Sustainable travel: It’s not just about the environment
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.”