Responsible travel is a term frequently used by brands and those in marketing, but what does it really mean? Why is it important to consumers? How can you be responsible when you travel? Every tour company has its own definition, but this one from Intrepid Travel’s responsible business page sums it up best:
- Using public transport where possible
- Staying in smaller-scale locally owned accommodation where possible
- Buying locally produced food and drink, and purchasing souvenirs from local artisans
- Spreading the economic benefits by patronising a range of suppliers
- Minimising plastic waste where possible
- Careful management of limited energy and water resources
- Offering real life experiences which promote cross-cultural understanding
- Avoiding the exploitation of the vulnerable – including women, children, animals and endangered species
To me, responsible travel means being knowledgeable about how your tourism dollars are being spent. Are you supporting an oppressive government? Are you buying souvenirs from kids that are kept out of school in order to work? Are you supporting unfair labor practices? These are the things you should think about anytime you get your passport stamped. This resources page on Transitions Abroad is a good place to start your research.
Find Out What Companies Stand For
It’s more than just booking the best deal at a hotel, on an airline, or with a tour company. You should consider what these travel companies and operators stand for. Visit the website of any of your favorite companies and they should have a page about what they stand for. This might be how they try to be environmentally friendly, the ways their employees give back to their communities or the labor practices they support.
I’ve written about some of the companies I love in the past, but I want to mention them again here. World Nomads, a travel insurance provider, allows people to add a few extra dollars to their purchase to support Footprints, their projects around the world with groups like CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, and Water Aid. Intrepid Travel supports NGOs worldwide through The Intrepid Foundation while G Adventures has their Planterra Foundation. Intrepid is also a carbon neutral company, offsetting the impact of their tours. G Adventures supports animal welfare in all of their tours. Airlines even offer carbon offsetting programs to redo some of the damage done by long haul travel.
On my first day in Puerto Plata, I got to do my first impact activity: working with a local organization to dig up previously planted seedlings and replant them in larger containers. The palm, mangrove ft and sea grape will later be transferred to one of four areas to reforest them, helping create clean air and prevent erosion. In our few hours, the group planted over 400! It was so rewarding to literally get my hands dirty as I broke nails and filled bags with compost and manure. A country girl I’m not, but I’m so glad I did this project with @fathomtravel. ????????????
Voluntourism and What It Means
There’s been a rise in volunteering while you travel, termed “voluntourism,” in the past few years from well-meaning travelers. I myself am someone who wants to give back when I can but it’s easy to do in a way that serves you more than the people you’re trying to help. I’ve made the same mistake when I went to volunteer in northern Thailand. I spent a week with children who never saw me again. Did they learn anything from me? Or was it just an opportunity to be around cute kids? Years later, I’ve realized that I wasn’t really helping as much as I thought I was. For more of what I’m talking about, read my friend (and frequent volunteer) Flora’s post on working with children.
Working with animals is also tricky. It’s easy to pose with a baby animal that you are feeding, but with many of these creatures, it’s best to stay away. Human contact means that they won’t be able to survive as well in the wild, which is why you aren’t allowed contact with the orangutans at places like Matang Wildlife Centre. What most animal sanctuaries need from volunteers is manual labor and donations of the materials they need to survive like towels and food. And believe me, it’s hard work, as I learned when I spent a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, where many people end up volunteering for months at a time. It’s the hardest work you’ll ever love.
I recently spent a week traveling with Fathom, a new cruise company that incorporates social good and impact with a vacation. While there is plenty of talk about the environmental downsides of cruising, the labor practices of many cruise companies, and whether or not they actually provide jobs and money to the areas they visit, I mostly went to see if their volunteering program was what it claimed to be. I was certainly hesitant about some of the impact activities, namely teaching English to children in schools, but needed more information. What I learned was that it was the communities and on the ground organizations that decided what the needs were. Fathom just provides the volunteers.
A term that Fathom uses resonated with me: “alongsidedness.” We aren’t here to “save” the people in third world countries. They don’t necessarily want us to save them. It’s about joining together to better the community. For the Fathom trip, that meant planting seedlings to become trees, helping to provide cleaner oxygen and prevent landslides. Pouring concrete floors in family homes to prevent illnesses from flooding. Making clay water filters to cut down on water-borne illnesses from contaminated streams. Recycling paper and making products for single moms to sell to support their children. It’s about using your abilities to work alongside these communities.
How You Can Really Help
If you want to give back when you travel, find the right organizations to work with. Make sure they are run by a governing body. You might be asked to pay a fee, but make sure this organization is willing to tell you where the money goes. My friend Connie was scammed by a so-called charity organization in Nepal and shares her insights to making sure you find the right one.
Also, consider the fact that you being there isn’t always helpful for these places. Unless you’re prepared to do manual labor, many organizations won’t want your help. Unskilled volunteers actually hold back these organizations and can do more harm than good. As good as you may feel when you’re there, if you didn’t actually help, what was the point? In every volunteer experience I’ve had, there was at least one person who wasn’t there to do the work. Instead, what you may be needed for is fundraising or telling your friends and family back home about the organization in question. Follow your strengths, whether that be construction, languages, or fundraising.
It’s not just about the Instagram photos. Volunteering in third world countries can quickly enter the situation of poverty porn or slum tourism where people go just to pose for photos with people that look different. Ensure that your intention is to actually do work, even if you may not immediately see the result of it. When I worked on water filters, it was hard to do the work without seeing the look on someone’s face when they received one. Don’t make it about you. You should also be willing to spend time in a place, especially if you’re working with children. One day or week isn’t beneficial to these kids, who take some time to open up.
Organizations to Support
There are countless organizations you can support, depending on what you’re passionate about, but I wanted to mention a few that are close to my heart.
- Vayando is run by my friend Jason and it pairs up travelers with local entrepreneurs and artisans in Costa Rica, Rwanda, and Uganda to learn about what they do best. It provides you a chance to see the communities and the real people that live in them
- Kiva connects people around the world for loans for their businesses, whether that’s buying agricultural products for a farm or to replace parts on a taxi. It’s not a handout, as you’ll receive the money you loan back.
- FLYTE is short for the Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education, run by my friend Matt. The organization allows students to travel who might not otherwise have been able to afford it. The first trip brought a school group from Atlanta to Mexico!
- Earthwatch Institute supports projects around the world with wildlife and the environment. This might mean working on shark conservation in Belize or going on an archeological dig in Tuscany.
- Wine to Water is an organization I made water filters with in the Dominican Republic. They work around the world to find clean water in communities, whether that’s making water filters or digging wells. They also sell wine as a fundraiser. is an organization I made water filters with in the Dominican Republic. They work around the world to find clean water in communities, whether that’s making water filters or digging wells. They also sell wine as a fundraiser.
How do you travel responsibly? What organizations are you passionate about?
I was a guest of Fathom on one of their inaugural cruises to the Dominican Republic, but my experiences shared here are my own. I’ll be discussing the Fathom experience in upcoming posts.