it encouraged their parents to educate the girls as they heard stories about the women I worked with.
At Ecophiles, we always push the message out that forget all-inclusive resorts, stay with locals–that’s when you engage with their communities in a very positive way. You eat local food, learn about customs and traditions and help them financially as well. Most importantly, you feel engaged with the community and these are memories that last forever.
This year we had the opportunity to get involved with a great local initiative in Cartagena, Colombia. In a small suburb outside the city gates lies the community of San Francisco, where community member Alex Rocha runs a youth center. Once a troubled youth himself, Alex now provides after school activities to young people in his neighborhood. We visited as part of a local tour that supports the community project.
On the day we visited we were lucky enough to watch a breakdancing performance from neighborhood groups. Breakdancing is a great activity that helps local teenagers stay away from drugs and gangs. In the impoverished San Francisco neighborhood, it’s common for these kids to fall into a troubled street life. Alex provides an escape from the difficulties these young people face and gives them a safe space where they can enjoy their childhood. We really enjoyed our visit to the Alex Rocha Community Center, knowing that we could help contribute through our tour in a small way.
Have you had any amazing responsible travel experiences? Big or small, I’d love to hear your stories in the comments! If you haven’t had any yourself, which of these experiences would you most like to try?