Are we making a difference when we travel?

I’d never really thought whether we’re making a difference when we travel until Are we making a difference when we travelI read this article on The Guardian website. For some reason or another, it really struck a chord with me.

I had never really considered myself lucky in the fact that I have lived and travelled to many different countries.

My reasoning was that this opportunity was open to virtually everyone. You just had to have balls to grasp the opportunity.

After reading the aforementioned article I realise that I was wrong. That may be the case for somebody who is lucky enough to be born somewhere like England.

But for people born in war-torn places such as Iraq or Syria, that reality is very different

Are we making a difference when we travel?

Initially

Until I read the article I mentioned above I’d never really given much thought to whether we are making a difference when we travel.

This thought had never occurred to me when I went travelling around Australia. I just wanted to do something that I had always dreamed about. It never really entered my mind whether I would be doing good or harm on my travels. I just wanted to go travelling!

I would have to say that during my time in Australia, I probably didn’t make a difference while I was travelling. My emphasis was on having fun and enjoying myself. I never really thought what impact my actions would be having on the environment or to those around me.

Making a difference

I would say the first time that I truly made a difference while I was travelling was when I was on my New Zealand working holiday. I spent 10 of my 12 months in the country living and working in Christchurch.

The reason I travelled to Christchurch was due to the devastating earthquakes that hit the city in 2011. This meant that there was a lot of construction work in the city and that I would be a part of the rebuild of the city.

This was definitely the first made I was making a difference while travelling. I was part of an amazing project rebuilding a city from the ground up. As I was mainly replacing wastewater pipes, a lot of my contribution is not exactly visible.

However, it’s a nice feeling to know that I played a small part in helping the city get back on its feet. I’ll admit it wasn’t easy to live in Christchurch and it definitely wasn’t the best job I’ve ever had. But, knowing that I made a difference to the city, however small, was a great feeling!

 

Broken buildings in Christchurch

Realisation

The moment that I realised how lucky I was to be able to travel was when I went travelling to the Philippines.  It was my first time in South East Asia, I had never travelled to what you might describe as a ‘poor country’ before. To say it was a culture shock was to put it mildly!

Driving to my hostel from the airport, I was struck by the poverty that I saw all around me. I couldn’t believe it. Seeing it on TV is completely different to seeing it in real life when it’s all around you. It really opened my eyes. As I started travelling around Manila, this became even more apparent.

Walking through slums, it was made painfully just how much poverty there was. It was literally a case of crossing the road from the affluent area to being in a slum. I struggled to reconcile this.

Further travels around the Philippines only confirmed to me just how lucky I was. It also confirmed how important making a difference when we travel is. I tried to eat street food as much as possible. Tip taxi drivers and hotel workers. Go to local areas and see different sites that were less well-known.

I realised that the tourist industry was actually a big employer in the Philippines. There were so many locals whose lives depended on the constant influx of tourism. It became clear that tourism can be a force for good if helps these people put food on the table for their family!

Introspection

It’s terrible saying this, but I never really thought about how I could make a difference while I’m travelling until I read that Guardian article. I guess the saying out of sight, out of mind really is true! Once I left the Philippines, the daily reminders of poverty and inequality were no longer in plain view.

Watching the news and seeing daily updates of refugees struggling to escape from Syria and struggle to find homes elsewhere really hit home. We’re truly blessed if we’re able to choose where we want to venture to.

Unfortunately, not everyone has that choice. Some are even castigated for fleeing carnage that countries such as mine (the UK) have contributed to. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Seeing life in Manila has made me more environmentally aware as well. I couldn’t believe the state of the waterways in Manila and Cebu in the Philippines. The pollution was something I’d never encountered before. It’s little wonder bottled water is so popular in the country.

This has led me to becoming economical and thoughtful when it comes to my impact on the planet. There’s no doubting we’re having a bad influence. From rising global temperatures to the insane amount of plastic in our oceans, we do more harm than good to the environment. These pictures illustrate that!

Now, just me recycling and moving towards a zero waste lifestyle is only a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start. If we all made an effort to reduce our waste we could make a huge difference to the planet. We only have one Earth, it’s important to remember that. As beautiful as it is, it won’t be much longer unless we act!

How to make a difference when you travel

There are many ways we can go about making a difference when we travel. We can choose to support Eco-travel companies, local businesses. If you’re in poorer countries such as Vietnam or Laos, you can buy street food, instead of going to a restaurant.

Below are a few ways I feel that we can improve the lives of those less fortunate and help the environment while we travel.

Boycott big brands

This might sound a little extreme, but hear me out:

When I say boycott I mean avoid buying from certain places such as McDonalds or Burger King. I don’t mean standing in front of the shop demonstrating! Of course, you can do that if you want to!

The bottom line is that these multi-national companies don’t put money back into the local economy. It gets taken out and paid to shareholders. Obviously, there are times when we’re travelling and we just want to get something simple!

However, most places have great local eateries and shops. Buying from here, will put money into local hands and reduces the impact on the environment! This is a great way we can be making a difference when we travel!

Buy from local merchants

This is definitely an effective way to make a difference when you’re travelling. It’s all too easy to go to the nearest supermarket or fast-food restaurant and get something to eat. But, by doing this you’re putting money into the hands of corporations and not the people that live in the area.

I’m guilty of this myself, we all are to an extent. We often choose the most convenient route. However, by supporting local businesses, you’re helping people that will directly benefit from your money. Street food vendors in South East Asia, for example, will be able to provide for their family.

The benefit to this as well is that you will get an appreciation for local culture. Nothing gets you closer to the culture of a country than its food. So next time you’re hungry think twice before heading to a McDonalds or a supermarket and purchase from a local market or street food vendor instead!

Donate

This is one is easier to do and you can do it no matter where you are! If you see a charity stand while you are travelling, you can simply give them some money to aid the cause!

This is a great way to make a difference while you’re travelling. Even if the amount is small, that money is still going towards a good cause and will make a difference to someone however small!

Sustainable travel

I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure what sustainable travel is. Thankfully, Green Global Travel has a great guide. It’s actually quite simple. Here’s the bottom line:

Here’s the bottom line:

Sustainable travel is all about decreasing your impact on the place you’re travelling to. It’s simple things really such as taking a shower rather than having a bath. Having shorter showers is also great for the environment. This was something I did when travelling around South Australia, as it’s the driest state in the driest continent in the world!

Doing a tour with an Eco-Tour company is a great way we can be making a difference when travelling! Admittedly, this can be difficult in some countries, but search around and you can find some!

Basically, being more considerate about what impact you’re having on a destination is what sustainable travel is all about!

Teach English abroad

I may have written a post about reasons not to teach English abroad, but it’s a great way to make a difference! I teach English in Spain, and I can’t really claim to be making a difference to children’s lives here. However, if you’re teaching somewhere like Cambodia or Tanzania, then you definitely are!

Teaching English to children in less developed countries is a great deed to do. English is the global language and for a lot of people, it represents the opportunity of a better life!

Teaching to those who are less fortunate than we are is great in itself. However, by teaching someone a new language you are opening their eyes to a new world. One that could improve the lives of their family and community!

Volunteering

If you want to volunteer abroad then this is a great way to make a difference on your travels! There are many different types of volunteering, such as environmental or community-based ones.

Whichever one you do is up to, but whatever you do you’ll make a difference during your travels! There are many great conservation projects around the world that you can participate in. As the global climate is precarious right now, any contribution is beneficial!

Similar to teaching abroad, volunteering can improve the lives of people in disadvantaged countries. Providing them with education and basic needs such as running water and homes is a great gift to give!

Write about your experience

An unconventional way to make a difference from travelling is to write about your experiences. If you’re a travel blogger this quite simple. Just write a post about your experience and promote the hell out of it!

It’s surprising how widely read some of these posts can be! Also just getting the word out there is great, because as you gradually reach a larger audience, more people become informed about the places you’ve visited!

If you’re not a travel blogger, then a post on your Facebook page is a good idea as well. Anything to get the word out there is a plus!

Presenting a real picture of a country instead of a sugar-coated post results in more attention being paid to the realities of life in a destination!

 

Are we making a difference when we travel

Concluding thoughts

I don’t want this post to come across as preachy, but it may come across that way. If you’re born in the Western Hemisphere it’s important to remember just how lucky you are. Travelling to many of the most amazing places in the world is not a problem. Whereas, for someone from an impoverished or war-torn country, this freedom is just a dream.

Travelling to many of the most amazing places in the world is not a problem. Whereas, for someone from an impoverished or war-torn country, this freedom is just a dream.

That’s exactly what it is as well, freedom. Freedom to travel more or less whether you want. Freedom to come and go as you please.

This freedom is something we take for granted, but we are extremely blessed to have it. Making a difference when we travel is the least we can do to repay our good fortune!

Pin for later

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Tom

Tom is a travel addict who first left England to spend a year Down Under. Not satisfied with this, he then went to New Zealand, about as far away from home as he could get. He is now planning his next adventures in Europe and Canada while maintaining this blog.

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33 Responses

  1. Sam Coronado (@followyouroad) says:

    Hi Tom! I’m a fellow Aspiring Travel Writer. Awesome posts. I guess it really takes being intentional about your travels to make a difference. I’ve always felt like I’m merely consuming but not creating when I travel. Writing about it changes that, and also volunteering for NGOs. PS I’m from the Philippines and I totally agree with the pollution problem, among others.

    • Tom says:

      That’s how I felt for a while. Working in New Zealand and now teaching English has given me a sense of purpose that I didn’t have before!

  2. Joe says:

    Great post Tom! I too am guilty of not thinking about the impact I was having when I was travelling; for me, the penny dropped when I volunteered in Uganda in 2013, teaching children at a school in Kampala…who ended up teaching me a thing or two as well! I’ve striven to be a responsible traveller since. You don’t necessarily need to make grand gestures, and the tips you list here are definitely all valid ones that we can all do 🙂

    • Tom says:

      That’s very true Joe! I think working on the rebuild in Christchurch made me appreciate things a bit more. Even if it was in a well-developed country, helping to rebuild the city was a great feeling, especially as people were truly happy that you were over there helping!

  3. Christine K says:

    Very nice article. I don’t really think I make much of a difference when I travel. Yes, I buy locally from small businesses, artists, food vendors, etc but really haven’t given much else. I have never spent more than a few days anywhere in the world. Never even taken a two-week vacation. You’ve made me think about it, however, and I’ll give that article a read. Thanks.

    • Tom says:

      I think just buying food from local vendors is still making a difference. Even though it might not seem like much, if you did that everywhere you went, it adds up!

  4. Stacey says:

    You are very fortunate to travel for sure, we all are. I am glad you have found a way to return the appreciation for that honor. Because that’s what travel is an honor.

    • Tom says:

      Yep, we sure are lucky to travel. It took a while for me to realise it, but now that I have I’m determined to give back as much as I can!

  5. Kevin Wagar says:

    Excellent thoughts in this article Tom. It’s a good practice to source local tour operators, guides and sources of food and clothing when you’re on the road. Being travel writers also gives us a voice to encourage new thinking in others that are interested in travel as well. I think you’ve done a great job.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Kevin, I really appreciate that. Being travel writers definitely does allow us to offer new ways of thinking about travelling that aren’t restricted to old ways of thinking. We have to stop thinking of the world as a commodity and as a gift instead!

  6. I wholeheartedly agree! When I first travelled, many decades ago, I went as far as Afghanistan where people had to fork out $150 to get a passport. At that time (mid 70s) this was more than the annual income for a farmer or low wage worker! Then I hear our Australian government lament that refugees from such countries don’t arrive with proper papers (or didn’t join the ‘queue’ – wherever that is! – at the nearest embassy). This clearly shows our western ignorance!
    We’re travelling overland, in our own vehicle, to reduce our impact on the places we visit. I recently wrote an article on how our way to travel differs from other ways. This was triggered by seeing the completely built-up beaches in Brazil; we visited off-season and found a lovely coast line covered with empty holiday apartments.

  7. I love your post! I have spent quite some time working and volunteering in developing countries over the last few years and it truly is an eye opener: we are so fortunate to have been born in relatively safe and wealthy countries and we should appreciate that more. Just traveling to see the main touristy sights while staying in a comfortable western hotel won’t change much but as you suggest there are good ways to make a difference, even if it’s only a small difference!

    • Tom says:

      Yep I agree Sanne, we really are lucky to be born in a country that gives us the freedom to travel wherever and whenever we want. It really hit home for me when I was in the Philippines, I’d never seen poverty like that before! It’s really not the same seeing it on TV, until you’re confronted with it in real life! Even if we make a small difference, at least we have made a difference!

  8. Venkat Ganesh says:

    Great post, Tom! That is a very thought provoking piece.

    Even I’ve been pondering over how to be a more socially responsible traveller and having the least impact while I travel. At the same times if I could bring about a little positive change in the lives of people where I travel. Fortuantely I was able to spend about a year and a half teaching English in Vietnam. That was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life

    • Tom says:

      It can be hard to be more responsible when travelling, as you forget that you should respect the country and people as well as have a good time! Teaching English is a great way to give back to a place. I really enjoy teaching English in Spain. Even if I only make a little difference it’ll be worth it!

  9. Piyush Rai says:

    Hello Tom, I am from India & I agree with your thoughts on making a difference when we travel. This same thing striked me few years back & I try to contribute to my country by trying to spread awareness among people of keeping the places litter free, I am sure I have not made much of progress yet but the battle is still on. From other perspective,in order to understand a place or culture you have to be among people & by trying to make a positive difference, we are not helping the locals, we are helping ourselves too. Indeed a great post 🙂

    • Tom says:

      Litter is a big one for me. It’s terrible travelling to a place and seeing plastic bottles everywhere. I really do think our legacy will be the amount of plastic we leave behind, it’s atrocious! You’re right it’s a long battle, but even if everyone just made a small difference, the world would be a better place!

  10. Meg says:

    Great article! Thank you for sharing. I think another really important point is if you are going to book something ensure that you book locally. If you are going to do some type of tour, or you are on a cruise is to book activities with local groups – especially when it comes to cruise ships. You can book the same excursions with a local company and NOT through the ship. If you book through the ship the money stays with that extremely large corporation and the local port sees nothing. When you book locally you are giving your tourist dollar directly to the port of call.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Meg! That’s a very good point you have there. Supporting local economies through tourism is one of the best ways to make a difference when you travel. I couldn’t agree more that booking a tour through the ship would just lead to the money staying with that giant corporation.

  11. Great ideas on how to make a difference. I think we all would like to think we are benefiting the places we travel to. These are some great ideas to trying and make as positive an impact as we can and they are pretty easy choices as well.

    • Tom says:

      I think it’s a lot easier than people think to make a difference when you travel somewhere! Simple choices can have big effects down the road!

  12. Agnes says:

    This is a great article and a topic that I am passionate about. I studied tourism management and luckily we went deep into the topics like sustainable travel and ethics. I think travellers and tourists all should educate themselves before going somewhere. Especially now that more and more people can afford to travel (despite the terrible events happening) it is very important that the information on how to travel responsively is out there. I also have a draft post about this topic and after reading yours I got a little pumped and motivated to finish mine, hehe 🙂

    • Tom says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. There isn’t an excuse anymore for not being responsible when we travel. As you say, the information is widely available. Even small contributions to a community can have big impacts! Ah great stuff, I look forward to reading it once it’s finished!

  13. I really enjoyed this post Tom, thanks so much for your insights.
    I’ve been having the same thoughts recently regarding how to make a difference while travelling. I have a soft spot for animals and often seek out tourism activities that help with their conservation. The ideas you present are really great … i’ve started looking at voluntourism as a way to give back while travelling, and it looks really promising.

    • Tom says:

      That’s a great way to make a difference. Especially if you travelled to places in Asia. Animals can get treated quite badly there! Volunteering is something I’d like to do at one point! Definitely a rewarding thing to do for you and the place you volunteer!

  14. Sheena says:

    Before I started blogging, I never thought about it as a way to make a difference but now I think it really does. Just putting your experiences out there can really be enlightening for others, no matter how small your audience is. Do you couchsurf? That is impactful too, as I have had many hosts tell me that hosting people allows the world to come to them, especially if they’re not able to travel much themselves. Thanks for the insightful post!

    • Tom says:

      Me neither, but the more I thought about it really does! If one person benefits from reading our blogs then that’s great! I don’t couchsurf no, I’d like to give it a try though.

  15. You have given such great advice here and I love the links you have provided for extra reading – it’s just what I need right now as I begin my life as a full-time traveller. I will be going to Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia etc so this is perfectly timed for me. I have pinned this and felt the need to share this information on Twitter. Thank you for taking the time to compile this excellent post to help remind us all of what we can do as travellers.

    • Tom says:

      No worries Angie! I’ve been wrestling with the issue mself for a while now. Hopefully the ideas come in handy for you while you’re travelling!

  16. Great post,! That is a very thought provoking piece. You have given such great advice here and I love the links you have provided for extra reading

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Michaela! Hopefully, more people feel the same way as you. This is an important issue for me and I’d like to see more people becoming more responsible when travelling!

  17. Anshula says:

    I love this post! It is so heartfelt. Travel is definitely a privilege and I often forget that to the point where I don’t consider how I could make a personal difference when travelling. I’m currently attempting to try sustainable travel but I hope to branch out more and this article has definitely motivated me.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Anshula, I realised I wasn’t sure if I was making that much of a difference a while back when I was travelling. Now, I’m trying to make sure that I make a difference, no matter how little, wherever I go! I’m branching out myself, trying to cut out plastic as much as I can and go a bit more Eco as well, such as just washing my hair with water. Going quite well so far!

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