Travel With a Purpose
Through a friends’ Instagram photos of a recent trip to Tanzania or by paging through the World tab on the New York Times’ website, we are constantly introduced to people from all over the world. Countries once unknown to us are populated with unique faces, names and stories that we access and see daily. This humanization of faraway places has inspired an ethical way of traveling, interested more in leaving behind positive impacts than enjoying a traditional, relaxing holiday. Below, I will explore the importance of traveling ethically, and offer some tips as you search for a more immersive experience on your next trip overseas.
When traveling, you will inevitably impact the place you visit in both positive and negative ways. Those impacts are not always painfully obvious which makes it hard to know exactly how to go about traveling in a more ethical way. Here are a few things I often remind myself:
1. Do your research
Rather than thinking of a holiday as an escape from your own life, think of it as a visit into someone else’s. Being up to speed on local news will help you incorporate habits local people practice daily into your own routine when you arrive. Each place you visit comes with different quirks that you are responsible for learning about before you arrive. For example, if you plan on visiting a place like Cape Town, South Africa, knowing about the ongoing water crisis will better prepare you to conserve water throughout your trip.
2. Vote with your dollar
Buying a product from a person or a place implies agreement with what that product is or how it is made. While traveling, what you choose to spend money on will influence what people will sell. In Laos, for instance, the night market in Luang Prabang has many vendors selling the same factory-made pants and scarves. Venturing off to remote villages like Sop Chem in the North, however, you will find similar scarves that local women weave by hand. By choosing to purchase a handmade scarf from the woman who constructed it, you not only empower her as an entrepreneur, but also create a demand for ethically-made clothes. Thinking critically about what you spend your money on will help you be more aware as you travel.
3. Leave more handprints than footprints
Everywhere you went today you left behind footprints without even realizing it. When traveling, the footprints you leave behind are the negative consequences of living in a space: using resources, creating waste, etc. Handprints are things you choose to leave behind; an intentional representation of your time spent in a place. Whether it is reducing the amount of plastic you leave behind by carrying around a reusable water bottle, or donating your time to a volunteer initiative, handprints leave behind lasting positive change. Footprints are inevitable, but the negative effects they leave behind can be cancelled out by a flurry of intentional handprints.
Service work abroad
After incorporating a sustainable attitude to your travel routine, you may feel inspired to leave an even bigger handprint on the community you travel to. Volunteer organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide easy access to development projects that you can participate in for a few days or even a few months. When trying to find an organization to volunteer with, it is important to think critically about the sustainability of their work to ensure the project has the best interest of the people they work with in mind.
An NGO can very easily replicate the attitude of Western cultural domination by putting its values above traditional ones, importing its own ideas about how life should be lived as a "better" alternative. Organizations that force their ideas upon others fail to respect the cultural identity of the people they are meant to be helping. Without respect for their cultural identity, sustainable change is hard to achieve.
Alternatively, there are NGOs like GIVE Volunteers, who promote a grassroots-focused model called asset-based community development. In this practice, local knowledge and resources are used to collaboratively come up with solutions to local problems, working to improve quality of life on their terms. From my experiences in both rural Laos and coastal Nicaragua, empowering local people has been paramount to fostering sustainable social and economic development in these communities. Finding an organization that hears the voices of local people will ensure you a genuine immersion into a new culture, where you will be able to leave behind more handprints than footprints.
Tony graciously shares both his pragmatic advice and life experiences with the Innovative Lifestyles community. We hope you’ll do the same. Comment below. Follow us on social media. Introduce yourself to the community with the hashtag: #WEareInnovativeLifestyles. Photos, questions of need, supportive responses; the smallest gestures connect and inspire.