Of all the components of Sustainable Tourism, which I discussed in an earlier post, I will probably spend most of my time on this blog addressing issues pertaining to socio-cultural issues, not because I think they are more important than environmental and economic issues, but because I’m a trained social scientist. I spent five years as an academic researching the relationship between gender, education, and development before deciding to write full-time. It’s my area of expertise and an area I feel very passionate about.
And once you start digging into the issues, you realize that they are intertwined. For example, if I and others purchase handmade crafts from a local village woman, her economic status has improved, which may mean that she now has the money to put all of her children in school. (There is actually a lot of research that shows if women receive an income, the first thing they do is invest it in her family, often through education.) If her children are in school, receiving an education and learning to read, this improves their potential and the community’s potential in the future. With more financial capital, the community has more clout when advocating against projects that are not environmentally friendly.
Through our travels we have the unique ability to positively affect communities. On the flip-side, we can also do a lot of damage.
One of the most effective ways to create change is, of course, with your wallet. Communities should benefit from tourism revenue, but many times they don’t. When booking hotels, tours, and local transportation, shopping, and eating at restaurants, it’s important to ensure the money goes back to locals in the community. How do you do this?
- Stay at hotels that are locally owned instead of Western hotel chains
- Book tours that are operated by or partnered with locals
- Hire local drivers
- Eat a locally-run restaurants
- Buy souvenirs directly from the artisan instead tourist gift shops
So many people travel to developing countries and want to give back so they bring suitcases of items to donate or they give money to kids in the street when they could make a more substantial contribution just by being mindful in where they spend their money.
Instead of bringing suitcases full of toys or clothing, find a local toy store and buy the toys from them. Find the local shoemaker and hire them to make a certain number of shoes. I’ve read about so many instances where tourists have brought goods into a community and have actually caused more harm than good. If you bring new shoes, for instance, for all the kids living in a village, you have temporarily eliminated the need for the shoe salesman who probably won’t have enough money saved to sustain his business until there is a need again.
Sometimes our best intentions do more harm than good.
Similarly, it doesn’t really matter where you go, you will often find kids on the streets selling bracelets or asking for money. They’re cute kids and most of the time they tell you the proceeds benefit their school, so you give them a little money, take a picture, receive a bracelet, and feel pretty good about yourself. You’re not thinking about the fact that it’s the middle of a weekday, and if the kids were actually enrolled in school they would be there now. The reality is that the kids aren’t in school because they’re making money on the street. The more tourists that come, the more opportunity to make money, the less likely kids remain in school.
I always advise people who want to give back to a community to find an organization that is doing good work and offer a financial contribution, but if you’re mindful about the choices you make while you’re traveling then the very act of traveling is doing good.