A few dollars here, a few dollars there. Does how you spend your money when you travel really matter? Is it possible to align your travel approach and spending decisions with your values?
In the first part of this series, The Importance of People in Travel, we explored the relationship between people and the travel experience and we spoke of serendipity and human connections. In this segment, we talk deliberate decisions and the potential impact of our travel purchases on the communities we visit, and on the world.
Goofing with local kids having breakfast in Tarija, Bolivia.
One Billion Travelers
The U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projects that more than one billion people will cross borders for the purposes of tourism in 2012.
Think about it: one billion!
Particularly in the developing world, the potential of travelers to positively impact local communities through their tourism dollars is huge. But so is the risk of tourism development done poorly, running rampant over local cultures, local economies and the environment.
The upshot: Tourism can absolutely be a force for good, but it may also be a force for harm. Anything of such magnitude can cut both ways.
The beauty is that we travelers have a choice; we have the power to vote with our feet, to exercise the power of the purse.
Note: In September we spoke at two sustainable and ecotourism conferences (ESTC and GSTC). Earlier this year we spoke at G Adventures’ The Future of Tourism on interconnection between travel, technology, humanity and sustainable tourism. Our own words and the reaction of conference-goers underscored the grounding force in our approach to travel and the focus of our work within the tourism industry: people.
This is the second part in a series in which we focus on the connection between how travelers can align their purchasing decisions with their values and have an impact on local communities. If you missed the first part of the series, check out Tourism, It’s the People’s Business.
The Power of Travelers’ Choices
First, to the cynics. It’s easy to dismiss the weight of our purchasing decisions like our votes in political elections, to say “it doesn’t matter,” particularly in the face of our ever-busier lives. Who has time to figure it all out, after all? We can’t answer that second question — it’s up to you. But what we choose to do and how we choose to do it does matter, particularly in the aggregate.
To prove this to yourself, try an exercise. Go back through your travel memories and think about a local shopkeeper or food vendor from whom you bought something. Anywhere. Then tell me your purchase didn’t matter to them. It’s small, arguably, but it matters. Then take that effect and amplify it through all decisions and purchases — and understand that’s how the world of tourism ends up the way it does, for better or for worse.
An impromptu local snack on the streets of Srimongal, Bangladhesh
A friend recently asked after hearing us speak about making travel decisions: “Do you really make conscious decisions about where to spend your money?”
We do, but it’s not always easy.
There are the in-the-moment decisions on the ground that speak to an approach to travel and spending money locally. Then there are the decisions made, often in planning, of booking travel services and experiences. Both are an exercise in deliberate spending.
Spend Locally, Connect Locally
We think back to that visit to Myanmar (Burma). Because of a conscious decision to visit the country at that time, we were exceptionally cautious regarding where our money went during the visit. Why? Our goal was to put as much money in the hands of local people while keeping it out of the hands of the junta government.
We deliberately chose small, family-run places to stay and have meals. We tried to visit as many shops and restaurants as possible to spread around the money we’d spent. As a consequence of this approach, we met and connected with so many people, we listened to their stories and we came away not only with memorable experiences, but also ones that continue to inform our view of the country as its current sociopolitical events unfold. When we talk about Myanmar, we share the stories of people we met more than we’ll ever wax long about its stunning gilded Buddhist stupas.
A waitress at a local restaurant in Mandalay does her best not to laugh…at us.
The concept here is fundamental: when you spread your travel resources around with a focus on the community you are visiting, the more that community benefits. Perhaps that seems obvious, perhaps not.
More subtle is this: your experience will also be the better for it. Spending and connecting locally is not only about feel-good altruism, but it can also heighten and improve your overall travel experience. Ethical, responsible travel is no longer a zero sum game. We don’t have to give up anything to get something more.
A lesson in smoked bats in Bagan, Burma.
The reward is built-in. And isn’t that what we’re after?
Aligning Values with Travel Spending Decisions
The impact of our travel decisions on local economies and individual people is not only about spending money in local shops and in locally owned accommodation. It’s about voting with our feet, rewarding good product and making deliberate decisions, like choosing tours and travel experiences that reflect our values.
If technology has enabled nothing else, it has flooded us with options and information to sift through that can inform — and at times complicate and confuse — our choices. Information is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can easily overwhelm, making us feel like it’s impossible to separate the signal from the noise. Technology now allows us to read reviews, ask questions directly of companies, and connect with past customers, even in real time. By no means is this travel feedback loop foolproof, but our growing access to information provides us with more transparency and a better ability to evaluate our options and find the ones that work best in terms of our desired experience.
We recall, several years ago, searching for companies to climb volcanoes with in Nicaragua. We had ample choice of tour companies in Leon, one of the setting-off points for Nicaragua’s volcano hikes. Through social media, we found and opted to hike with Quetzal Trekkers. Their tours featured comparable options to others and were similarly priced, but 100% of the profits funded a school to support street kids. That made the difference for us, and because of that, that’s where we chose to put our money. The personal satisfaction of scaling volcanoes was rounded out by knowing that the money we spent would go to help local street kids.
Similarly, when we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last year with G Adventures, we had a lot of support, as in at least three people per climber. We knew our porters were covered by insurance, wore proper gear, and were members of a fair-wage union for local porters.
Even though we didn’t see everyone who’d helped us ascend, we felt their support every step of the way up the mountain — our stuff was always waiting for us at the next resting stop, filling meals were served each night, everything worked smoothly. And while they were vested in making certain we make it safely to the top of the mountain, they were even more vested in supporting their families and sending their children to school.
Tourism executed responsibly by all involved in the chain strung together by our values, that’s what allows to complete the circle.
Sustainable Tourism: Does It Cost More?
That sustainable tourism must cost more — should cost more — is one of the great false dichotomies in modern travel marketing.
Sometimes it may cost more to get the experience you want, but it doesn’t always have to. All our experiences with horse treks, guides and yurt-stays with Community Based Tourism (CBT) in Kyrgyzstan were of similar price, if not less, than what other companies offered. The difference was that CBT Kyrgyzstan kept the money and training local.
Similarly, there are reports of plenty of “sustainable” safari experiences in Africa that don’t offer an ounce of respect, support or protection to their employees or to animals, but still cost more than comparable tours. This has to make you wonder — where exactly is that money going?
Sometimes, the rationale for the higher price tag is readily apparent. When we were in Bangladesh, it was more expensive to spend the night with a family in a Bangladeshi village as part of a homestay program rather than at a cheap hotel in town. We are as budget minded as it comes in travel, but for the experience, we’re glad to pay a reasonable difference. The rural homestay offered a unique experience whose proceeds supported a young woman’s university education and community classes teaching life skills, professional skills and awareness of environmental impact.
Girls night in: Henna hands in a Bangladesh village.
This is the tourism win-win. When we make travel purchase decisions in line with our values (i.e., we know where our money is going and whom it benefits), the resulting experiences are not only ones we feel good about, but also ones that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Do you think your travel purchasing decisions can make a difference? How?