You never can predict where and when your life changes. See, I believe that there are pivot points in life, moments that either change our direction or toss us aside onto some other path completely like a train jumping the tracks (and often just as violently). We never know when this will happen, we can only hope to hang on.
We have had many of those pivot points in our years on Earth, but one stands alone in the mind as extra pivotal. We stepped out of the old, rusty van after bumping and careening along what felt like the worlds longest and most poorly maintained road. As our joints creaked back into place, popping with a sound that should never come from a human body, the scene began to sink in. This was out there. Way out. This is still one of the most beautiful and remote places we have ever been, somewhere west of Kisumu, Kenya near the Massai Mara reserve. We were there to visit a community, to learn about their projects that were aided by the group we were volunteering with, and to see what life was like in the bush.
In the midst of the excitement I remember noticing some structures that looked out of place. I mean nothing looked more out of place there than I did, but these structures didn’t look like the others. Curiosity pulled me in, so I went to investigate. Indeed, the building looked neglected, dilapidated, like it was forgotten before it was ever conceived. But I did notice one thing that looked cared for about the structure: a shiny placard posted on the front that read
Community Toilet Project
Constructed 2006 by World Vision Kenya
Upon inquiry we learned that the local chapter of said nonprofit had come to this far away village to “build them a proper toilet.” It was said that the group espoused the value of this project to the community, how it would benefit them, and how much they should appreciate such a gift. Naturally, I wondered why it was in the shape I found it. Our translator said that there was no one in the village who knew how to work it or maintain it when it broke so it was never really used, just was left to the bush to reclaim, a novelty, an ode to misguided philanthropic pursuits by someone who cared little about actual change.
Fast forward to later in that year, 2007, and we pondered a question. What can we actually do to help people? There has to be a better way than what we have seen, right? We have spent the good part of the last ten years traveling, learning, and fucking up badly in search of answers to those questions. Spoiler alert: we haven’t found them, and I am convinced we probably never will. This is not to say organizations like World Vision or Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation don’t do great work. They absolutely do, focusing on decreasing infant mortality to decrease birth rates, educating women and empowering them with choices. These things will play a huge role in creating a more just and equitable world. I think for us, the last 10 years have been about finding what we can do to play a role in that.
Over that time we have been witness to amazing and transformational work being done by local grassroots organizations, individuals, and genius people who work from the community level out. We seek to find the best possible way to lift that work up, support those who are the change agents, the ones who know their shit and get shit done.
In addition to that lesson, we have also come to understand that had we not taken that first trip to Kenya, we might never have been laid on this path of learning and understanding. Had we not left home and opened our hearts and minds to the larger world who knows where we might be now. This, we have realized, is the raw power of travel, connection, and experience. The quintessence of living bundled in the simple act of hitting the road. What could be done if you were to capture that power and use it to positively impact the lives of people who are struggling each day to make a better world? Eureka! Now we have arrived: Travel. In all its power for destruction and exploitation, degradation and appropriation lies the power to change the world one person at a time.
Let me hit you with some numbers. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for 10.2% of the world’s GDP (US$7.6 trillion). The sector also now supports 292 million people in employment – that’s 1 in 10 jobs on the planet. What if we could harness that and turn it into economic investment in indigenous and local communities to help improve their lives? Simple and brilliant!!
Not so fast you over eager traveler. The tourism sector, come to find out, gives no fucks about this concept on the whole. Tourism is about profit. Good old fashion cash flow. So, in order to make this industry a force for good, we must think differently about travel on the whole. We must explore the idea that travel is not just about dollars and cents or consuming pretty landscapes and “exotic people” for Instagram and Twitter. What we must do is make travel a means of revolution, a change agent in the world. A travel revolution to spark a revolution in the world.
So is born this social business. This is our goal. Transform Travel. Transform Lives. For us, this transformation will happen on a few fronts, and will only happen with individual commitment from you and me and everyone else.
Ok, you still with me? Here, watch this pretty video real quick, just to reset so we can finish strong.
Feel better? Ok, back to the fronts of the travel revolution.
The first front is right here. It is how us as travel providers, travel writers, and travel publicizers (is that a word?) choose to market travel to the world. We must take responsibility for how the travel that we are pimping out impacts the people and places to which we send the hordes of tourists. We must, at the very least, acknowledge our impact and seek to minimize it. But at TLA we say pfsstt, we can do better than that. We as travel providers must think first about sustainability, impact, and the benefit of local people and about our bottom line second. We can deliberately hold back on sending millions of people to a place when we know damn well it can’t handle it. This is making a conscious choice to put the slow, hard fought improvement of local economies over our profits. This is revolutionary travel.
Secondly, the work has to be done within each of our own lives. How do I as a consumer interact with the world through tourism? How do my choices impact communities and the people and places I visit? This, at it’s core, is about education. If we want to see the world, we have to see ourselves first. We have to learn. Something as simple as the idea that cheaper is not always better. When you seek out the cheapest tour or hotel or guide for the simple goal of getting it as cheap as possible, that has an impact. Things cost a certain amount. When someone sells that to me at a discounted price, someone somewhere is losing out. And I’ll tell you this, it’s never the guy on top. It is almost always the poor, uneducated workers who don’t get paid, are not safe, or are otherwise exploited. This is our responsibility as consumers to help the market take care of people through educating ourselves, asking questions, and moving with low impact through the world.
How do we put the needs and desires of local people at the forefront of the tourism industry? If local people benefited the most from tourism, the whole world would change for the better. When we talk about travel as revolution, this is what we are saying. Our greatest hope for this business is to continue to provide people with the opportunity to be changed by travel and to participate in a revolutionary movement, continue to provide local people the opportunity to have tourism work for them and to be empowered to change their own lives, and continue to destroy fear and hate through shared connections.
You are here, reading this, and if you made it this far you have committed some time. This is the start. What will you do next? We would love to help you on your journey, contact us right now and just say hi, we will handle the rest.
Tanner and Kolena