Far flung travel provides a dilemma for many of us with an ethical conscience. Our thirst for discovery means we want to explore authentic places, yet we know air travel is a significant contributor to rising levels of C02. Does this mean we shouldn’t go ?
We don’t think so. It just requires a little extra thought to ensure we give back as much as we take from these experiences. There are companies that offer to offset your carbon emissions from travel, but far more than that we have the power to choose how much social impact our adventures have; and we always aim for an overriding positive impact.
So, over the course of two blog posts we will share some considerations for ethical travel by drawing on our own experiences as a family, travelling for a year.
Fortune favours the brave. When it comes to accommodation choose local guesthouses rather than international chains. It’s understandable to favour familiarity when you’re already in a strange country, but living like a local provides a far richer experience.
We had some great experiences staying in small, personal guesthouses on our travels, more often than not, received as if we were extended family, sharing food together and learning about the local culture in an intimate way otherwise unavailable.
It also gave our children so many opportunities to mix with children from the host’s family. The experience is so much more enriching and wholesome and although accommodation may be basic, the experience more than makes up for it.
A couple of highlights that spring to mind was the Cosy Cottage in Tangalle, Sri Lanka (a stone's throw away from the most beautiful tropical beaches) where Tina had a chance to learn how to make Sri Lankan sambols - delightfully fragrant and spicy condiments which accompany many Sri Lankan dishes
Making sambols at Cosy Cottage, Tangalle
Another very local experience we had was at a the Smile Guesthouse in the small sleepy town of Vaikom, located on the lush green back waters of Kerala. We learnt to cook lots of wonderful local Keralan dishes with Mini the caretaker.
Cooking rich coconut curries and Biryani on the backwaters of Kerala
Hotel search engines take a commission from all bookings so booking directly with the proprietor saves you money and means more cash stays in the country you are visiting.
An exception to this is AirBnB, the site that links travellers to local home stays. It can be an excellent way to meet locals and get insider travel tips whilst keeping the consumer security AirBnB offers.
A good way you can offset your carbon footprint from long distance travel is to stay at an eco lodge which ensure positive relationships with local people and the environment.
They usually train and employ local people at fair wages, take part in community development initiatives, offer activities that help visitors conserve and appreciate local customs, and contribute to the local economy. A good place to search for an Eco Lodge is Responsible Tourism
Tours are a great way to see a country when everything is new and unfamiliar. The internet is dominated by large tour operators focused on selling experiences but you can make a far bigger contribution to the local economy of a country by finding a tour locally.
Thousands of grass roots, low impact, high sustainability initiatives all over the world struggle to tell tourists they exist. Very few of these inspirational ethical travel initiatives have the resources or skills to market themselves on-line in an industry dominated by multinational companies.
So by doing things a bit more ‘off the cuff’ and not being too preoccupied about having everything organised beforehand, can not only result in a more rewarding experience but also ensure the money you spend stays within the local economy. And after all when the experiences we are paying for are ‘owned’ locally, isn’t it only just that it’s the locals that benefit ?
What’s more, these smaller tour guides may have better local knowledge than the larger tours, and are able to take you to places off the tourist track.
Trip Advisor and The Ethical Travel Guide by Tourism Concern are a good place to start, but equally don’t rely on every tour guide having an online presence. Avoid middlemen run tours as again, they are just sales people.
It’s easy and cheap to air-hop across Asia but there are more environmentally friendly (and far more adventurous) options if you have the time available. The romance of train travel is captivating, with many routes updated to modern standards.
If we hadn’t used the rail network to travel across India, we wouldn’t have seen the country as intimately and authentically as we did !
Trains become like a second home for the 12 or so hours you’re on board, and by the time you alight at your destination you’re often on first name terms with everyone around you and that’s not to mention the amazing snacks to sample from the frequent hawkers who walk through the carriage selling their wares !
Buses might be less comfortable but act as a cheap way to get from A to B and enjoy an accidental tour on route, as well as mixing with locals and backpackers.
Having said that after a horrendous 27 hour journey on a sleeper bus (two tiered beds with no option to stand) from Luang Prabang, Laos to Hanoi, Northern Vietnam I did swear I would NEVER go on a bus again !
Although Grab, Uber and other on-line taxi services are becoming convenient ways to travel around major cites in Asia these days, it is important to note that they do threaten the livelihoods of long established local taxi drivers and other more traditional types of transport (becak, tuk tuk, rickshaw, rod song thaew etc), which just cannot compete with the economies of scale offered by these international operators.
The girls making friends on a long Indian train journey
Although there is justifiable concern about ‘volunteer tourism’ volunteering can be a great way to see a place and give something back for your experiences. Global travel companies provide gap year students with a hassle-free trip and a heightened sense of security but they add a significant mark-up that local communities never see.
Liaising directly with local projects (e.g. schools, animal sanctuaries) cuts out the middle man. Look for leads through online forums and social media, ensuring you talk to someone from the organisation by phone or Skype before you turn up.
If you are travelling for longer, in-country word-of-mouth tips will lead you to opportunities. Just be clear on what you can offer, maybe English language teaching, carpentry work, care work; even admin and technology skills.
Only trained individuals should work at orphanages, as ‘tourists’ popping in and out can cause more damage to already vulnerable children.
Finally, if you want to contribute something to the local community, travellers wanting to help would do more good by donating to international or grass roots charities rather than handing out money or buying items.