Ethical Travel & Traveling to Make “Good” in the World

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voluntourism

There was a great panel at the New York Travel Fest called Traveling With A Purpose, led by Maria and Anthony Russo of The Culture-Ist, Zoi Calomiris of MCW Journeys, Michelle Duffy of Passports With Purpose, Bibi F. Hussain – Santana a teacher affiliated with SUNY New Paltz, the New York City Department of Education and STEP, and her student Daisy, who received a Learning AFAR experiential travel scholarship. The panel was moderated by Gilad Goren, founder of Only Six Degrees.

Greenwashing, which refers to when companies mislead the public into thinking they’re environmentally friendly, was one important topic highlighted during the panel. As a responsible traveler who is always on the road, one of my biggest pet peeves is when a hotel boasts a green image simply because they suggest to guests they should recycle their towels. In 2014, this should be the bare minimum, not the standard. We’ve come so far in tech and innovation — I’ve stayed in 5-star hotels made of recycled materials that source locally and give back to the community, like Southern Ocean Lodge in Australia. With such advances, there’s no excuse why hotels and tour companies can’t do more to help the planet and the communities they operate in.

Maria Russo talked about difficulties she had finding ecofriendly upscale hotels and tour companies that would appeal to her publication’s luxury market, although she did recommend Alila Hotels, Malabar Escapes and Uga Escapes. Through traveling as well as curating and selling a Culture Collection of products crafted from artisans from around the world, she’s found that the smaller you go in terms of business size — for example, an uninsured mother and son who make soaps from local ingredients in their living room vs the beauty counter at Macy’s — the more of a positive impact you can have on the community.

hotel

Photo courtesy of Unique Hotels.

Vetting Travel Organizations

While it can be difficult to vet organizations and truly know who’s doing the right thing, Duffy and Calomiris provided some tips. First of all, one can check Charity Navigator to see if the organization the tour company or hotel is supporting — if there is one — is legitimate. Moreover, travelers can contact tour companies and hotels and ask questions about what certifications they hold, where they source their food and if they employ 100% local staff, and fact check as much as possible from the answers.

If the tour operator works with an NGO, contact them to see how much money is really being given and what services are being provided by the operator. Finally, TripAdvisor can be great for checking other peoples’ reactions to tours and hotel stays, as usually once on the trip a person can get a feel for what’s really going on.

Daisy and Hussain – Santana talked extensively about Learning AFAR, and how it not only provided opportunities to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel and give back abroad, but how the experience affected them.

I related to Daisy from my own voluntourism experiences when she talked about how she went into the Amazon thinking she would change these people’s lives completely, rose-colored glasses on her face. In the end, it was the people who changed her, as it opened her eyes to the world and other cultures, allowing for her to have a transformative travel experience. She traveled to South America with a purpose, and that purpose came with her back to New York as she continues to help the community, planting gardens, getting involved in projects and preaching conscious travel to those she meets.

Calomiris summed up the presentation nicely, stating that tourism can have a huge impact on a community by bringing money into the economy, as well as eliminating negative income sources. For example, a community dependent on money from rhino poaching can be completely transformed once you introduce tourism and create more sustainable jobs for the people, as well as put money into local hands by buying locally.

Another ethical travel panel was Travel And Tech Make Good, part of Travel+SocialGood, a cataylst program that explores the intersection of travel, technology and social good, which was also the focus of discussion. This panel was led by Michaela Guzy of Oh The People You Meet, with speakers including Kate Otto of Everyday Ambassador, Mario Jobbe of Brand Karma and Colin Glaum of Benevolent Mercenaries.

One topic of discussion was if apps and technology could hinder travel. For example, Oculus Rift, a 3-D virtual reality headset, was recently purchase for $2 billion by Facebook, who hopes to make “virtual reality the next big thing in social,” according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. While this sounds exciting, one fear in the tourism industry is that virtual reality travel could lead to less people participating in real reality travel, as Facebook hopes to create a space where people can interact with friends online and feel like they’re in the same room, and even conduct meetings.

Otto made a good point about this, though, that for many people, travel is about more than just seeing a place, but having interactions. It’s about encounters with locals, making new friends and being affected by culture. Because of this and the fact that friendships are more valuable than physical souvenirs, technology can never truly get in the way, although there’s no doubt travelers nowadays spend more time with their faces buried in their iPhones than actually being present on their trip (something we should all really should be more aware of).

That being said, there is incredible power with technology to do good. Looking again at Oculus Rift, this technology has allowed people with certain vision issues to better see again, as it has sends incomplete imagines to the brain and forced both eyes to work together. Moreover, disabled people now have the power to experience places they may never get to travel to. It’s a great example of technology doing something good for society.

brave

Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo.

Putting The Power In The Hands Of The People

Another important topic discussed getting away from the mentality that developed countries know what’s best for poorer countries, and therefore can make decisions as to what they need. Instead, travel operators, companies and consumers need to put the power in the hands of these people, and ask them what they need. It’s important to give people the tools to create their own reality.

For a negative case study, Otto brought up TOMS Shoes and their promise to donate a pair of shoes for every pair purchased. While this may sound nice, in reality it’s harmful to simply dump a bunch of shoes into a community, as this puts local shoemakers and artisans out of business and also makes these people reliant on this aid. The trick here is to think long term and map out all the effects your actions will have, while also asking the community directly, “How can we help you?”. Luckily, TOMS has since changed their model to more positively impact the communities they want to help.

A positive example of putting the power in the hands of the people is Kiva.org, which the panelists all agreed was a great organization. Kiva’s mission is to connect people by leveraging the internet and global microfinance institutions.

People can donate loans for as little as $25, which then go to the microfinance institutions who administer the loan to people and communities without access to banks and low-income individuals. This gives them the opportunity to create their own reality. All money donated goes straight to funding loans, as Kiva does not take a percentage.

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Local sings in India. Photo courtesy of Sukanto Debnath.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

When you travel, it’s also important to take corporate social responsibility (CSR) into account. Brands often integrate CSR into their business models to make a positive impact on the earth and/or community, although some more than others. Jobbe noted that after extensive research, his finding was that bigger brands tended to be more far removed from the causes they were helping, and therefore tended to not have as strong of CSR programs as smaller, local ventures. This went along with what Russo had said in the earlier Traveling With A Purpose panel: going with small local companies who know what the community needs and can directly help is often better for the local economy and environment. These smaller companies are also less likely to be partaking in social good purely for PR sake. Before booking with a company, do some research and delve into how they are actually helping the local community.

Is Social Media The Best Tool To Make An Impact?

For most people, social media is an important part of work and play; however, is the constant posting and sharing the best way to make an impact? While the consensus was that social media had the power to do social good when used correctly, I would also like to add in my two cents.

Social media is powerful, there’s no doubt about that. That being said, I tend to see a lot of “me me me” promotion, when really the purpose of social media is to have a conversation and, well, be social.  Define your mission, beginning with the why and then the how, and create an engaging campaign people will naturally want to interact with. As Glaum points out, you don’t want to interrupt the conversation on social media, but become part of it.

In Conclusion

Before your next trip, take responsibility. Research ethical tourism operators and truly ecofriendly hotels, and immerse yourself in the culture in a positive way. Give back to the communities you visit by helping to find and promote companies with pure and positive missions. And if you have an experience or find a cause you believe in, harness the power of technology for social good.