As terms like “socially conscious” and “eco-travel” have made their way into our vocabulary, many travelers (myself included) have been thinking about ways they can support the communities they visit. And while adapting your travel style to be more respectful towards the people and ecosystem of your far-off destinations may seem daunting, it actually only takes some little changes before you leave and while you’re on the road. And guess what? Not only does it benefit where you go, but it also enriches your experience as well!
Here are five things you should start doing to be a socially and eco-conscious traveler.
Take Time to Learn About Your Destination…Then Start Packing
Before you take off, take time to learn about the cultures and ecosystems of your destination. So for example, I’m currently planning for a possible trip to Senegal and picked up copy of the book Culture and Customs of Senegal by Eric R. Ross. Because knowing a bit of how things are done in the local community can go a long way in demonstrating respect for the culture you’ll be visiting. Learning a few key expressions in the local language, like French or Wolof for my potential adventure to Senegal, will also help you communicate more effectively and integrate better into the local culture. Taking this time to learn beforehand allows you to be a respectful traveler and leave a positive impression and impact on the community you’re visiting.
Go Local While You’re Traveling Abroad
One way you can make a positive impact on a community is to visit small local businesses instead of pouring money into large chain stores and restaurants. This helps support local entrepreneurs and strengthens the local economy. Whenever I travel in France, instead of getting my morning coffee at Starbucks, I grab an espresso from the family-owned café across the street. I also stay at family-owned boutique hotels or on sustainable farms. Ecobnb.com is a great resource for finding such places. When I purchase souvenirs, I pick up handmade pottery or textiles from local artisans and craftspeople instead of a “J’aime Paris” shirt made abroad and shipped in for tourists. Not only do these actions support the community you’re visiting, they help make your travel experience more authentic.
Take Time During Your Trip to Help Out
Volunteering when you travel can be a great way to contribute to a community. And the best way to do it is to connect with an organization led by locals. A great place to start is with a website like Volunteer Match, which pairs volunteers with local organizations. It’s best to connect with a local organization because they’ll have a better feel for what work needs to be done and how to best accomplish it while still respecting the culture of those you are aiming to help. If you choose to volunteer with a larger organization with more of an international presence, make sure it’s a member of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a nonprofit that certifies and accredits volunteer abroad programs.
Share What You Learned on Your Trip with Others
You can continue to be a socially and eco-conscious traveler after you get back at home. Talk with friends and family members about the things you learned regarding your destination’s cultural norms and ecological issues. A trip to Brazil, for example, can be the perfect jumping off point to talk with them about the deforestation of the Amazon River Basin. I hope that after my trip to Senegal, I’ll be able to talk with people back home about the role of Islam in Senegalese society, like how some businesses have different hours during Ramadan. It doesn’t even have to be preachy, you can recommend restaurants and local lodging companies to those planning a trip to the same place, that would benefit from their patronage. And remember, these days sharing what you know includes social media… So post away!
Continue to Learn and Give Back AFTER Your Trip
There are many ways you can keep learning about and giving back to a community once you’re back home. You can use your newfound knowledge and perspectives and change the way you think about consumption at home and how your decisions at home affect people abroad. A socially and eco-conscious trip to the Mexico’s Central Valleys, for example, may inspire you to purchase authentic, fair-trade Oaxacan textiles instead of replicas from corporate home décor stores, which can help preserve an art form and a way of life for the people you met.
Are you an eco-traveler? Leave us some tips or lessons learned on your travels in the the comments section!