Once the world opens up again, it will be vital to travel more responsibly and sustainably.
Sustainable travel is not one genre of travel, nor is it a set of criteria; it is a mindset that can be applied to every trip. Having a positive impact could mean being more discerning about where we go, favouring destinations with strong environmental credentials, and places that put locals first.
By choosing a specific tour, hotel or operator, we can show solidarity with a marginalised part of society, or champion places suffering from a natural or human-made disaster. In cities, our choice of hotel might help to fund green innovations, or we could help to break down prejudices on a migrant tour. We can even use our travels to help save a species from extinction.
Sharing a meal with strangers, or catching a glimpse of an indigenous ritual – it is meaningful interactions with people that often make travel experiences life-changing.
There are plenty of experiences that connect travellers and communities. This could be through visiting a locally owned lodge or a homestay. But is this enough? According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, only five dollars of every $100 (£72) spent in developing countries stay in its economy.
The most exemplary responsible travel experiences do more than foster connections; they make communities stronger and help people to become financially and socially independent.
Learning from one another and exchanging skills is a great way to foster genuine connections. Skill-sharing also has a much more profound positive impact than token volunteering experiences.
Before embarking on any form of volunteering, contemplate what your most valuable skill is, and explore where and how to share it with those that need it most. Look for specialist organisations that set up placements for specific professions, or turn to charities that advertise skill shortages. For example, in Nepal, there’s a shortage of psychologists to deal with child-trauma and human-trafficking victims.
Building a school and digging a well are just some of the activities that would have once been celebrated as responsible travel success stories. Today, however, “voluntourism” has a murkier reputation. Travellers could be taking away a much-needed local source of income.
Worse still, they could be complicit in corruption. The most extreme example of this is orphanage tourism. It is estimated that of the eight million or so children living in institutions worldwide, more than 80 per cent have at least one living parent. Many are coerced into orphanages to make money from tourists.
Responsible tourism can best uplift communities by creating economic opportunities. Rather than simply generating custom, travel companies need to support and facilitate enterprise – funding entrepreneurs, reaching out to communities with ideas, and guaranteeing a sustainable level of custom. Find out from the tourist board which locally owned enterprises you should support.
Wherever you are in the world, there will be marginalised groups of people struggling to make their voice and needs heard. Tourism is well placed to help. In many destinations, travellers bring open minds eager to listen to and understand different perspectives. Some of the most successful examples are those that address gender inequalities and uplift women, which has a positive knock-on effect because women are more likely to invest in education and community infrastructure.
“Impact travel” is a new breed of trip that gives back. Look for organisations or companies creating travel experiences that address a tangible need, whether building community infrastructure or delivering medical supplies. These experiences should be tailored; avoid generic approaches.
Some platforms connect travellers with meaningful ways to give back, including Visit.org, Backstreet Academy and Airbnb Social Impact Experiences. US-based Impact Travel Alliance shares regular inspiration for how to travel to support poverty alleviation and equality.
Throughout remote regions such as Bhutan’s Ura Valley and India’s Pindar Valley, hiking company Village Ways works with each village to help develop a tourism enterprise that the village then owns.
Other successful examples include Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco, which is now managed by the local Berber community, and Fordhall Farm Yurts in Shropshire, which is owned by 8,000 local shareholders. In British Colombia, Spirit Bear Lodge is owned by the First Nation Kitasoo Xai’xais people.
Tourism has a “leakage” problem. Money spent in a destination often leaves the country to go into the hands of international businesses. Be part of the solution by injecting your money in locally owned business. In an ideal scenario, travellers would support lodges and tour operators that are either owned by local individuals or a whole community. In some destinations, there’s not the local infrastructure to support all forms of tourism.
Community tourism – the dos and don’ts
When community tourism isn’t managed responsibly, it can do more harm than good. Here are some things to consider before booking an experience:
- Community tourism mustn’t be voyeuristic. If a community or indigenous people aren’t benefitting from their stories and culture being shared, it’s exploitation.
- Guides should always be local.
- If a situation wouldn’t be comfortable at home, it isn’t comfortable abroad either.
- Always ask permission to take photos and do so respectfully.
- If in doubt, ask: how would I feel in this situation if the tables were turned?
- Always follow local advice on interactions and cultural sensitivity.
- Never disrupt school lessons.
Over 40 per cent of travellers identify themselves as “cultural tourists”. This form of travel can be positive for tourists, locals and heritage. Immersing yourself in a new culture forges connections, expands worldviews and increases understanding.
Tourism can also fund the protection of heritage. Safeguarding culture can be vital for the health of our planet, too. Respecting and uplifting more traditional, rural ways of life can challenge urban migration and the destruction of landscapes. But tourism is a double-edged sword. Last year, approximately 10 million tourists visited the most popular section of the Great Wall of China and nearly 20 million visitors explored Venice.
Rather than following the crowds, we can use our travels to help lesser-known heritage sites or a marginalised culture. To do so, we need to seek historical sites that would be destroyed if not for tourism, and support social enterprises that help traditions to thrive.
World Heritage Journeys, a partnership between Unesco and National Geographic, is a platform promoting lesser-known cultural tourism projects that have a positive impact across Europe and Asia.
Despite making up just 5 per cent of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Supporting indigenous lives is a vital part of protecting our planet, and tourism can do its bit. Either the travel industry provides financial or in-kind support to ensure the protection of land rights, or it connects tourists with indigenous people that want to share their story.
(Story source: Inews)