April 13, 2018
A look at tours and programs that address the impact travelers have on the communities they visit.
The term “sustainable travel” has a green glow to it, connoting eco-friendly practices and environmental responsibility. But the human side of sustainability, as defined by the World Tourism Organization, addresses community impact, both social and economic, and is newly gaining traction among travel companies.
Social impact travel aims to ensure money spent on a tour or a trip stays in the community. A vital source of income to developing nations, travel is the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the 48 least developed countries, according to the W.T.O., yet a 2013 report from the organization noted that just $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country stayed in that destination.
“There’s a lot of people who think ‘eco-tourism’ when they hear ‘sustainable tourism,’ but that’s a piece of the puzzle,” said Kelley Louise, the executive director of the Impact Travel Alliance, an industry nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable travel. “Sustainability has a positive impact not only on the environment, but the culture and the economy of the destination you’re visiting.”
Among new developments, the Jordan Tourism Board created the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan in March, highlighting 12 social enterprises in the country, including a Bedouin camp stay, a women’s weaving group and village tours that support local entrepreneurs. Last fall, the tour company Collette launched Impact Travel Tours, which spend half of the time sightseeing and the other half visiting community-based improvement projects. Earlier this year, the safari company andBeyond launched philanthropic-focused itineraries in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Organizations promoting social impact travel aim to emphasize not just big do-good trips, but to educate travelers about their smallest decisions, such as eating at a locally owned restaurant.
“Every time you have a meal, get accommodations or do activities, you can have a positive impact just by traveling,” said Paula Vlamings, the chief executive of Tourism Cares, a nonprofit organization representing the tourism industry that, among other programs, trains Good Travels advisers, travel agents who specialize in socially responsible travel experiences. “Leaving money in the community is such an important way to have a huge impact. The ripple effect, particularly for women, girls and the environment, demonstrates the power of travel.”
Some sustainable trips are priced like luxury vacations, a fact that prompted the 2015 launch of Giving Way, a platform linking volunteers directly with nongovernmental agencies, cutting out intermediaries that link the two.
“Volunteering should be accessible to everyone, not just a rich man’s privilege,” said Orit Strauss, the founder and chief executive of Giving Way, which now works with nearly 1,900 organizations in more than 115 countries. About half are free and the other half charge nominal fees to cover food and lodging. Activities range from working on an organic farm in Costa Rica to mentoring youth in rural South Africa.
Assessing the claims of a social impact travel company requires asking where the money goes. “That information isn’t readily available now,” said Salli Felton, of the nonprofit Travel Foundation, which tests programs that benefit local communities. “What’s critical is tracing the impact. If customers ask, they’ll start doing it. If they can’t answer that question, that should be a red flag.”
Doing good doesn’t require traveling through multiple time zones or long stays. New initiatives like Kind Traveler, which launched in 2016, aim to make each trip, however short, an opportunity to improve local lives. The hotel booking website offers discounted rooms to users who make a $10 donation to a charity affiliated with the hotel. Hotels are vetted for their sustainable practices, including environmental and community impacts. The company now offers hotels in 30 destinations in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and the Caribbean and plans to add hotels in Aspen, Colo., Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., this spring.
Day trips that take place in communities often give back to them. Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours in New Orleans, for example, donates $5 of its $65 fee to local charities. Oyster hauling or crabbing with Virginia Watermen Heritage Tours provides a secondary source of income to fishermen in a string of coastal communities. The tour booking site Visit.org allows users to search for experiences by interests, including women’s empowerment and human rights.
When it launched its Experiences tours in 2016, Airbnb added social impact programs; 100 percent of the fees go to nonprofits and entrepreneurs highlighted in each tour. They may include an outing in Venice with the founder of a community garden, a LGBTQ history tour of New York with an activist or an experience making notebooks in Prague with the founder of a nonprofit that works with artisans challenged by mental and physical disabilities.
For those who have the time, tour operators offer myriad ways to contribute to social causes.
It’s not uncommon for safari companies in Africa to add community tours to their itineraries, often to show off how they’re spreading the wealth locally via education and health care. This year, andBeyond introduced Travel With Purpose trips, which spend more time visiting conservation and community projects based on the interests of millennial travelers interested in philanthropy.
“Only when you actually get your hands proverbially dirty by rolling up your sleeves and engaging in these projects and initiatives can you really learn and understand the issues and how we can make an impact, however small,” wrote Joss Kent, chief executive of andBeyond, in an email.
Many high-end tour operators such as Audley Travel and Scott Dunn partner with ME to WE, the travel arm of the WE Charity devoted to sustainable development, to offer social impact trips. African Travel, Inc. offers ME-to-WE Adventure to Kenya (four days from $2,195) in a Maasai Mara community, including learning traditional beading and helping to build a school. Me to We executives say half of its net profits go to the charity.
Village Ways, named best tour operator in the poverty reduction category in 2017 by Responsible Travel, a travel agency that specializes in sustainable travel, guides trips in Bhutan, India and Nepal that focus on village life. New this year, the company will offer trips with the Anwals, migratory shepherds in the Indian Himalayas, walking with them for two days as they drive their sheep to the high meadows. The rest of the time, guests walk from village to village, staying in local guesthouses (10 days from £1,052, or about $1,480).