Tourism has the beautiful potential to act as a catalyst for cultural pride, provide unique experiences to visitors and fiscally benefit a local community. But, in its current state, tourism has a fatal flaw. On average, if you spend $100 abroad, less than $10 of that will go back into benefitting the local economy.
How is it that an industry valued at $7.5 trillion has so much potential, and yet falls so tragically short?
There is no questioning the fact that travel is universally appealing. I can’t think of anyone who would turn down an opportunity to explore the world. So: Imagine the possibilities that lie within harnessing the power of the travel industry, and turning it into a force for good. Travel can (and should) act as the catalyst for solving the world’s most pressing issues.
In 2015, the United Nations announced the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of ambitious targets created to essentially end every single issue our world faces by the year 2030. The 17 goals address issues ranging from poverty to inequalities, injustice and environmental issues — for every single person on earth. And many of these goals are achievable through travel.
So how do we start?
Imagine your favorite travel experience. Was it on a tour bus? At an iconic tourist site? I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t, and I’d place my money on the fact that, instead, it was centered around a more serendipitous or unexpected encounter with a local.
Connecting with locals provides us with our most authentic travel experiences. It satisfies a basic human need to build relationships, and it can help us to empathize with the world around us.
Your purchase power is strong, and a vote for local ensures that you are supporting the community you’re visiting. Spend your time and money in places (whether small business or corporate) that are triple bottom line and showcase radical transparency in supporting the people, planet and their own profit. Your dollar can go a long way.
Yes, it (can be) great if you want to give back to a community on a voluntourism trip, or to spend time in an ecolodge completely off the grid. But far too often, many of these projects are disguised by greenwashing, or simply do not offer a valuable resource to a developing community. Take heed to do a critical self-assessment, and ask yourself: Does it do more to make you feel good than it does to actually do good?
Take care to avoid participating in efforts that can be more detrimental than helpful to developing countries. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) offers a wonderful framework and set of criteria for sustainable businesses, and can be a great resource when considering where to spend your time and money. Focus on the programs that are centered on empowering communities, rather than offering handouts or temporary solutions.
Build Sustainability into Indulgence (or whatever else you want)
Not to criticize these initiatives, but niche forms of travel, like ecotourism or voluntourism, are just a small portion of the larger spectrum of the travel and tourism industry. The reality is that at the end of the day, most people want a vacation — which is completely understandable. You don’t need to feel guilty about indulging, as long as you do it in a sustainable and responsible way.
From London to Shanghai, Buenos Aires or Cape Town, most travelers are opting for cities as their desired destinations. And therein that fact lies the solution to the future of the travel industry: Cities can become capitals of sustainable travel.
There is no reason that you cannot visit somewhere like New York City in a way that is beneficial to the the local community. Look for gems like the Urban Cowboy in Williamsburg, an Urban Oyster tour that shows you another side of Times Square, and the experimental art at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. You will quickly discover that there are many more sides to the City that Never Sleeps that are more quintessential than the I Love New York campaign.
Become Part of a Community
There is a growing and powerful movement focused on purpose-driven businesses and sustainable practices within the travel industry. Find these people and connect with them; they will be your greatest assets in building a sustainable future together.
Travel+SocialGood, a nonprofit aimed at propelling the travel industry to meet its potential for global positive impact, is building a community to connect and celebrate those in the travel industry who are doing well by doing good. Through Hubs (local chapters), TSG hosts events in more than 20 cities worldwide. Run by a team of volunteers, TSG’s community is passionate about creating positive and lasting change within the industry.
Make Sustainability a Part of Your Lifestyle
The travel industry of the future is one in which mindful travelers bring positive impact to the communities they visit. This methodology is a lifestyle — whether you’re home or abroad. The easiest way to apply these ideas in your travel plans is by starting today and implementing them into your day-to-day life. Whether it’s by shopping at businesses that support community projects or by simply being aware of where your clothes are manufactured, a more sustainable travel industry starts with the small intention that you apply in your everyday decisions.
This post originally appeared in an online magazine for an NTA partner.
You can view it here.