The Guilt-Free Guide to Creating Real Change in the Places You Visit
Adventure resides on the other side of discomfort. The best travel stories come from the unplanned–the messes, the mishaps, the sideshows that make life interesting.
Western travelers like their creature comforts, pushing aside face-to-face experiences with locals to visit an all-inclusive that walls them off from the culture outside the “gilded” gates. There’s also the ever-so-popular floating steel tube city that packs people in sardine cabins so they can gorge themselves on a smorgasbord of food and alcohol. While that may leave your belly full, it’s empty on experiences and the journey results in millions of tons of fuel burnt and billions of ton of sewage dumped each year like an assault on the ocean.
This is not a call to end all-inclusive resorts or even cruises. It is a call to push you beyond the edges of comfort and break away from the herd. Ask yourself, is disembarking from a boat for a few hours at a far-flung port, like a whistle-stop train tour, really travel? If you’re locked inside of a city of hotel rooms never to venture outside, why go to a foreign country at all? Instead, use that precious vacation time and pay it forward by really seeing the world and in the process, make your tourism dollars count to improve the lives of the people you visit in developing countries?
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, only $5 out of every $100 US spent by tourists in developing nations benefits the local economy. The technical word for it is “tourism leakage.”
I know. I know. Hard working Americans just want to get away from the world’s problems when they vacation. After all, aren’t there so many other things to worry about like keeping your job, paying for your kid’s education, relaxing from all of the free overtime you just gave your boss? And now, you’re supposed to be concerned about leakage? Not exactly. The real point is that the path to disconnecting from your worries and gaining perspective in life is to keep it local. Local tour guides, local eateries, local shopping equals real experiences that will re-energize and re-connect you with life. The happy accident is that you leave knowing that you brought real benefit and perhaps change the lives of the people you met and got to know along the way.
And by going local, everyone you visit gets 100 percent of your money. That’s a big boon for many countries since tourism is the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the world’s 48 least developed countries.
So, here’s how to have your luxury, do some good and have the cherry on top called adventure!
Choosing Where to Stay
When you travel, there are so many options for hotels. While most Westerners prefer the “devil they know” and go to chain hotels, spread the wealth. Here’s how you can do that:
- Create a Luxury Sandwich—At the beginning or end of my stay (sometimes both), I stay in a luxury hotel using Amex points. In between, I stay at local hotels. No doubt, the Marriot’s and Ramada Inn’s of the world create local jobs, but they are owned by foreign interests, so the money doesn’t stay in the country you’re visiting. On my trip to Ethiopia, I began and ended in Addis Ababa, a large city with many chain hotels. I stayed at a Ramada Inn my first two days and at an Ethiopian-owned luxury hotel at the end of the trip. That was the time to relax, do laundry and pamper myself.
- Limit All-Inclusives—Again, many all-inclusive resorts are part of a chain. Still, some of them are the only employer in town so going to them spreads the wealth. But don’t spend your whole stay there. I stayed at my first and only all-inclusive in Cayo Guerillmo, Cuba for three days at the end of a very long trip. The hotel I stayed at was part of the Meliá chain. Still, it employed many of the locals from the nearby town of Moron. So if you’re going to do that, at least tip heavily. Many people don’t. That ended up saving me when I was stranded.
- Choose a Bed and Breakfast—These are usually always run by locals. If you go to a place using Airbnb.com, make sure you read the profiles. If the owner is out of the country, more than likely it’s not doing much for the local economy.
Find A Local Tour Guide
Not only is this the safest option, because local guides know the political landscape as well as safe restaurants to eat, it keeps money in the country you are visiting. Also, local guides often hire other people in remote towns to show you around which further spreads your tourist dollar. There are numerous ways to vet a good guide. Read my article on how to find a good guide.
Dine at a Family Home or A Local Restaurants
When I was in Mexico City, I actually met a group of people from the East Coast who were heading out to a TGI Fridays. Why, when you can have real Mexican food? Or if you’re in Paris, why, why, why go to McDonalds? Eat local cuisine. Drink in the local flavor that you came there for. You have plenty of chances to eat that Big Mac at home.
You can even skip the restaurant and dine with locals. Many tour guides will take you to their family home to dine with them. There are also plenty of places on the Internet that feature group dining experiences. These are those rare moments that allow you to connect with the place you’re visiting and live a different life if only for one night.
If you’re worried about getting sick, the simple rule to minimizing any problems: 1) Don’t eat anything that isn’t boiled or cooked. In other words, no salads or fresh vegetables. Fruit is okay as long as you can wash it yourself. 2) Don’t drink anything with ice unless it has alcohol in it; and 3) If you visit a restaurant and locals aren’t dining there, skip it.
Go to a Flea Market
Flea markets are a wonderful way to soak in the local flavor of a country and give you a chance to try something exotic or pick up interesting gifts for your friends and family. Plan ahead for this one and visit your host city’s visitor bureau. It will be a great guide for finding these gems if you don’t have a tour guide. Also, a local at the hotel where you’re staying will be able to help you find one as well.
Try Regional Drinks
The one common thing you will find throughout the world is alcohol. Whether you’re visiting a tribe in Ethiopia where they make their own honey beer or you’re in Germany, visit the local watering hole and try their brew. If you don’t drink, switch to local juices. You might a new favorite.
Find a Non-Profit
Research non-profit projects in the area you’re visiting. In India, I visited a local paper mill that was putting women back to work. In Nepal, I took a cooking class where my money went to help women who were victims of sex-trafficking. Wherever you’re going, you can find a place that not only shines the light on the bad things, but you can bring your tourist dollars to that cause by asking them for a tour.
Visit A Local School
When you choose a guide, tell them to arrange to visit a school where they are learning English. On your way there, buy supplies from a local store and quiz them about English words they know. You can hand out pencils, crayons, colored pens and paper as a reward. It’s a great way to engage with kids and give them something in return.
Consider Sponsoring a Student
If you are feeling really charitable, consider sponsoring a student. Education is always the best way out of poverty but isn’t always attainable. You may come across a kid or two along your travels who has great potential but just can’t afford costs associated with school. I found one student who dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford school books. I took him to a local shop and had him fitted for a uniform and bought some books and he still sends me updates on his progress.
Go Christmas Shopping and Don’t Let a Tour Dictate Where to Go
No matter what month you travel, the most unique gifts you will find for anyone is when you’re traveling. This is why the import/export business is so lucrative.
Forgo the tourist traps set up by tour companies. You’ve probably been through this–the bus comes to a rest stop for a bathroom break near a shop with trinkets? This is usually a deal set up ahead of time between the vendor and the bus company. Skip that and take the time to find meaningful gifts that make your loved ones feel like they’re a part of your journey. Find out what that country does best and seek out people who are skilled craftsmen (or women). While in Bali, I picked up wood carvings, hand loomed tapestries and visited a man who made special Balinesian gongs his whole life.
If you’re on a budget, this is the best way to save money, immerse yourself in the local culture, give back and have time to see the area. Voluntourism opportunities range from helping endangered wildlife, teaching, building or bringing Democracy to developing worlds. Here is one link to get you can get started.
Follow these simple rules and I guarantee that you will not only get some needed R&R, but you will come back to your comfortable bed in your comfortable home all the richer for the experience.