Traveling is one of the most expensive and enjoyable pastimes, and it is also one of the most privileged as well. Even if you are traveling on a super-low budget, you are still able to leave your job, get on a plane, and leave behind your cultural identity and upbringing in search of unique new experiences. However, not everyone has this opportunity.
Responsible Travel | How to Give Back to the Community When Traveling
The first step in responsible travel is to admit that you are in a privileged position. This hit home for us during a trip to Cambodia when a local shop owner was trying to sell me some goods. In an attempt to separate myself from the rabble, and inform him of my (dwindling) economic status, I told him, “I am not a rich tourist,” to which he replied, “My friend if you can travel to Cambodia for three weeks, you are a rich man.”
And it's true. Maybe I didn't have loads of money in my bank account, and maybe I was on a budget that would make a comfortable living impossible in a Western country, but at the end of the day I had left behind my responsibilities to explore his country, a luxury that he simply could not afford. I could walk the streets of Morocco for fun, while he may never get on a plane in his life. He is bound to his life-situation, whereas I am free to cast it aside for pleasure and growth. Concerned with day-to-day survival and the wellbeing of their loved ones, travel is simply not an option for most, especially in developing countries.
Knowing this, you should aim to have a positive impact on the communities that you visit. They are welcoming you into their home, and you should reciprocate by respecting their way of life, customs, and their economic situation. There are people in the world that need help, and you are able to step forward and give something back. Travel can be more than an act of consuming shop-bought experiences and packaged holiday tours. It can be a way of life that promotes universal values and global community.
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Rewards of Responsible Travel are Everywhere!
Responsible travel is also more rewarding, in my opinion, than a pre-packaged trip with a tour company. Staying in a mega-resort will only expose you to the world that you already know. It won't open your eyes to anything new, and it won't help you to understand and appreciate the country that you are visiting. Compare this to volunteering at a school in Africa or involving yourself with a small farm project in Peru and you will quickly see that more rewarding experiences arise when you actively involve yourself in the community. It's a win-win.
Steps of Responsible Travel
The first step to responsible travel is to take with you a general attitude of respect and sustainability. Be conscious of the environment in the same way you (hopefully) would be back home. Being in a new place is no reason to throw away your basic set of values. If anything, it gives you the chance to further cultivate a spirit of positive change. You can do this by remaining aware of the people and places around you, and by being polite and thankful towards locals as well as by making an effort to take care of the environment.
Consider yourself an ambassador for your country, building bridges of peace in the world. Look out for opportunities to help people in your daily life on the road, and always respect customs, traditions, and cultures. For example, dress modestly if this is the cultural norm in the society you are visiting. In other words, try to live more like a local so that you can understand their point of view and the world they live in.
How to Travel Responsibly?
Just like in “real life,” you should make every effort to reduce your carbon footprint as you travel. One way in which to do this is to travel slowly. Stay in one place for longer and walk around where possible rather than taking transport.
For longer journeys within the country, car-pooling is an awesome way to get around that shares the costs, financial and environmental, with other passengers as well as giving you the chance to meet travellers and locals. Spending time in nature can also lead to reduced environmental impact. Hiking and camping, for example, are excellent activities which do not have to lead to pollution.
Responsible Travel Activities
When it comes to travel activities, there are several considerations to be made. The first is known as the “leakage economy”. You may think that by spending money in a country you automatically help the economy of the local people, but this is simply not the case. The problem comes when tourism attracts foreign investment. Very little of this money actually reaches the local population.
To avoid lining the pockets of foreign investors, most of who have no concern for the country they are exploiting, avoid huge resorts and mega-companies and international hotel and hostel chains, instead opting for local guesthouses and home-grown businesses or big businesses who are actively and wholeheartedly involved in community projects.
Shopping and eating locally are the key. Choose small cafes or street food, such as a completo from local vendors near Vina del Mar in Chile, over McDonalds and Subway sandwiches. Take it one step further by heading to local markets or fisheries for your food. Buy souvenirs and gifts from talented artisans to help them make a living. Take tours with local guides and operators rather than organizing your trip with a multimillion dollar international company, and tip underpaid guides generously so that they can afford a meal at the end of it.
Remember, your tourist dollars can go a long way in an under-developed country, and parting with a small amount can make a significant difference to those who are struggling to earn a living wage. Choosing where and how to spend your money is one of the most important components of responsible travel.
Concerns you may face whilst Travelling
One of my major concerns is animal welfare. Many travellers who claim to be conscious and who would never knowingly harm an animal can be seen riding around on the back of an abused elephant in Thailand. In the quest for a new experience, it can be tempting to forsake your stance on animal welfare, just for a moment, while you swim around with imprisoned dolphins. If you really want to get up close and personal with exotic animals, do so only with a reputable sanctuary so that you’re spending has a positive impact, and so that you do not encourage a disgraceful industry to grow. Either that or leave your encounters up to chance and look for wild animals in their natural habitat.
Most of the advice so far has focused on cultivating a general mindset for responsible travel, avoiding exploitative activities and companies and spending money in places where locals will benefit. Doing so will take your travel adventures in a more positively impactful (and hopefully more interesting!) direction.
If you want to be even more deliberate about Responsible Travel, volunteering is one of the most direct ways you can give back to a community, and in my opinion, offers a depth of experience that cannot be gained with sightseeing and hostel-life alone.
You can volunteer on a range of projects around the world using sites like Workaway, Maximo Nivel, HelpX, and WWOOF. These sites give you a chance to connect with local hosts across a huge range of situations, from small homesteads and attempts at sustainable living to large community projects that aim to tackle issues like poverty, animal cruelty, and environmental concerns. It is very easy to get involved with these and to make use of your skills in order to benefit others. At the same time, you will have the chance to bond with people in a shared and meaningful way, eat food with them, and learn more about their way of life.
If you prefer a more organized and long-term arrangement, you may want to volunteer through an official organization, but you should always do your homework to see which ones are proponents of genuine, positive change.
Responsible travel is more rewarding in terms of your experience and helps you to have a positive impact wherever you go in the world. From conscious shopping that benefits local talent to opting for local eateries to volunteering, there are many ways to give back to the communities you visit. In my eyes, it is the only way to travel.
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