Travelling is a great way to explore different cultures, as well as give back to the local community. Here are five ways to give back while you get away.
Fit in Some Voluntourism
Voluntourism gives visitors the opportunity to leave a tangible mark on the community they visit by working on environmental, education or social projects during their stay.
“Many travellers would like to give back and deliver genuine benefits through personal assistance to those less fortunate than themselves,” says Megan Epler Wood, Director of Planeterra, which organizes voluntourism projects around the world. Planeterra was founded by Toronto-based eco- and adventure travel agency Gap Adventures.
Unfortunately, in response to voluntourism’s growing popularity, scams have sprung up, so do your research.
“There are countless online volunteer forums that are great resources for feedback and recommendations from other travellers,” says Epler Wood.
Travel Off the Beaten Track
“We tend to travel off-the-beaten roads, where we’ll encounter locals. These circumstances force you to see and understand how some people live in the world,” says Claudia Hung, a Markham, Ontario-based photographer who recently returned from hiking Peru (with Gap Adventures) and is heading to Uganda in early 2011.
If your goal is cultural exchange, mingle with locals. Stay at smaller guesthouses or inns, use home stays, couch surf or camp. (Voluntourism programs can make this less daunting.)
Even if you stay at a resort:
• Dine off-resort. Ask locals where they eat. You’ll support the local economy while getting a more authentic taste of the region than resort restos offer.
• “Shop at community-based handicraft co-operatives, markets and small businesses,” says Epler Wood. Craftspeople net more of the profit when you buy at the community level.
• Hire a local guide for sightseeing and adventure tours. “No one knows the culture, history and geography better than a local,” says Epler Wood.
The most immediate and direct way to give back is through financial means. We tip more generously for services than we would back home,” says Hung.
Don’t forget to tip the oft-overlooked hotel cleaning staff: leave a few dollars on the kitchen or bathroom counter each morning.
Insider secret: for adventure trips, tip your guide early. (When scuba diving, for instance, this pretty much guarantees you’ll be the first to know if the dive master spots a shark, sea horse or other prize sighting!)
On a related point, don’t take haggling overboard. Keep it good natured and fair. Frankly, who cares if you get “taken” for an extra $5 on a souvenir bowl if it means the seller has more money to feed her children with?
Support Big-Picture Solutions to the Poverty You See
Don’t harden your heart to children begging in the streets. “The best way to give back in this situation is to donate to an organization that supports specific initiatives that are designed to help children,” says Epler Wood.
Animal lovers: see if there’s a group that helps homeless animals in certain destinations. For example, over the past six years, Thailand’s Soi Dog Foundation has fed, vaccinated, spayed/neutered, and provided emergency medical care for tens of thousands of stray dogs and cats in the Phuket region.
Kickstart your vacation by researching online for charities in your destination and making a donation. Lonely Planet guidebooks also list charities.
Build Relationships and Continue the Cultural Exchange
A more equitable exchange is key to making travel more fair and meaningful. If someone has enriched your travels, consider giving back by mailing examples of Canadian food, culture or even photos from your trip. When Hung returned from a 2005 trip to Malawi, she ordered a custom book made filled with portraits of the locals she’d met, and sent it back for everyone to enjoy.
The best part: global friendships you can facilitate via email and Facebook-and maybe even future visits!