I am a huge advocate for sustainability in global health. If you want to learn more about global health and what it means to have a sustainable practice, check out my global health posts here! But what about sustainable travel? What if you can make a difference during your travels simply by choosing where to eat or where to book your tour? Sustainable tourism— in short, supporting the community you are visiting.
First let’s talk about volunteering.
Volunteering abroad is great… sometimes. But sometimes it can actually do more harm than good. Paying to volunteer on short term projects can actually take away work from locals that need the job (Social Impact of Volunteerism). Abandoned children in orphanages form bonds with visiting volunteers and are left traumatized yet again when they leave (Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies). People are harmed from complications due to volunteers performing medical procedures without any sort of medical background (New England Journal of Medicine).
This isn’t to say that all volunteering is bad, it is just important to think about the long term consequences that your footprint can leave. Finding ethical and sustainable programs to volunteer with is so incredibly important. It is easy to think that solving a problem such as delivering clean water has a simple solution because we live in a country where clean water is just expected. However, this is absolutely not the case. Just because it comes easily in a developed country does not mean that it is an easy fix in a developing country. Understanding your limitations and thinking about the big picture is essential.
Knowing what your volunteering means.
Maybe the thousands of dollars that are spent traveling to a developing country for a week to do ‘mission work’ could be better spent. I struggled with this when I went to Guatemala to volunteer as an EMT during college. The money I spent on flights and actually paying to volunteer could have gone directly to the clinic that I worked at to make a much bigger impact. Just me doing my measly little tasks as an EMT wasn’t really helping. If anything, I was slowing down the nurses that were a lot more efficient. However, it did spark my passion for global health and my drive to go back as a physician when I will actually be able to help shorten the line of patients desperately needing healthcare.
Volunteering can broaden perspectives and spark passion in people to actually make a difference in the world. Going on a short term volunteer trip is amazing for that purpose. It cultivates a sense of urgency and a deeper care for people around the world. AND, there are definitely companies out there that promote sustainable practices if you want to go volunteer somewhere! More on this later… but now back to sustainable travel. How you can do your part even when you’re just traveling primarily for your own personal benefit?
What is sustainable travel?
You don’t have to go volunteer abroad somewhere to make a difference in the world. In fact, you actually might be able to make MORE of a difference by purchasing your latte at a local coffee shop and putting your cash directly into the local economy. Sustainable travel at it’s roots. Many developing countries rely on tourism as their main source of jobs and income. According to the World Travel and Tourism Counsel’s 2017 report, the travel industry contributes to 7.6 trillion US$ (about 10%) to the world GDP and creates over 292 million jobs world wide. This is roughly 1 in 10 jobs around the world. In developing countries that rely on tourism, this fraction is even higher.
But how do you make sure that your money is being put directly into the local economy? Do your research and seek out businesses that act as a social enterprise for their country. Businesses that are for-profit, but are working hard to help their country and culture grow. Some good news: National Geographic Traveler of the Year, Shannon O’Donnell (alittleadrift.com) has already done some of this research for you.
Supporting Social Enterprise
Shannon is one of my favorite travel bloggers and a huge advocate for sustainable volunteering and travel. She founded the organization Grassroots Volunteering, a database full of volunteer opportunities and social enterprises that are ethical and sustainable. She has put a lot of research into what it means to be ethical and sustainable while traveling. To start, head on over to Grassroots Volunteering to check out the database of local companies she and other GV ambassadors have discovered. Some of these small businesses aren’t online, so GV is working hard to seek them out and put them on the map.
But how can YOU personally seek out these companies on your travels? Talk to locals! Do some exploring. Stay away from tourist-traps and venture around to find a place to eat. The way I see it, this way is a win win win. Small business restaurants are typically cheaper than the tourist traps (win for you). You are supporting the local economy this way (win for them). AND, you get to do some adventuring and exploring to find a new place to eat (another win!). Book your tours when you get to the place you are visiting or do some research online. This isn’t to say that booking US run companies is bad, but you can be more confident that your money is being put into the local economy if you seek out businesses run by locals that live there.
Seek adventure and read travel blogs.
Someone once told me, stay away from restaurants that show pictures of their food outside… these are usually tourist traps. I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I really think that it is true! Typically, the ‘tourist-trap’ restaurants are smack dab in the center of the main attractions of a city. If you walk down an adjacent street, the pictures become more sparse. Turn down another street, and the pictures of food are gone! Granted, some of these places aren’t necessarily bad and are also relying on tourists for business too. But why not seek out and support smaller businesses that aren’t getting as much traffic. You might find a hidden gem that the locals love! And you can be a little more confident that your money is more likely going to the right place.
Another way you can prepare for a trip is to read travel blogs! The travel blogs that I love to read are written by people that seek out adventure and passionate companies when they travel. Definitely check out A Little Adrift, Polkadot Passport and Young Adventuress, to name a few. The bottom line is to seek out companies (restaurants, tours, places to stay, etc.) that will have the biggest impact on the local economy you are visiting. But alas, the advice I always give is to take everything with a grain of salt. Do your own research, only accept credible information, and follow your gut!
This is definitely just one tiny piece to a very large puzzle. There are so many more factors to consider to contribute to sustainable travel. For more posts about sustainable travel, subscribe to my emails or follow me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter!