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Can Travel Be Both Financially and Socially Responsible?

Can Travel Be Both Financially and Socially Responsible?

Liz Biscevic — Moral Compass

Art by Eli Miller

Art by Eli Miller

My obsession with travel started with reading. Even at 10 years old, I was enchanted by the ability to live so many lives and experience so many places amid the flatness and uniformity of my day to day. My family didn’t have money for vacations to the far-off lands I read about and, though they listened to me rattle on about the places I’d go and encouraged me to find a way, it wasn’t something they could help me with. So it became my mission to figure out how I could turn the adventures I read about into real-life experiences.

I see inspirational quotes on Instagram and Facebook saying that travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer. That’s never been the case for me. Traveling the world comes at a price—but with all of the articles I’d read about budget travel, work exchange trips, and low-cost destinations, I was confident I’d find a way. When planning that first trip, I didn’t worry about what it would cost the country to host me, or about the ethics of taking advantage of another country’s economic dismay. Before I traveled, the world seemed so large and, as a result, the world’s problems far beyond anything for which I could be responsible. 

When I graduated college I joined a program to teach English in Italy, my first experience abroad, alone. It was basically a glorified babysitting role—a way to keep children occupied during the summer while their parents worked—but still, I’d be paid enough to live and explore a new place, and as my flight took off I watched my world disappear into the clouds, eager and anxious to see where this voyage would take me.

When we experience a new place for the first time, everything is unfamiliar, and as a result we are more affected by it. My first week in Italy, while walking from the school to my house with two other teachers, we were bombarded by a group of children, offering us small trinkets in hope of a few euros in exchange. My new friends and I shuffled through our wallets and each begrudgingly handed them a 5-euro note.

The next day they were back. And the day after.

In an unspoken agreement, we began to take an alternate route from school. After all, none of us were rich. We were working hard to be in Italy, and hoped to return to our countries with some money saved from the trip.

Sometimes we spoke about those kids, about their lives and our guilt, but most of the time we did not. I wondered in silence if I had done too little, or too much, and I noticed the poverty amid the prosperity with much more awareness than I ever had in comparable neighborhoods back home.

Perhaps our experience was particularly uncomfortable because it forced us to confront our privilege in the faces of young kids selling their childhood for a few euros. It’s in our nature to ignore this reality, to allow our human need for connection to literally and figuratively blind us. We ask ourselves how am I like them and how are they like me, and we filter out what doesn’t belong. But when we travel to unfamiliar locales, sometimes we are jarred into facing the truth, and left to explore what it means to us, and how we deal with it.

Through my travels I’ve listened to stories told by homeless refugees in Amsterdam, had coffee in Madrid with women forced into the sex industry, and volunteered in an impoverished community in Sao Paulo under the protection of a known drug dealer. I’ve dealt with racism in Canada, selected destinations based on economic and social stability, and experienced what it’s like to be both a tourist and a local in many cities and countries, each one shaping the way I approached the next.

One time in Japan, I stayed with three Buddhist 20-somethings and their pet turtle. There was a large poster hanging in the kitchen, a sailboat on an ocean with words written in Kanji.

“I like that,” I said, pointing to the poster.

“Pulling water for my own rice paddy,” my host translated, nodding.

It means doing things only for our own benefit, and as I sat in his small, cramped flat, rain leaking into a pot covered with cloth to cancel out the incessant drips, I wondered if my host found any irony in my interest—an American traveler with nothing to give his country or his home, other than what I’d pay him.

Since that first trip to Italy I’ve traveled from place to place, spending surprisingly little for what I’ve done and seen—a skill I’ve continued to hone and develop throughout the years. And it’s not a bad skill set to have, forgoing a hotel to bunk with a local, knowing that the best way to truly experience a city is to walk it. But we budget travelers aren’t absolved from our effects on the communities we visit. A growing number of us know that sometimes you must pay a little more to maintain your moral compass or pass up an opportunity that isn’t going to benefit the place you’re visiting. But managing our travel in a way that maintains the cultural and ecological integrity of our destination means we’re helping to preserve that beauty and diversity. For most of us, that in itself is worth it.

In this column, I’ll discuss the ideas behind ethical travel. I’ll share stories from my own experiences—the ones I’m proud of and the ones I learned from. I’ll talk about budget travel, and how to create a balance that’s both financially and socially responsible. I’ll give readers a glimpse into the social issues, environmental concerns, culture, and economies of the countries we visit. I’ll speak to being a respectful guest in someone else’s home—going where you’re invited, appreciating the culture in front of you, and traveling in a way that does not only enrich yourself.

I’m always surprised by what I learn along the way. 

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