When I tell people I like ecotourism, they assume I like to camp.
When I tell people I’ve volunteered while traveling, they assume a church has been involved. It hasn’t. When I tell people I’ve been a program participant abroad, they assume I’m learning a third language.
So how then can I explain my ideal travel experience?
I like to travel responsibly and I support sustainable travel. I’m also a fan of voluntourism and educational travel. But, for the sake of easy conversation, I need one word that someone can embrace at happy hour or while slipping their shoes on after a yoga class.
Then, like a gust of wind before a rainstorm, it hit me.
That’s my word for my kind of travel. How would I put it in a sentence during an “elevator conversation?”
Here goes: Meaningful travel is when there’s a benefit to the traveler and to the native once their paths meet. But, put in practice, does this definition work?
Here are some examples from my own travel experiences:
Educational Travel/Study Abroad
When I was in college, I spent a summer studying Spanish in Madrid. Once I was able to argue effectively with my Mexican flat mate in Spanish, I’d say I got the benefit of learning the language by being immersed with native speakers. So what? What did they get from me? They had richer cross-cultural conversations that went way beyond me asking where the bathrooms were located.
In 2001, I thought it would be fun to walk dogs and groom cats while on vacation. That led me to spending a week in a guest cabin at Best Friends Animal Society in Utah.
Because of that trip, I:
- Created a non-profit in Philadelphia to find homes for shelter pets.
- Traveled to Rome’s Torre Argentina to assist in planning their first feline Super Adoption Day.
- Opened a low cost spay/neuter clinic for feral and stray cats in Denver.
And I thought I was just going to walk some dogs and groom some cats. Who knew I’d be in for a career change and be responsible for saving thousands of homeless dogs and cats over the next 10 years? And while that example is extreme, the trip would have still been meaningful even if it was just about walking dogs and grooming cats.
This mode of travel is often where educational travel and voluntourism intersect. For me, it came in the form of a divorce present to myself. Back to Spain I went! Only this time, in 2003, I was participating in a program dubbed Englishtown. This was about exposing Spanish executives to “real world” English.
I got a fabulous stay in Gredos, intense exposure to Spanish culture and made a lot of new friends, some of whom I still keep in touch with 10 years later! As for the locals—imagine them returning to their offices and saying things to their English speaking colleagues such as “In my humble opinion …” You don’t get phrases like that out of an English language textbook.
Sustainable, Responsible Travel
In 2006, I traveled to Costa Rica (by now my Spanish is really good!) and then to Belize two years later. I went as part of small group tours through companies with responsible travel ethics. What did it all mean? That we recycled and remembered to tip our bartenders? Yes.
But it also meant we worked with local guides who took us to locally owned and operated restaurants, guest houses and sightseeing operators. We put our travel dollars back into the local economy. We were also conscientious about being respectful to nature, we participated in local customs and we even carried reusable water bottles.
I had a way more authentic travel experience through Intrepid Travel than if I had opted to stay in a Marriott. Plus, the locals embraced us as not only did we give them business; but, we were genuinely interested in their culture.
Ok, this can involve camping, and bug bites, and getting down and dirty with nature. But, let’s dig deeper! I went on safari two years ago and to say it was life changing is an understatement. Besides seeing lions, cheetahs and elephants in their natural habitats, I learned how amazing the safari industry can be for many countries in Africa.
Unfortunately, poaching has reached crisis proportion for African elephants and rhinos. How sad to think of future generations only being able to see these wonderful wild animals in zoos and sanctuaries. The safari industry is combating poaching in a number of ways; but, the simplest way is by merely existing.
Think about it. Travelers to the African bush want to see rhinos and elephants. If these animals go extinct, there’s no safari industry and locals lose their livelihoods. Many of these same locals were once poachers.
Now, they are part of the safari industry and the conservation movement as they realize the devastating economical impact poaching could have on their towns and villages. So my safari dollars went to the good guys. And did I mention I saw lion …and cheetahs…and elephants?
So now we reach the big question: What’s the moral of this story? I’d say that meaningful travel has many different meanings! But no matter what the meaning, be sure the trip has a positive impact on you and on the locals at your destination.
When friends give me a hard time about traveling to see Bon Jovi, I tell them 80s nostalgia makes me happy and is good for my soul.
Besides that, my travel dollars are going to locally owned and operated guest houses and restaurants, so it’s not just Jon Bon Jovi that benefits from my trip!
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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise