MAKE TRAVEL MATTER
Five Ways Our Travels Can Make the World Better & Feel Inspiring
I’m celebrating this earth day at home, like much of the world in the spring of 2020. But when I walk to the end of my street in Denver, I can just glimpse the rocky mountains and seeing them reminds me that a beautiful world is waiting for all of us, when it’s safe to resume travel after coronavirus.
I’ve been thinking about how travel will be different, both the practical considerations, such as health screening before flights, and the bigger, meaningful ways.
We have come to realize how connected we are
We have all come to realize how connected we are. We are in this pandemic together and like it or not, travellers are a part of the reason it spread. We’ve always had the power to create a positive or negative impact on the places and people we visit, and I think that will matter more than ever.
Here are five ways I hope travel after coronavirus will be more meaningful, for travelers, the planet, and the millions of people who rely on tourism for their livelihood.
1. Less Is More… More Meaningful Travel
People will look for more meaning in their travel experiences. That could be a multi-generational trip as we strive to make up for lost time with the people who mean the most to us. It might be taking a dream trip sooner than later, because we no longer take for granted that we can go anywhere, anytime we want to.
I was imagining a family trip to Africa at some distant point in the future and now wonder if it should be the priority over other travel.
Wherever we venture, we will want meaning in our experiences
Wherever we venture, we will want meaning in our experiences. Some of my most memorable travel moments are not of historic monuments or fancy lodges, but of experiences with local people. On a trip to India we enjoyed a special dinner hosted by three generations of an Indian family in their Jaipur home. Our hostess, Bhavnu, gave a cooking lesson in the open-air courtyard, her demonstration interrupted when the call to prayer echoed in the early evening sky.
The children of the family ran in circles, through their home and back out into the courtyard past the older generation, who also warmly welcomed 14 strangers. It’s a part of Indian culture for multiple generations to live together in this way and I was able to experience that in an intimate setting. It’s an evening I won’t forget.
In Luang Prabang, Laos, I had the chance to watch almsgiving, an offering of rice at dawn, to the monkts from the community. Seeing this mutual appreciation and sense of community was one of the most special experiences of my trip.
These kinds of experiences enable us to learn about cultures and ways of life which are different from our own.
2. Travel for Economic Empowerment
Tourism employs an estimated one in ten people around the world. As we think about the ways we travel after coronavirus, I believe it will be with a new appreciation that our choices can empower people.
Both tour companies and hotels have the power to lift their local communities through tourism-related training and work opportunities, and they can support locally sourced food, and services.
Purposeful Nomad, a small U.S.-based tour operator, integrates the empowerment of local women into each of their trips. In Guatemala, travellers explore the cultural and historical significance of textiles which in turn supports a cooperative of women weavers. Empowering women through travel is the principle upon which every trip is designed. (You may be interested in this Guide to Selecting a Small Group Tour)
Similarly, there are hotels which are dedicated to empowering their communities. I learned of the work of the Shinta Mani Foundation when I stayed at the Shinta Mani Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, last fall.
The Foundation was created to foster responsible tourism, and support the communities in which they operate. People with limited opportunities due to poverty, are enrolled in a free training program to prepare them for jobs with the hotels. Shinta Mani also supports sustainable farming and education of the community’s children.
Shinta Mani Hotels trains at-risk people for tourism jobs
In Pushkar, India, a recently opened country hotel was created with the local community at the heart of its operation.
The cottages at Camp Land’s End were constructed in the traditional thatched-roof style which employed local artisans and supported an ancient craft, which is at risk of disappearing in India. The thatchers artfully layer straw and grass creating a charming interior and natural insulation.
Women, who often have more difficulty gaining employment in India, are also prioritized for job opportunities at the camp and there are plans to build a school for the children of the community.
3. Conservation Tourism
We’ve all felt vulnerable during this crisis, for ourselves, our friends and family. Meanwhile the fragility of our natural world in the face of the climate crisis, continues. Tourism is a huge driver of conservation. In places like Borneo, it is the economic justification to protect wildlife from clear cutting forests, for palm oil crops.
Tour companies that sell trips to see wildlife are not all equal. Choosing a company that prioritizes conservation over profits and has ethical partners, enables your travel to make a difference.
Natural Habitat Adventures of Boulder, Colorado is the official partner of the World Wildlife Federation and sets a high bar. Their tours are on the expensive end, but if they are within your budget, your travel dollars will support conservation, and empowerment of the local people, in a significant way.
National Geographic Expeditions also prioritize responsible tourism and works closely with biologists and conservationists. Company websites should detail the commitments of a tour operator, if conservation is a part of their mission.
The treatment of captive animals is just as important; look for a policy to avoid all elephant riding for travel in Asia, for example. You can usually find “Animal Welfare Policies” on websites and brochures. Those will provide details with respect to any animal-related experiences on your trip.
If you are planning your own wildlife encounter, you will want to do some research to choose a company that puts the welfare of the captive animals at the top of its priorities. I visited MandaLao Elephant Conservation in Luang Prabang, Laos and learned what is possible with a tremendous commitment. MandaLao’s operations prioritize the elephants they rescue, and enabling them to live as closely as possible to the way they would in the wild.
Our adventures can help protect the natural world – what a privilege
With some research it is possible to travel with a company that not only respects wildlife and their habitats, but contributes to their protection. Travellers have an important role to play, and what a privilege it is for our adventures to help conserve the natural world.
4. Consider Overtourism
I visited Cambodia last year at a time that most people avoid – the rainy season. It was very hot and humid and yes, it rained most days. Yet the rain didn’t negatively affect my trip; it never lasted long in early October. The bigger challenge was the heat and so we did have to arrange our sightseeing with periods of downtime.
The benefit was lighter crowds, compared to the peak season of November through February. And our off-season visit provided business at a time when it was most needed. I had several local people tell me how grateful they were to have visitors. Our local guide, Mr. Barung, joked that his children were happy he was going to work instead of sleeping in the hammock.
Coronavirus has created a chance for a reset for the world’s most popular travel destinations, many of which were straining under the volume of visitors.
Thought leaders on tourism say those places need to determine how much tourism is sustainable and set the agenda, rather than react to ever-growing demand. By establishing these boundaries they can they work with tour operators, and tourism-related businesses to create a sustainable industry and memorable experiences for travellers.
This is happening in Iceland, where tourism accounts for more than 40% of the economy. A boon in tourism was an enormous benefit after the financial crisis of 2008, but negatively affected the country when demand exceeded sustainable capacity. Iceland is now evolving its tourism industry and deciding what’s sustainable.
The same is true in Venice which is preparing to reopen after a respite from overtourism. Residents say reopening is bittersweet and they hope to find a balance between tourism and preserving Venetian culture for its residents.
Responsible travel means giving consideration to when, how and if we visit places like Venice, that are known to be under pressure. Cruise ships have contributed enormously to the problem in Venice, for example. Having thousands of people descend on a place at once, without supporting it in the same way because you are not actually staying there, is problematic.
We can consider alternatives to some of the world’s busiest destinations. And when we do visit them, rather than only seeing the “one big attraction or city” we can diversify our itinerary, thereby spreading tourism dollars and our footprint in a way that is more sustainable.
It is complicated in places like Siem Reap, which have developing economies that rely so heavily on tourism. Yet, it appears incredibly necessary in Southeast Asia.
China’s growing middle class is creating a huge demand for travel (aside from the current downturn.) Nearby countries like Laos are already struggling to keep up; I saw this on my trip last fall. The construction of a high-speed train between China and the rest of Southeast Asia, expected to be finished this year, will exponentially increase visitors.
5. New Luxury
I want to stay at the Four Season Bora Bora as much as the next midlife lady, and there will always be people who want uber-luxurious experiences, but I think luxury is changing, as more travellers want to feel hopeful, grateful and connected.
Some of my favourite luxury hotel stays were at places where the experience was more nuanced and special, than simply luxurious. The Belmond Luang Prabang is a perfect example. It was not overly fancy, but its elegance felt warm and authentic.
It was the warmth of the staff that made it feel special
Yes, the setting was spectacular, and amenities and food wonderful, but it was the warmth of the staff that made it so special. I was travelling alone and as I came and went, the thoughtful staff inquired about my day, and asked how I was enjoying their country.
They seemed truly happy to be there and excited that I was exploring their home. They were clearly encouraged to interact with the guests and I appreciated that. I don’t want to be somewhere where the local people feel they need to be invisible to the guests. The Belmond culture seems to support that idea and treats the staff well. It showed.
Staying somewhere where friendliness and interaction are welcome, where employees are treated with the same respect as the guests, that’s the kind of luxury I want to experience. And the truth is you don’t have to be at the Four Seasons or even the Belmond to experience this.
Look for social responsibility statements on hotel websites and don’t be afraid to ask questions about policies, before the trip and during. The more we know and learn, the better choices we can make each time we travel, and we can spread the word about ethical tourism options.
The more we know, the better choices we make each time we travel
I recently heard the phrase, “never waste a good crisis”. As heartbreaking as this coronavirus crisis is, I am hopeful that beyond the foothills I see on my quarantine walks, is a world where we find more meaning in our travel, while protecting the places we visit and respecting and empowering the people we meet.
Many of the photos in this story were taken on my 18-day trip to Southeast Asia. I’ve also written about a riverboat trip I took in Cambodia. And if you are looking for ideas on efficient packing for travel, you might like this story: Smart Pack Hacks (for people who hate packing).