We’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world and work with incredible artisans in many different countries. One of the things that we’re very mindful of, and pay particular attention to, is ‘how’ we travel. We consider the environmental and social impact that we have on the countries that we visit and make every effort to contribute to the local economy in positive ways.
Today, the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products and even automobiles. Tourism has become a major player in international commerce, and at the same time, represents one of the main sources of income for many developing countries.
When we hear about “sustainable travel” we often think of eco-tourism and sometimes the two words are used interchangeably. But what’s the difference?
To simplify, ecotourism involves travelling to a specific ecological environment, with the goal of making an active difference when you’re there. It’s more tied into nature, fauna, wildlife, and local cultures, and eco-tourists are often travelling deliberately to make a difference.
Sustainable travel, on the other hand, can be applied to any type of travel – it’s about applying the best practices of sustainability to the different aspects of travelling, and ensuring that as you go about your global adventures, you aren’t contributing to the demise of the planet. But the human side of sustainability, as defined by the World Tourism Organization, addresses community impact, both social and economic. Basically, eco-tourism is only a part of the sustainable tourism puzzle because sustainability has a positive impact not only on the environment, but also on the culture and economy of the country you’re visiting.
Social impact travel aims to ensure that money spent on a tour or a trip stays in the community. Travel is a vital source of income for developing nations, where it ranks as the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the 48 least developed countries in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization. Yet a report published in 2013 noted that just over $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country actually stays in that destination.
The question then becomes, how do we travel sustainably?
There are many new non-profit organizations, tour operators and tourism boards that are creating innovative and sustainable travel options. Among the new developments, the Jordan Tourism Board has created the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan, which highlights 12 social enterprises in the country. These include: a Bedouin camp stay, a women’s weaving group and village tours that support local entrepreneurs. In 2017, the tour company Collette started Impact Travel Tours, whose tours focus half the time on sightseeing and the other half the time visiting community-based improvement projects. In 2018, the safari company andBeyond introduced philanthropic-focused itineraries in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Organizations promoting sustainable travel emphasize not just the big “feel-good do-good trips”, but set out to educate travellers on how to think mindfully about even their smallest decisions, such as eating at a locally run restaurant, or buying crafts directly from the artisans that make them.
Every time you book an accommodation, transportation, go out for a meal, or even go grocery shopping, you have a chance to spend your money in meaningful ways that positively impact the local economy.
“Leaving money in the community is such an important way to have a huge impact. The ripple effect, particularity for women, girls and the environment, demonstrates the power of travel, ” says Paula Vlamings, the CEO of Tourism Cares. Tourism Cares is a non-profit that represents the tourism industry. Among their initiatives is a program called Good Travels that trains advisers and travel agents who specialize in socially responsible travel experiences.
What we noticed about sustainable trips is that they are more often than not unaffordable because they’re priced as luxury vacations. These unaffordable price points is what prompted the launch of Giving Way, which is a platform that links volunteers directly to NGOs, cutting out the costly intermediaries that often link the two. As founder Ortis Strauss says “ Volunteering should be accessible to everyone, not just a rich man’s privilege.” Giving Way now works with nearly 2,000 organizations in over 100 different countries.
There are so many meaningful initiatives out there, both big and small, that make a significant impact. For example, Kind Traveler, launched in 2016 with the goal of making each trip, no matter how short, an opportunity to improve local lives. It’s an innovative hotel booking platform that offers discounted rooms to travellers who make a minimum $10 donation to a charity affiliated with their hotel. Hotels that are a part of this platform are carefully selected and are vetted for their sustainable practices, including both their environmental and community impacts.
Our Recent Trip To Jamaica:
Take for an example our recent trip to Jamaica. Our team travelled to this beautiful island and the purpose of our trip was two-fold: to unplug and have a little down time AND to work on creating content, and finalizing our stragetic plan for the next three years. And oh ya, we were also trying to dodge the insane snow storms that have been plaguing our city ... -30 degrees ... no thanks!
Our first decision after booking our flights was where to stay. Now, most people who travel to Jamaica stay in massive all inclusive resorts that are foreign owned. While local people are employed by the resorts, they are often treated horribly and paid wages that barely allow them to feed themselves, let alone their families. Pay is often withheld, overtime is rarely paid and in general this type of employment does very little to help individuals get out of poverty. The more well-paying managerial positions at these resorts are almost always occupied by foreigners. Other problems with all-inclusives are the disgusting amount of food that is wasted on a daily basis and the overall negative environmental impact they have, including the destruction of local ecosystems, the extreme amount of pollution they create, and the dumping of garbage and sewage water into oceans.
Another common problem is that resorts encourage travellers not to leave the grounds, often citing that it is ‘ unsafe’, and then tell tourists that in order to be safe they need to use one of the tour companies or transportation companies associated with the resort (again, often foreign owned and exploiting the labour of local people). The problem is, when tourist don’t leave the resort, they don’t spend any money in support of local businesses.
For all these reasons (and more) we decided to rent our accommodation from a local family. This ensures that the money we’re spending is actually helping the local economy.
Our next decision was what will we eat? We mostly cooked for ourselves (having a kitchen is another bonus when you rent a local guest-house), but we were mindful of where we bought our groceries. Many of the supermarkets (particularly those that cater to the specific food tastes of tourists) are foreign owned. Instead, we opted to do our shopping at the local vegetable and fruit markets in town, where the farmers go to sell their produce. We made every effort to buy our food directly from those who grow it. However, we also made a point of eating out so that we could try the delicious local cuisine and support small restaurants that are locally owned and operated.
Instead of travelling with one of our photographers, we decided to seek out a local photographer and models, to ensure we were spending money locally and investing in local talent. Instead of renting a car, we take public transportation or hire a local self-employed driver when needed. These may seem like small decisions with little impact, but it really adds up. The money we spend, when spent in the right places, can be impactful.
We volunteer at a local orphanage when we come to Jamaica. On our off days we like to spend time with kids showering them with attention and love. We donate items that are needed at the orphanage (diapers is a big one) and make every effort to buy these items locally when possible.
This is just an example, but there are many more ways that we can support local economies when we travel and ensure that money stays in the country that we are visiting. These small decisions can help to affect real change, both in terms of the human and environmental impact.
It’s really very simple (none of this has to be complicated); every dollar you spend is important, and all it takes is stopping for a second and asking yourself a few questions: How will my actions affect the local environment? How can I be mindful of the way I’m spending my money? By spending my money here am I helping the local economy? Will the money I am spending stay in the local economy. What can I do to help while I’m here?
Stray & Wander Team