What If Your Vacation Could Be a Way of Giving Back?
Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
Travelers often tout tourism as a way to improve the world. At their best, tourists create economic growth and empower the communities they visit. But that’s not the norm yet—according to the United Nations Environment Programme, for every $100 a Westerner spends outside of their native country, only $5 goes back into the local economy. G Adventures, which operates in nearly 100 countries, seeks to change that by offering tours and vacation packages that directly benefit the communities they work in, while educating travelers to make ethical spending choices abroad.
Kim McCabe, head of public relations for G Adventures, tells me via phone that the company’s mission is to “bridge the gap between the large tour companies and the backpacking world in a way that would bring more local cultures and communities into the tourism economy.”
Each G Adventures experience adheres to three pillars: train the next generation of youth, conserve indigenous cultures, and empower women. McCabe says, “One of the things we look for is areas that have worthwhile social enterprise that might be enhanced by more travelers visiting.” That means finding places that are home to existing community-supported businesses with the potential to flourish.
One example McCabe gives is their work with the Wiwa people—an indigenous group who live in the mountains of northern Colombia. Historically, the Wiwa have avoided contact with other peoples, but since the 1970s, they’ve tried to find ways to engage with tourism while also maintaining their way of life and their environment. The Wiwa leadership required that any tourism partnership respect their culture, provide dignified and steady employment, and join them in their ancient mission of protecting the planet. G Adventures, through their nonprofit arm, Planeterra, was the first global tour operator to be approved.
Planeterra helped the Wiwa people establish the infrastructure required to accommodate tourists by contributing several thousand dollars to help build a new restaurant, carve a new trail, and hire and train more Wiwa to facilitate tours of the nearby Ciudad Perdida Teyuna, or the Lost City of Teyuna, founded by the Tayrona people (the ancestors of the Wiwa) in 650 AD.
The results of these efforts are a now big part of G Adventure’s seven-day “Colombia Lost City Trekking Tour.” Travelers arrive in Santa Maria for a day of solo exploring, and bunk at a small, family-run boutique hotel. On the second day, they begin the excursion, trekking with a local guide through the jungle and into a Wiwa camp. The rest of the week is spent exploring the lost city ruins and participating in local tours and experiences—like guided jungle hikes and visits to a working banana farm. On the last day, the G Adventures guide returns travelers to their hotel in Santa Maria. Throughout the trip, included meals occur either at a local-owned restaurant or, occasionally, in the home of a community member.
According to McCabe, G Adventures focuses on creating “mutually respectful experiences that allow tourists to witness and experience the culture, on the local people’s terms.” The company relies on several governing policies, created in consultation with various outside experts. “We have guidelines and policies for indigenous people's welfare, children's welfare, and animal welfare,” says McCabe.
For instance, with the Wiwa people, G Adventures allow travelers to ride through one of their villages so they can glimpse what daily life is like, but they're not able to disembark and roam around. “We try to educate our travelers: these are some constructive things to do, these are some things you may be doing that could have unintended, harmful consequences,” says McCabe. “For example, you might have heard that bringing a suitcase full of things you want to donate, or giving out cash or candy, is the right thing to do, but there are other, more beneficial ways to help” —like contributing to local infrastructure projects that have a longer lasting impact than second-hand t-shirts or candy.
Many G Adventures tours are centered around women. This isn’t just because women make up the majority of the tourism workforce abroad, but also because it’s been proven that women tend to reinvest the benefits of economic opportunity in their communities. Travel and tourism is a tremendous job creator for women because it often capitalizes on skills and assets they already have. McCabe explains, “Say you have a skill with weaving or are a really good cook, maybe you have a house that's been passed down by your family that you want to open and provide a homesharing opportunity. The barrier for entry doesn’t require a lot of money or a ton of education, [so] more women can get in the door.”
Responsible tourism also means occasionally turning down opportunities. McCabe says that if they aren’t able to guarantee the trip experience will meet their customer service standards, or guarantee that the people employed along the way will actually see gains from that work, they hold off. For example, because of government corruption and control over tourism in Cuba, G Adventures does not operate there. “We want to make sure we're working in places where there's no barrier to people gaining and profiting from their work and talents if they're contributing,” says McCabe.
G Adventures offers over 700 trip packages ranging from $300 to nearly $10,000. But for budget travelers or those who prefer to design their own tour, it’s still possible to be your best tourist self. McCabe says “as much as humanly possible, choose local. The most important advice would be find a bed and breakfast, a local homestay, or a little inn that isn't part of a chain. That'll give you a more authentic experience and you'll know that whatever you're spending for that room, housekeeping, and food is going directly into that community.”
McCabe also recommends packing light, even for a long trip abroad. “It's actually beneficial to pack less and plan to buy whatever else you need in the local country and community. Obviously you can bring your favorite outfits, but do you have to bring sunscreen or an extra umbrella? Most places—unless they're extremely remote—will sell you all of that, and it’ll be so much more interesting to buy! One of my favorite things to do is to browse local markets, whether it's a local drugstore or an open-air shop.” That also gives you a personal glimpse into local life, and those needed items become souvenirs. “At the same time, because you're spending your money locally, you're helping boost the local economy and helping put people to work.”
It takes some research, but when possible, choose the local option or companies who are serious about social enterprise and cultural sustainability. Though tourism has the potential to create opportunity, it’s up to travelers to ensure they’re leaving the place they visit a little better than it was before they arrived.