Thoughtful travel means when we leave a country, both the locals we met along the way and ourselves, have changed even just a little bit, for the better.
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?”– Anthony Bourdain
Did you ever think about when you go to a resort in Central America, and the locals are prohibited from entering the beach, does it actually benefit them and their society as a whole? Or does it in the end harm and isolate them? Imagine if you are not allowed to watch the sunset on the most beautiful section of your own country? This is how it was for local Cubans before 2008.
When you eat at Mac Donald’s in a foreign country or beeline for that Starbucks, are they really the only businesses that can offer you that cup of coffee or greasy burger you crave? Do they really need your business? Or could you take your dollars to the family cafe next door instead and enjoy a similarly delicious burger or cup of coffee after practicing ordering in the local language?
Travel has the power to change the world. We believe it. Anthony Bourdain, our travel idol, believed it, too.
But just as much as this, we believe travel has the power to harm the very people in these countries we fall in love with. Sometimes tourism is negative – it destroys the environment overtime, offends local customs and values when tourists do not pay attention to cultural norms (like peeing in a sacred lake in Mongolia for example, or stripping naked on a sacred mountain), and fails to bring the money to the hands of those who need it most, when tourists spend all their tourism dollars on foreign-owned hostels, hotels, and restaurants. So many developing countries and their struggling people end up not benefiting from foreign investment and industry in their own country.
In the end, travel should benefit the local people. Only when it benefits the local people can it make an impact and have the power to change the world, one traveler at a time, one meal at a time, and one conversation at a time. Regardless of how we travel, whether we feel more comfortable staying at a fancy resort, independently backpacking, or joining a tour, we should keep these local people in mind every time we make a decision whether it is to buy a souvenir, book accommodation, or eat at a restaurant.
We are the guests in a foreign country. We are bombarding into their lives from countries, cultures, and languages unfamiliar to the vast majority of locals we meet along the way, and so, we should respect them, not the other way around. The big question is: How can we do these things and at the same time leave a positive footprint on that generously gave us all of the above?
If we put a little thought into our travel and into where our money goes, our trip will actually do good in the places we visit, without requiring a lot of extra money or time. On our recent adventure to Central Asia, we did just this. Following our travel philosophy, we put forth some added effort towards making a positive impact in the places we visit. Below are 5 ways any traveler can make a positive impact without involving a significant amount of money or time.
1. Pack with Passion
Especially if you are visiting a developing country, use that extra free luggage space to bring items of need to a local charity there. You will be surprised at the number of friends who are willing to donate their old belongings. Find an easy way to make this happen by researching online a charity that you believe is doing good in the community, and choose one in the city you land in so you can make it your first stop. On your first day in your destination country, you can drop off the suitcases and start your adventure on a positive note! If you don’t have the time to research your own charity of choice, check out Pack for a Purpose which already has connections in many countries and ultimately inspired us to pack two suitcases for a wonderful charity called Asral we found in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which helps keep impoverished families living in the shantytowns (ger districts) of the city. The key, however, is to bring critical items of need to these countries (not toys for example), items the charity identifies as critical and not what you think may be needed. When we packed for Mongolia, we stuffed our suitcases with warm winter clothes, hospital items, dental hygiene items, and school supplies, which the charity identified as the items of necessity.
2. Eat Local
Choose to dine at family run restaurants rather than Starbucks or MacDonalds. Food and culture are so intertwined. You will be amazed at how much culture you experience and learn over a local meal in a foreign country. The best part? Often these local restaurants are much cheaper than foreign run “tourist” spots. Our rule of thumb: go where the locals go (ie. busy restaurants) and order what the locals order and you (*usually) won’t do your stomachs wrong.
3. Live Local
Do a little bit of extra research and find locally-owned guesthouses, hostels, and hotels rather than large foreign hotel chains. You will find your experience is all the more rewarding, and your hosts will be excellent sources of local cultural information.
4. Shop Local
Buy souvenirs that are made by cooperatives or at the very least, local shops, selling products made in that country. The souvenirs you bring back for your friends and family (and yourselves) will be all the more meaningful and will tell a meaningful story to friends who had never thought to visit that country.
5. Find businesses that are doing good things in the community (whether foreign or locally run).
By supporting these businesses such as restaurants or guesthouses that support local charities or disadvantaged people, you put your money where it is needed most. In Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, there was a wide array of cheap, comfortable hostels and guesthouses for us to choose from. Yet, in our eyes, the best one was Lotus Guesthouse, a simple, clean, and friendly guesthouse near the city-centre, which we discovered was created to provide funds for the Lotus Children’s Centre, an orphanage which helps keep vulnerable children (orphans and runaway kids) off the streets, providing education and keeping them on the right path to develop in life. The guesthouse was a way to bring added funds to the orphanage and also provide them a way to build a career and income as they grow up, employing almost 100% of their staff from the orphanage. Since we have to pay for accommodation when we travel, why not let our hard-earned dollars go towards a good cause at the same time?
Keeping the above 5 options in mind as we travel is an excellent way to make a positive impact as we explore new worlds. But underneath it all, as we travel, we should ask “Why”. Try to understand what you are seeing and don’t just assume what you see is at face value. Often in other countries, where the culture is vastly different, what we see is not necessarily the truth because what we actually see is their reality through the eyes of our own culture and our own experiences. Ask when you don’t understand. Question yourself before making conclusions. This is especially important because we will end up sharing these stories when we return home, laced with our perception of reality and our assumptions of truth. When we first arrived to Mongolia, our preconception was that the nomad families in the countryside are the poorest. But after visiting the ger districts within Ulaanbaatar, and talking to locals, we understood that in actuality, those living in the shantytowns of the capital city are far worse off than those living a simple life in the countryside, who at least have a home and a livelihood (a herd of animals).
A little bit of extra thought can go a long way in our travels. By traveling responsibly you will find you inevitably immerse yourself into a new country, and gain rich experiences you never could have imagined. By doing so, you enrich at least a few lives as you travel. When you leave, the country and its people you crossed paths with are a little bit better off than when you arrived. And in return, we as travelers, are also a bit better off than when we arrived; only in this way can we experience amazing cultural interactions that ultimately lead to personal growth and expanded perspectives.
In this way, we can all leave a positive footprint as we wander this world.