Tips for the Conscious Traveler in 2018

5 things to consider when traveling “for good”

As we near the ringing in of the new year, resolutions abound. Perhaps you’re considering a resolution to travel more in 2018 - here at Ignite we’re all about that. We believe passionately in the power of travel experiences to connect, empower and unleash resources that improve the world. So the more travel, the merrier.

Many travelers in 2018 will be hoping to engage in travel for good. More than $2 billion is spent annually on impact-focused travel and year-over-year demand continues to increase, particularly among millennials and the businesses looking to recruit and retain them. Corporate leaders and individual travelers alike are looking for something more than a stay at an all inclusive resort. They want to travel responsibly and support sustainable development around the world.

At Ignite, we believe offering people the chance to learn and grow on an experience packed with cultural immersion and community engagement is a powerful way to effect positive change. But what goes into planning a meaningful and authentic experience? Here are some tips to keep in mind as you plan your next impactful adventure:

1  //  cut out the middleman

Start by investing the extra time necessary to identify businesses, restaurants, hotels and tour companies that are locally owned, committed to fair wages and involved in the community. This can sometimes be easier said than done when you are traveling to a country where you may not speak the language or have a deep understanding of local customs, but it is always worthwhile to identify travel providers who are truly locally minded and avoid taking a cut of the top that the community may never see. Travel providers like VAYANDO and Human Connections are good examples of organizations committed to passing along your travel dollars directly to the community.

2  //  don’t oversimplify

When choosing to travel abroad, don’t give in to the temptation to oversimplify the issues you encounter, or expect to swoop in with a quick fix to long-standing challenges. The “reductive seduction,” or imagined simplicity of unfamiliar problems, often leads visitors to seek silver bullets to extremely complicated issues. Instead, travelers who wish to be a part of a useful and sustainable solution must recognize that local leaders are the best suited to understand the complexities at hand.

When considering hands-on community engagement, take stock of the project you will be working on and consider what will happen after you leave. Is your engagement going to be part of a broader, sustainable effort - something with lasting impact that will be maintained after you fly home? Is it a project created by a middleman and catered towards profiting from good intentions? Or worse, a program that leaves vulnerable communities less empowered than they were before (see PlayPumps and the orphan tourism industry)? Consider the local political dynamics, customs, and industries that may disrupt, or be disrupted by, a good or service provided by travelers. Asking questions like “Is this truly needed?” “Is this something I would do if I was in the U.S.?” and “Will it hurt local producers?” are good first steps. Above all, listen to local concerns and desires and work with an organization with deep roots in the community. Your idea of “doing good” may differ considerably from a locals’, and travelers must be able to revise their expectations of what “should” be done.

3  //  consider your footprint

Choosing to travel far from home has an inherent carbon impact and the consequences of our collective carbon footprint is disproportionately harming communities with limited resources. This is a reality that no amount of greenwashed marketing can deny. However, when you do choose to travel, there are concrete actions you can take that reduce your footprint on the local and global environment:

  • Eating local, sustainably sourced food is probably one of the easiest things you can do - if you’re like me, it might be a big part of why you love traveling in the first place.

  • Identify hotels committed to environmental stewardship (look for internationally respected certifications like that of the Rainforest Alliance or EarthCheck).

  • Choose activities where you provide the transportation - like biking or hiking instead of renting a car.

  • Find great deals on flights - while budget airlines may squeeze your knees, they are also frequently more efficient with their carbon emissions per passenger.

  • Finally, consider carbon offsets - offsets don’t negate the emissions created by travel, but they can help provide some balance.

4  //  hardship isn’t glamorous

Many travelers are told that “roughing it” will provide the most immersive cultural experience. But experiencing hardship for a limited period of time does not lead to better cultural understanding. This comes through meaningful interaction with community members - listening to their triumphs, hardships, concerns, and hopes for the future. So take time to get to know people in the community.

When it comes to documenting your experience - be sensitive and think before you click. Traveling abroad should be about changing more than just your Facebook profile picture. Be wary of posting photos of locals who you do not know, or photos that perpetuate cultural stereotypes and depict people as helpless. Rather than focus on getting an “exotic” shot, focus on taking uplifting photos with locals who you have developed relationships with.

5  //  recognize the benefits you receive

Travelers should constantly ask whether their actions have benefited the community to which they have traveled, but they should also recognize the many personal benefits they receive from their experiences. A tendency to frame community engagement and service as purely altruistic can fuel “Western savior” stereotypes, and can lead to unintentional distancing from the community. Instead, travelers should embrace the opportunity for personal development, while retaining a sense of humility and remembering they are traveling to learn. When you do this, you’ll likely conclude that you received far more than you gave on your immersion and engagement adventure.

At Ignite, we are globally minded change-makers and we believe in the power of connection to inspire and transform. Whether you choose one of our experiences, or find another way to experience meaningful travel, I hope these tips empower you to take a step towards a life-changing and world-changing journey in 2018.


Thanks to Aran Teeling for support drafting this piece.