A few dollars here, a few dollars there. Does how you spend your money when you travel really matter? Is it possible to align your travel approach and spending decisions with your values?
In the first part of this series, The Importance of People in Travel, we explored the relationship between people and the travel experience and we spoke of serendipity and human connections. In this segment, we talk deliberate decisions and the potential impact of our travel purchases on the communities we visit, and on the world.
One Billion Travelers
The U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projects that more than one billion people will cross borders for the purposes of tourism in 2012.
Think about it: one billion!
Particularly in the developing world, the potential of travelers to positively impact local communities through their tourism dollars is huge. But so is the risk of tourism development done poorly, running rampant over local cultures, local economies and the environment.
The upshot: Tourism can absolutely be a force for good, but it may also be a force for harm. Anything of such magnitude can cut both ways.
The beauty is that we travelers have a choice: we have the power to vote with our feet, to exercise the power of the purse.
Note: In September we spoke at two sustainable and ecotourism conferences (ESTC and GSTC). Earlier this year we spoke at G Adventures’ The Future of Tourism on interconnection between travel, technology, humanity and sustainable tourism. Our own words and the reaction of conference-goers underscored the grounding force in our approach to travel and the focus of our work within the tourism industry: people.
This is the second part in a series in which we focus on the connection between how travelers can align their purchasing decisions with their values and have an impact on local communities. If you missed the first part of the series, check out Tourism, It’s the People’s Business.
The Power of Travelers' Choices
First, to the cynics. It's easy to dismiss the weight of our purchasing decisions like our votes in political elections, to say “it doesn't matter,” particularly in the face of our ever-busier lives. Who has time to figure it all out, after all? We can't answer that second question — it's up to you. But what we choose to do and how we choose to do it does matter, particularly in the aggregate.
To prove this to yourself, try an exercise. Go back through your travel memories and think about a local shopkeeper or food vendor from whom you bought something. Anywhere. Then tell me your purchase didn't matter to them. It's small, arguably, but it matters. Then take that effect and amplify it through all decisions and purchases — and understand that's how the world of tourism ends up the way it does, for better or for worse.
A friend recently asked after hearing us speak about making travel decisions: “Do you really make conscious decisions about where to spend your money?”
We do, but it's not always easy.
There are the in-the-moment decisions on the ground that speak to an approach to travel and spending money locally. Then there are the decisions made, often in planning, of booking travel services and experiences. Both are an exercise in deliberate spending.
Spend Locally, Connect Locally
We think back to that visit to Myanmar (Burma). Because of a conscious decision to visit the country at that time, we were exceptionally cautious regarding where our money went during the visit. Why? Our goal was to put as much money in the hands of local people while keeping it out of the hands of the junta government.
We deliberately chose small, family-run places to stay and have meals. We tried to visit as many shops and restaurants as possible to spread around the money we'd spent. As a consequence of this approach, we met and connected with so many people, we listened to their stories and we came away not only with memorable experiences, but also ones that continue to inform our view of the country as its current sociopolitical events unfold. When we talk about Myanmar, we share the stories of people we met more than we’ll ever wax long about its stunning gilded Buddhist stupas.
The concept here is fundamental: when you spread your travel resources around with a focus on the community you are visiting, the more that community benefits. Perhaps that seems obvious, perhaps not.
More subtle is this: your experience will also be the better for it.
Spending and connecting locally is not only about feel-good altruism, but it can also heighten and improve your overall travel experience. Ethical, responsible travel is no longer a zero sum game. We don't have to give up anything to get something more.
The reward is built-in. And isn’t that what we’re after?
Aligning Values with Travel Spending Decisions
The impact of our travel decisions on local economies and individual people is not only about spending money in local shops and in locally owned accommodation. It’s about voting with our feet, rewarding good product and making deliberate decisions, like choosing tours and travel experiences that reflect our values.
If technology has enabled nothing else, it has flooded us with options and information to sift through that can inform — and at times complicate and confuse — our choices. Information is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can easily overwhelm, making us feel like it's impossible to separate the signal from the noise.
Technology now allows us to read reviews, ask questions directly of companies, and connect with past customers, even in real time. By no means is this travel feedback loop foolproof, but our growing access to information provides us with more transparency and a better ability to evaluate our options and find the ones that work best in terms of our desired experience.
We recall, several years ago, searching for companies to climb volcanoes with in Nicaragua. We had ample choice of tour companies in Leon, one of the setting-off points for Nicaragua’s volcano hikes. Through social media, we found and opted to hike with Quetzal Trekkers. Their tours featured comparable options to others and were similarly priced, but 100% of the profits funded a school to support street kids. That made the difference for us, and because of that, that’s where we chose to put our money. The personal satisfaction of scaling volcanoes was rounded out by knowing that the money we spent would go to help local street kids.
Similarly, when we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last year with G Adventures, we had a lot of support, as in at least three people per climber. We knew our porters were covered by insurance, wore proper gear, and were members of a fair-wage union for local porters.
Even though we didn’t see everyone who'd helped us ascend, we felt their support every step of the way up the mountain — our stuff was always waiting for us at the next resting stop, filling meals were served each night, everything worked smoothly. And while they were vested in making certain we make it safely to the top of the mountain, they were even more vested in supporting their families and sending their children to school.
Tourism executed responsibly by all involved in the chain strung together by our values, that's what allows to complete the circle.
Sustainable Tourism: Does It Cost More?
That sustainable tourism must cost more — should cost more — is one of the great false dichotomies in modern travel marketing.
Sometimes it may cost more to get the experience you want, but it doesn't always have to. All our experiences with horse treks, guides and yurt-stays with Community Based Tourism (CBT) in Kyrgyzstan were of similar price, if not less, than what other companies offered. The difference was that CBT Kyrgyzstan kept the money and training local.
Similarly, there are reports of plenty of “sustainable” safari experiences in Africa that don't offer an ounce of respect, support or protection to their employees or to animals, but still cost more than comparable tours. This has to make you wonder — where exactly is that money going?
Sometimes, the rationale for the higher price tag is readily apparent. When we were in Bangladesh, it was more expensive to spend the night with a family in a Bangladeshi village as part of a homestay program rather than at a cheap hotel in town. We are as budget minded as it comes in travel, but for the experience, we’re glad to pay a reasonable difference. The rural homestay offered a unique experience whose proceeds supported a young woman’s university education and community classes teaching life skills, professional skills and awareness of environmental impact.
This is the tourism win-win.
When we make travel purchase decisions in line with our values (i.e., we know where our money is going and whom it benefits), the resulting experiences are not only ones we feel good about, but also ones that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Do you think your travel purchasing decisions can make a difference? How?
25 thoughts on “Travel and Your Values: The Power of Deliberate Spending”
I try to! But often times when I travel it’s for just a few days and that’s make it very difficult to connect with locals. If I was traveling longterm I would be much more conscious about the things I do and see. One billion wow!
You pointed out a great issue, we don’t think about it enough while traveling!
Thanks for writing this! I had never thought of how much of an impact I can have as a traveler to the local community. This piece certainly opened up my mind to a whole new level of spending consciously. I’m going to try and apply it to my next trip.
I wonder though – because you are more exposed to poverty in 3rd world countries, wouldn’t it be easier to spend consciously there than in wealthier countries (i.e. Canada, the States, Western Europe, etc.)? Hmm…
Couldn’t agree more with the article. I did the same in Burma, family run guesthouses & food options, and got in touch with local independent guides when I wanted one.
When going to the Masai Mara I stayed at a camp just outside the park run by & employing the local Masai, with profits going towards a school and rescue centre for girls. Apart from knowing the money was helping locals and not lining the pockets of some already rich guy in Nairobi and having the best possible spotters on a game drive, you get the cultural experience having out with them around camp, village & school. Loved it (http://oldarpoimaracamp.com)
Similar things like organising your Nepal trek directly with a local Nepalese company. Rather than organising through a company in your home country which just acts as a middleman and takes a cut, your trek ended up being customised to exactly what you want, costs you less yet puts more money in the pockets of the local guys.
@Andi: Yeah, 1 billion – kind of mind boggling. And that doesn’t even include domestic travelers (i.e., those not crossing borders).
You bring up a good point. I agree that it is easier to be more conscious of spending and connect with different locals when you have a long period of time (i.e., long-term travel). However, I’d argue that even on short trips we all can make certain decisions — from the hotel and services we choose to book to where we eat — that can help make those connections even in a few days.
@Pauline: Thanks for your thoughtful comment and so glad this post got you thinking about spending consciously on your next trip. As to your question, I think it is easier to “see” the impact with small amounts of money in third world countries, but the same principles and approach apply with travel in developed countries. It’s the idea of perhaps taking a tour that helps train disadvantaged youth in tourism or only uses public transport to reduce its carbon footprint. Or maybe eating at small, individually-owned restaurants or getting coffee from a small shop instead of from a large chain. Or On our last visit to Paris, our most memorable meal was at a tiny bistro that was half a Harley Davidson bar and half a restaurant. It was run by two people (one chef, one waiter), they sourced their food locally, and we knew where our money was going. Great experience all the way around.
@Matt: Thanks for sharing such fantastic experiences and examples. Unfortunately, so many Masai villages have been treated almost as zoos over the years by the big safari business, so it’s really heartening to hear of your example where the Masai run the show and have developed the program themselves.
Your story from Nepal rings very familiar. When we were there we found our porter through a small tour company. What we liked was that he was properly insured and protected in case something happened. We’ve also found some international companies that do a good job working with local guides so that there isn’t so much of a big cut to the middle man. But, it takes time to research and find the right fit.
This is an idea that I’ve been thinking more and more about lately. When I first started traveling, I always just went with the cheapest company, cheapest option; but lately I’ve been considering what kinds of companies I’m supporting. In many ways, I feel more connected to my experiences and to the country I’m visiting, if I have a sense of where my money is going, and who is benefiting.
@Jessica: Absolutely. What you outlined in a natural progression for many of us. Like anything in life, events and experience slowly inform us. Maybe we think about things a bit more, including what and who we are supporting, directly and indirectly, through our travel purchases. And this connection is satisfying.
We’re glad the piece resonated with you.
There needs to be a simpler way for people to be smart with their money in order to influence purchasing decisions for the majority. For better or worse, people will likely always take the cheaper option unless it’s way more convenient to do otherwise (or unless they really really really care)..
That said, I’m totally with you — deliberate spending does make a difference. We just need to convince more people to believe it 🙂
@Drew: In order to convince more people to believe that deliberate spending makes a difference, we need to raise the issue. Like one of our friends asked, “Do you really think about where you money is going?” It’s surprising what we take for granted that others are not even considering.
Beyond talking about it, it’s about educating the consumer travel community and articulating what in practice it means to spend deliberately in the travel world.
The next step is tools, sites, providers, etc. providing windows that do not commoditize only by cost. It’s happening, slowly.
FInally, it’s about understanding that the “I care” approach doesn’t need to be in direct conflict with budget. That sustainable or responsible travel product must cost more is simply not correct. If budget conscious travelers search with additional variables in mind other than cost, they’d be surprised to find that quality and experiences in line with their values are not always out of reach.
Such a great post and so true, especially around the holiday times.
Thanks for posting this. I’ve always held that tourism, when done responsibly, can do more to alleviate poverty than any government scheme can.
We as a family try to stay in family run B&Bs and go to cities where public transport is encouraged. We had a great time in a family run B&B in Siem Reap and we also met by chance a taxi driver who offered to take us around in his car. We are still in touch with him over email and always recommend his services to anyone that we know visits.
For the most part family run B&Bs depend on us to spread the word and therefore try their best to make our stays as enjoyable as possible. Sometimes there are the odd niggles, but these are offset by the chance to meet a family and know about their lives.
We went to a lovely B&B in Kannur, Kerala. It was evident that the owner loved what he was doing. When he found out that my kids like chicken, he came over one night with a barbecued chicken that he had done himself and chatted with us, etc. My kids soon made themselves at home in his kitchen and when we were worried about the nuisance they might cause, he brushed us off with a “They’re just like my own sons”. Needless to say, I will stay there if I visit again and will recommend this place wholeheartedly to anyone that visits.
Thanks for another awesome article! Spending locally is undoubtedly a fundamental way of enriching the local communities we visit. My experience as a traveller is living locally is also a great way to bring vibrancy and authenticity to your travels. One great way to help ensure your money reaches the right people is to research the local culture or cultures you are going to visit before you get there. If I know, for instance, Nicaragua is known for its Nacatamales and slip pottery I am more likely to seek out those things when I am shopping in the market. After all one huge reason (maybe the reason) we all travel is to experience the place separate from our own realities. Right?
@Srivathsa: Absolutely agree with your observation regarding the power of tourism to help alleviate poverty vs. government schemes. How many well-intentioned government or not-for-profit projects with good intentions, beautiful buildings and reports — all gathering dust while the promise remains unfulfilled.
The cool thing about tourism, particularly if done right, is how it engages everyone involved. And how sharing very ordinary things in life can be rather extraordinary to others.
Your experience example with the Siem Reap driver is a perfect one. And to think you still keep in touch! And your experience with family-run B&Bs is really well said — maybe an occasional inconvenience, but the net experience makes it worth it. Not to mention the big win: to realize that we are quite a bit more similar than we are different. (I love the quote about the kids.)
@Laura: Good question: Why do we travel? One element is certainly escape, or as you put it separation from our own realities. (I like that.) Ironically, that escape often also brings us right back to the reality that we’re trying to escape, which isn’t always a bad thing (e.g. when we appreciate the things we have or identify something new we ought to consider). I guess what I’m saying here is that travel is an ideal context to highlight both similarities and differences, to appreciate them all.
I like the example of Nicaragua. Very timely, as we’re headed back there next week.
This is the BEST travel post I’ve read in a long time. I believe that, as travelers, it’s our responsibility to contribute as much as possible to the people that are sharing their lives and cultures with us. Thanks so much for writing about this important topic. You guys rock!
PS. I love Quetzaltrekkers, too! In fact, I loved Nicaragua so much that I’m returning there in January to volunteer for a few months!
@Susan: We’re blushing. Thanks so much for the nod and compliment. The topics of sustainable travel or responsible tourism, they aren’t particularly flashy, we know. But they are important to us. We’re glad they are important to you, too. All the best with your upcoming plans to return to and volunteer in Nicaragua. Looks like we’ll just be missing you by a couple of weeks.
I loved the article! When I travel I am often happy to spend money, knowing that it might make a difference in someone’s life.
@Katie: Sometimes making a difference makes all the difference. Certainly, there are ways to blend one’s budget limitations with one’s interest in doing right by the places and people they visit.
Travel choices and spending locally – so important. Great insight into something that we can all affect. I love that trips like climbing Kilimanjaro make it such that you have to hire local guides….tourism dollars are so vital, especially in places like this! I remember reading an article recently about how all-inclusive resorts were so bad for an area. It really made me think. If the resort takes all the money off shore….what do they give back? What about the mom&pop shops that sell post cards and trinkets? The local restaurants and cultures? We only really experience a place when we get out and experience it!
Great food for thought…love your article!
@Anita: Absolutely, if we do it right, tourism can definitely be a force for the positive. Your point regarding all-inclusives is a good one. If a traveler wishes to actually see and experience a destination, your garden-variety buffet-style, keep-you-trapped all-inclusive resort is really not the way to go.
“If the resort takes all the money off shore, what do they give back?” That’s the magic question.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
interesting article. it is great how you have experiences from all corners of the earth to turn to for your content.
What an interesting article and what an interesting point. It is something that I had never thought about extensively. I agree that it is important to think about where our money is going (although sometimes it is difficult because we are looking for the cheapest price). It is also an important issue to think about where our money goes when at home as well as abroad.
@andrew: The depth of around-the-world travel experience helps. At least it helps with our confidence to support the statements we make.
@Jamie: We’re glad to have covered some new territory. That was one of the motivations for writing this article. Cost and value are important in making travel choices, but if more people were aware of some of the other considerations, they would be able to buy according to some of their other values at the same time.
You articulate your ideas so well, and I am sorry I missed this post until right now! I love your suggestion to think of the actual exchange of food and money, to the person who was behind that earning the wage and serving you–yes, to that person your meal purchase made a difference. It’s really difficult though when you mention the different ways people use the buzz words. Just today someone asked me how I counter the sometimes scoffing that happens when you say the word voluntoursim, and it’s tough to explain that there are countless instances of it done wrong, but just as many of places where a conscientious approach, and informed, can be positive. Will be finding a way to link to this one 🙂
I agree with you! It is actually heartwarming to see the smiles and appreciation of locals when you purchase from them or avail of their services. Plus, connecting with them would make the trip much worth it.
@Shannon: Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. We should have run this by you earlier!
I think buzz-wording (or in the responsible and sustainable tourism terms, “greenwashing”) is the cause of the upside-down marketing logic of having to charge more for these experiences. There are so many experiences, and voluntourism has to be one of the worst offenders based on our reading. As you point out however, there are good, conscientious approaches and examples of voluntourism out there. Just a matter of tuning the BS detector when you go looking for them. And also asking why — why am I doing this? Why does it cost me money? More money? And ask who — who is benefitting? who gets the money, etc? Sometimes consumers don’t know to ask these questions, or perhaps sometimes they are afraid they don’t know enough to ask these questions. By asking the right questions, we put the onus on the seller and in the end, improve the market for these types of experiences.
@Tom: That’s the thing about systems and ecosystems, it’s basically all “one” in the end. Connection, indeed.