At its core travel is about me. It’s about wanting to do something, see something, or get away from something. Travel is privilege as well. Most of the population won’t ever get to visit the far reaches of Patagonia or the high peaks of the Himalaya. We are privileged to even consider doing it. But in that there is power and potential for immense good.
This is about how to think about travel in a different way, how to make different choices so that the privilege of travel can also be a catalyst for real change in the world. Or in other words, how to have an amazing, transformative, fulfilling travel experience while at the same time being part of changing the world for the better.
We can use our travel privilege to lift up voices of those traditionally exploited by tourism, thus using the immense power of this monolithic industry to empower people to change their lives
So how do we do it? I’m glad you asked!
Make different choices in where you go and what you see: I understand, popular destinations are typically popular for a reason so this is not saying that their poularity is undeserved. What we have to think about is our impact and the capacity of the place we are visiting. Iceland is a perfect example of how this can impact a place. Tons of people visit this place and it has had some damaging effects on the local people and economy. This has a lot to do with the tourism being concentrated in a few places on the island. So, to offset this, choose to visit the East Fjords or the other coasts of the island instead of the Blue Lagoon, spreading our impact out.
Be conscious of the destinations you choose to visit. Consider politics, capacity, density of travelers, and seek out places and sights that might be off the main track. This can spread the impact around, make it more viable for places and communities handle tourists and keep their local culture and economy intact.
Avoid “voluntourism” like the disease it is: If you don’t know what this is, good, keep it that way. But in short this is a practice of traveling to places with the intent of “helping” people whom you feel need your help in some way. Groups of people arrive to a place for short period, usually a week or less, and engage in some “service project” like building a house or something. They get pictures, get in the way, and then whoosh, they are off like some Tasmanian Devil type character. Full disclosure, I have participated in this model in the past and advocated for it for some time before I came to an understanding of the damaging effects it can have on communities and people. Unfortunately I had to learn firsthand the damage I caused with my need to fulfill my desire for worth and validation that comes from this type of travel.
Wanting to help is not bad, just all in how, why, and with whom you do it. Centering your need for validation or for good feelings that come from “helping” will only hurt people and places around the world if it is done without the guidance of local leaders and input from the people, as well as a longterm investment in improving people’s lives. Communities are not there for your entertainment or your enlightenment.
Instead, seek to create bonds, learn, and see over time what challenges communities face and participate in helping overcome those challenges. This costs time, energy, and a willingness to put aside our own needs and invest resources and time in the empowerment of people to face their own challenges and overcome them. Also understand that you are traveling for you and that just the cost of your trip could make a huge difference in people lives. It’s just a fact, but does not mean you should not travel. Just acknowledge it and do what you can to offset the negative effects of tourism.
Seek out local organizations to help you plan your trip: If you are like us you like to be pretty independent when you travel, not book everything, and have the freedom to move around. That being said, it’s a great idea to make contact with a locally run organization of some kind to help guide your choices as you visit. Maybe you arrange an activity with them, thus giving you the chance to ask questions about the best way to make your tourism benefit local people. Even if you want to do your own thing, having a reference or resource to guide your travel is a good way to ensure it is positive. Local organizations run by local people can also give you insight and guidance into giving if you end up wanting to do that. More on that in #5 below.
Ask the right questions: When you book a tour or set up a trek or rent a room ask the right questions. This means asking about how employees are treated, how the local community is engaged, what conditions the local people live in, who owns the company/hostel/tour agency, and what are they doing to support local people. Understandably, often times people feel awkward asking these questions. It’s ok, its a hard thing to do but a necessary step in revolutionizing tourism.
This is accomplished in a couple ways. First, the more people ask, the more agencies and companies will have to have good and real answers to these questions. They will have to be ready to show how they are supporting local people and fairly employing people. Be diplomatic and explain you are only asking to ensure you are contributing positively to the local people while also understanding that people are trying to make a living. When you see something that seems out of place, ask respectfully about it, talk to staff, workers, helpers about how they are treated and paid. Use your discretion and common sense to make sense of the situation.
Don’t hand out money: This is another really hard one, especially when traveling in developing or traditionally colonized countries. This is also one that I personally struggle with in my daily life. When someone is in need it is natural to want to help, I get it, but we have to think about the broader effects of that practice. I could write a whole post just about this, but in short we can never understand the cascading effect of acts like this on the individual, as well as the local dynamic or culture.
Here is some better practice ways of supporting if you feel a connection to a person or cause. For example, seek guidance from those local leaders we talked about earlier on how best to support it. How can we best reallocate resources (read: our privilege) to aid in community building? What can I do as an individual to play a part in the empowerment of local, indigenous, or marginalized people in the places I travel? Supporting these local organizations in their work is the single best way to make your travel revolutionary. If everyone who traveled to a place sought out responsible ways to support local orgs helping local people, tourism could become a powerful weapon in economic investment in indigenous communities around the world
Conclusion: These are just a few ways to transform your travel into a tool for revolution and change. In a future post we will discuss how the tourism industry as a whole can participate in the revolution of travel. We will talk about how we promote travel and work in communities as travel providers, taking a hard, honest look at how we do business.
At the end of the day travel should be fun and exciting, but it can be that and a positive influence in the world if we take the time to think about our choices and our practices as individuals and industries.