Eleanor Scott looks at what responsible travel entails and how implementing practices through research and purpose into our adventures can empower local communities.
Words By Eleanor Scott
In recent years environmentally conscious travel has gone from a small niche to a prevalent force in the entire travel industry. This is undeniably a change for the better, however, while sustainable travel is an incredibly important aspect of responsible tourism, it’s not the only aspect. Considering the social and economic effects on local cultures and communities is just as imperative.
Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. As such, it’s also one of the key drivers of global trade and prosperity, particularly in developing countries. According to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), “Tourism is the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the world’s 48 least developed countries”. And while local communities should gain the most from their own tourism industry, a 2013 WTO report states that for every $100USD spent on vacation by a tourist from a developed country only around $5USD actually stays in that destination. The rest ends up in the hands of “airlines, hotels, and other international companies”. To combat this, travellers need to make spending decisions based not only on sustainability concerns but also on redistributing funds to local economies and cultures.
“The travelling community has power in its numbers. As individual global citizens we can each control our own footprint, but as a collective, we can enact change”
—Donna Lawrence, World Expeditions
Large organisations like World Expeditions hope to make those choices easier. Their small tours are specifically designed to benefit local communities, and some also provide carbon neutral options through the purchasing of carbon credits to offset air travel. More importantly, whether you book a tour with them or not, they also act as a great resource for “thoughtful travel” by running educational events and providing free guides that are geared towards awareness of responsible travel.
“The travelling community has power in its numbers. As individual global citizens we can each control our own footprint, but as a collective, we can enact change,” explains Donna Lawrence, World Expeditions’ Responsible Travel Manager. “How we choose to allocate our travel spend can have far-reaching consequences, beyond our personal experiences, with the power to make important differences to the lives of others. It can bring all sorts of opportunities to people.”
“Even when you’re on a small budget, every activity you take part in, all the places you stay or eat in, present an opportunity to support the local economy and culture.”
However, while operators like World Expeditions have their place, they aren’t always accessible or feasible for the common traveller due to high costs. One of the myths of responsible, environmentally conscious travel is that it has to be expensive. But even when you’re on a small budget, every activity you take part in, all the places you stay or eat in, present an opportunity to support the local economy and culture. “Travel with companies that employ local people,” advises Lawrence. “Buy local handicrafts, eat local food and stay in locally run accommodation.”
Before even arriving at a destination, travellers can make choices that will impact how much money stays within the region. Kind Traveller is a great example. Founded in 2016, the hotel booking platform offers discounts to users when they make a minimum $10 a night donation to a charity that is connected to the hotel and benefits the local neighbourhood. And, while it may feel overwhelming, a little extra pre-trip research time looking for on-the-ground organisations and initiatives is always worth the effort. All over the world there are an incredibly diverse array of changemakers creating a new paradigm for positive travel in their regions.
Fundación En Vía run tours in the Tlacolula Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico that aim to meaningfully connect travellers with locals. They then use the cost of the tours to provide interest-free loans that finance female-owned businesses and education in those same areas. In Kenya, the Maji Moto Cultural Camp turns an often exploitative model of ‘commercial authenticity’ on its head by providing a genuine culturally immersive stay that is about more than entertainment. Travellers learn about and experience the local Maasai culture through a variety of activities and traditions, while a portion of every tour price goes to support local projects, which include land conservation, protecting young women from early marriages, and providing vulnerable children with scholarships so that they can attend school.
“There are so many opportunities for travellers to prioritise local communities. Simply arming yourself with knowledge and purpose is an important step in the right direction.”
Less structured options are also available. Last year Tourism Cares and the Jordan Tourism Board launched the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan – an informative guide documenting 12 tourism focused non-profit organisations or social enterprises across the country. Each one provides a “quality cultural experience for travellers” and also has a program that directly benefits a disadvantaged population. “Our people and communities have as much to offer as our heritage, and the good news is that you don’t have to choose,” says Ms Lina Annab, Jordan’s Minister of Tourism & Antiquities. “You can make a special difference just by coming.”
There are so many opportunities for travellers to prioritise local communities. Simply arming yourself with knowledge and purpose is an important step in the right direction. However, truly responsible travel requires time and commitment from both industry providers and travellers to actively move toward experiences that empower, rather than exploit, the countries they visit. “The natural environments that we travel through are fragile; the cultures and traditions precious,” says World Expeditions’ Donna Lawrence. “Often the communities we pass through are reliant on tourism. It is our responsibility as visitors to minimise the impact of our presence, protect what is precious and, where we can, leave a positive impact.”
The author and publisher have no affiliation with any of the organisations in this article, we simply enjoy promoting those who we think are doing important work. We champion photographers who explore our planet and employ responsible travel in a thoughtful and meaningful manner.
Cover image—Katrina Jane Perry