Trends in travel sometimes change faster than we can keep up. Destinations, brands, and travel groups have to keep up to make tourism appealing so we as consumers feel good about spending our travel dollars with them. Over the last couple of years impact/volunteer, eco, agri, and sustainable travel have become the travel buzz words. If you’re like me, you’re asking what they really mean and are they true to what they sound like or just a sexy sell to the consumer. So, I did my own research and here is a quick overview of what I found.
Are Travel Buzz Words the Real Deal or a Sexy Sell?
I have traveled a lot over the years and I mean A LOT! While it has been amazing, I have really started to wonder over the past few years what effect my travel is having on the environment and the communities I visit. Of course I want to continue my travels, but I also want them to only have a positive impact and most importantly, to do no harm. I have become much more careful where I vacation and do my research before I go. Along the way, I have come across these new travel buzz words to describe the type of travel I’m talking about.
Impact or volunteer travel is when you pay to travel with a group or company to visit a destination and volunteer your time on projects specific to the area while you’re there. There’s even a term for this – the Voluntourist! This might also include packing up goods or products needed in the area and delivering them when you arrive at your destination, such as the work done by the group Pack for a Purpose.
In March, Jacob Kushner wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine, “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma,” referencing a study in 2008 that surveyed 300 organizations. The study estimated that 1.6 million people volunteered on vacation and spent about $2 billion annually. That’s a lot of money for the industry, but many times volunteers are taking jobs of local skilled labors who could be doing the work; something I’m sure these volunteers never knew or even thought about.
Many travel organizations work with locals on their needs, but others don’t. We value the mission and thought of doing good to volunteer when you travel, but please spend time really researching the organization and value of your time within the community. Often, your dollars will go further than your time if you are looking to make a truly meaningful difference. Do your homework before paying your money.
Eco-tourism is tourism directed towards natural environments. These are usually in exotic locations and to threatened areas. Eco-tourists are often sold packages that include the support of conservation and/or to observe wildlife. There are many wonderful eco-tourism destinations and tours available, but research is needed to make sure you are truly purchasing a trip that will “do no harm”.
Many trips are sold to see exotic places and animals that are threatened with the tag line, “See them before they are gone.” But, we actually may be doing more harm to the fragile ecosystem and furthering the demise when we visit. So, again, make sure the trip is truly friendly to the environment and safe for the animals. Ask if the organization is being kind to the environment. And above anything else, ask if we are protecting the animals. Eco-tourism should never involve animal encounters, elephant rides, or the sort. Eco-tourism should be travel that does no harm, so make sure you are not being sold the sexy word.
This is really a new buzz word in travel. Sustainable tourism in the idea of traveling someplace and making only a positive impact on the environment, economy, and society. This involves everything you do from arrival to departure. When you think of sustainable travel, it makes you wonder if impact/volunteer travel is sustainable?
Think of it this way. If you travel as an unskilled volunteer to build a school in a third world country, you are actually taking money away from skilled locals who with you there, are not able to get that job. So, your travel there is not sustainable, especially if it is one of those tours that does not use locals to cook and other services to save money. To make it sustainable, you want to make sure you are working with professionals and using local providers.
Another way to think about sustainable travel is through food. Is the hotel or resort you are traveling to using sustainable methods to provide your food like Belcampo Belize or are they using non-sustainable methods and purveyors to source goods?
So, before you jump on an impact cruise, volunteer to help build a hospital, go on an eco-tour, or engage in sustainable tourism, do your own research and ask yourself if you’re doing no harm and then book accordingly.
Have you traveled for any of these types of travel?