The Responsible Traveler

Masai Village

2009, ready to embark on my first solo trip half way around the world. I’m volunteering with CCS, and compulsively perusing the message boards on the online forum. Mostly, they’re for future volunteers to ask questions or connect with fellow travelers. One post in particular though, catches me off guard. A previous volunteer shared her concerns that volunteerism, far from being a benefit to the countries we were visiting she suggested, it was actually a great cause of harm. Of course, at the time it bothered me, but I didn’t think too much about it. I had chosen CCS because they had great connections with the community that supported sustainable projects.

Choosing a volunteer program is hard. It is unfortunately true that in many cases volunteers are simply creating dependency and removing the possibility for advancement. It’s a touchy subject, with passionate advocates on either side. Even seemingly harmless acts (say, volunteering in an orphanage) will send some into a prolonged lecture on the detrimental effects of your naive decision. But, of course, while perhaps missionaries and volunteers have been a large cause for increased poverty and dependence, not all volunteerism is bad, and many are doing great things to help those ignored by the rest of the world. A careful evaluation is necessary, and even then it’s never very clear.

But most people aren’t volunteers.  And while there are a multitude of responsible travelers there are an unfortunate amount of the opposite. For those traveling to the developing world their money may be put to good use. Tourism is a major source of revenue for many countries, without which the country would suffer. There are a variety of intrinsic concerns that I grapple with constantly when thinking about where to go next. While I prefer off the beaten track adventures that take me away from the buffet line, that may mean venturing into places where my presence might not be the best. Preserving culture is a big issue. With tourism providing higher wage opportunities, many youths will forgo the family tradition for a more lucrative opportunity. Whether this is OK or not, again, isn’t so clear. Obviously, providing opportunity and security is important, but we would hope, not at the price of culture and tradition.  So, should I go? Would they be better off without me there? The issue of visiting Burma (Myanmar) comes to mind.

I was recently reading a travel article that suggested visiting a luxury resort and spa in the southern islands of Thailand. It looks beautiful, of course. But, it happens to be a corporate run hotel based in the United States. So while your money may help pay salaries of locally employed people, most of the money is coming right back overseas. Not to mention, the reason the resort occupies such a pristine area is that before it was built it had forced the people who lived in the area out, after a natural disaster, they had prevented them from moving back in. Land developers, naturally, having more power than the local people. Most people who visit this place probably don’t know this. They trust big name companies they recognize and couldn’t imagine they would cause harm. But, resorts are big business. If you’ve ever been to Cabo or Cancun you know exactly what I mean. Behemoth resorts turning naturally beautiful places into a spring-breakers paradise.

I struggle, when I see vacationers in impoverished countries being whisked around in Land Rovers to their luxury accommodations, God forbid they actually interact with anyone. Though there is nothing wrong with wanting luxury, a great majority of people visiting these tented abodes in game reserves or private islands in the South Pacific haven’t exactly researched what the implication of their extravagant foray will cost not only those who live there, but the environment as well. Because if they did think about it, the ratio of legitimately beneficial ecolodges to the environmentally reckless chain variety would be quite a bit different.

Luckily, there is a choice. All over the world there are plenty of responsible accommodations aimed at backpackers, jetsetters, and everyone in between to enjoy. They give back to the community, support local NGOs, and employ the very people who live there. Perhaps their presence brings income to land conservation, or hires street kids to teach them hospitality skills so that they can learn a trade.  Whatever the case is, it just takes a bit more research to ensure that where you’ve chosen to go is not hurting the country you want to visit. I think most people would never want to cause harm, they’re just mis-informed or hadn’t even thought about it.

While many people never venture to the developing world for reasons ranging from mis-informed (though sometimes, merited) fear to not wanting to get dirty, or perhaps witness extreme poverty, those who do make the trip are greatly rewarded. The more I’ve traveled the more interested I’ve become in these places. While of course I’ll never turn down a trip to the French Alps, I’ve become more interested in other sorts of adventures. There’s something special about these places. Aside from natural beauty, the people are what makes it unique. I have never encountered as many giving, loving, and kind people than I have than in third world countries. They have a strong sense of community, and will (most of the time) welcome you with open arms. I have always been awestruck, and inspired. So it becomes distressing to think that people may be causing them harm, perhaps unintentional, by simply not researching.

You don’t have to volunteer to make an impact, and anytime we travel, we do just that. But whether it’s for good or bad is our choice. We can choose to be responsible travelers and give back to the beautiful places that have lent us their shores for our own adventures.

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