By La Carmina, travel blogger and TV host @ lacarmina.com
As a millennial travel blogger, I’ve noticed a rising interest among travelers my age for “authentic, immersive” experiences. I personally gravitate towards sharing stories in this vein, such as conservation safaris in South Africa, or village food tours in Vietnam. Skift’s recent report echoes this movement: “Arguably the most significant, systemic trend in worldwide tourism today is the demand for ‘experiential travel’.”
Their report adds that 71% of US travelers now prefer to travel with family and friends, and book local stays. In particular, young travelers are uninterested in joining a big bus tour, briefly hitting the landmarks and sleeping at a chain hotel. Instead, they’re keen on local, off-the-beaten-path experiences. According to Trekk Soft, travelers are increasingly expressing a “real interest in interacting in a genuine way with other people and cultures” – giving examples such as camel treks to Merzouga, and staying in yurts with Mongolian nomads.
These experience-seeking travelers might not use the word (or hashtag) “sustainable” in describing their preferred travel style, but their approach often shares the same priorities. “Sustainable tourism,” after all, focuses on making a positive, ethical impact on the local environment, community and economy.
Leisure travelers might not instinctively be drawn to “sustainable tourism”, as the first images that come to mind tend to be voluntourism in poor areas, eco-work in jungles and other challenging long-term commitments. Skift suggests they may feel daunted by the physical level required, difficult living conditions, or overall social impact of their contribution.
However, travelers can make a significant impact even in a single day of action. There are many “micro-approaches” to incorporating sustainability into a trip – such a staying at a family-run hotel, devoting a day to volunteering in the city, or taking a cooking class run by villagers in their homes.
Since these small and less intensive choices are accessible to travelers, it’s likely that more will be willing to take part – resulting in compounding positive returns for the community. These “micro-sustainable” activities are also exactly in line with the meaningful, local experiences that travelers are increasingly seeking.
Tourists will always be in need of accommodations, food, transportation, and possibly a guided tour – all of which are opportunities to support locals, and leave a small footprint. In recent years, I’ve been putting the spotlight on small, sustainable choices in these areas, which can go a long way. Here are three examples from my recent journeys, and the lessons I’ve learned.
Case study 1: Volunteering with Myanmar punks
Volunteering abroad can take on many forms. Like many leisure travelers, I am not able to commit to a long stint of service, such as spending several weeks or months at a rural school. I also have some health concerns that limit me from certain types of activities, and I can understand why travelers may feel uncomfortable in some circumstances, such as working at a hospital.
Regardless, there is an abundance of direct, local-led ways to make a difference in any destination. These activities can fit seamlessly with one’s personal interests and abilities, and fulfill the “authentic” experiences that travelers desire.
For example, I’ve identified with subcultures ever since I was a teenager, especially Goth and punk lifestyles. When I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar, I was surprised to learn that there is a vivid, “old-school” punk scene in Yangon. These bands perform raucous sets at dive bars, wearing spiky Mohawks, studded jewelry and ripped tops – followed by hardcore partying til morning!
However, Yangon’s rockers are also committed to helping their community from the ground up. Kyaw Kyaw, leader of the punk group Rebel Riot, started two local charities: Books Not Bombs (raising funds and supplies for schoolchildren in need), and Food Not Bombs (a weekly program where the punks and volunteers feed the homeless).
As someone with a passion for underground culture, I was excited to meet Myanmar’s punks and help out with their non-profits. I messaged Kyaw Kyaw and others directly on Facebook, and we struck up a conversation. My friends and I ended up bringing a suitcase full of school supplies for the local children. We watched him perform at Human Rights Day, taking photos so that I could feature the concert on my travel blog. Later, we interviewed him while hanging out with his punk friends, which led to a decadent night out at Chinatown bars.
My friends and I were happy we were able to meet new friends who shared our love of alternative culture and fashion. We had a unique, fun experience with locals in Yangon, while also supporting a charity in person. With the Internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to reach out directly to individuals like we did, and make a difference even during a short trip.
Case study 2: Staying with a Serbian family
One of the simplest ways that travelers can support sustainable tourism is by choosing local, ethical accommodations. In the past, tourists booked chain hotels because they could count on the consistent quality. However, with the rise of crowd-sourced online reviews today, travelers minimize the risk of staying in subpar places. With a little web research, they can confidently put their dollars towards homestays, B&Bs, and independently run boutique hotels with excellent reputations.
When my travel TV team and I were planning our stay in Belgrade, I looked at international brands such as Best Western, Radisson and Hyatt. I knew these hotels would provide a satisfactory stay – but I probably wouldn’t remember the rooms or staff a few months later. In other words, there would be no “experience” or sustainable/local facets, which are important to my travel stories.
Instead, I looked at TripAdvisor and other boutique hotel reviews online. Selection Apartments stood out because it had 5-star reviews across the board, and won TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence every year since 2012.
We contacted them and received a personal reply and welcome from the family that runs these apartments, including the offer to pick us up from the train station for free. When we arrived, the father and wife team served us Serbian coffee and fresh-baked pastries, and then took us on a little walking tour of the neighbourhood to get us situated. They upkeep the rooms themselves, and were always available for friendly chats and to give advice. To this day, we still keep in touch on Facebook.
If we had booked a chain hotel, we would never have had a personalized, local experience like we did at Selection Apartments. My team and I feel great that we supported a kind Belgrade family, and consistently recommend them to travelers to help get the word out. This sustainable choice rewarded us with new friends and memories, while also helping out a local business.
Case study 3: Supporting Moroccan women on a tour
Likewise, in Morocco, my team and I wanted to dive deeper into the local culture, and film meaningful stories about individuals breaking boundaries. We were curious about the lives of Moroccan women, so we created a custom itinerary through Plan-It Fez, a tour company run by two expat women. We had a Moroccan lady as our guide and translator, and she helped us experience immersive activities that support local female-run businesses.
We learned how to make bread and couscous at a bakery collective, run by women in a village outside Fez. The next day, we took part in a family-run henna workshop, where three generations of Moroccan women showed us beauty treatments and drew designs on our hands. Finally, we stayed overnight in a Berber village home, cooking dinner with the ladies of the house.
Although my filmmakers and I only spent about a week in Morocco, our Plan-It Fez tour gave us powerful insight into the lives of independent, local women. We saw our dollars made a direct impact on the lives of these women, as we could observe how they were building lives for themselves through their work, which they opened up to tourists.
In any given destination, there are dozens of big-name tour groups, buses and cruises to choose from. However, with a little online research, sustainable-minded travelers can find a niche tour that focuses on a cause or aspect that they feel passionate about. These options can range from a small eco cruise for people who love diving, to music workshops run by emerging artists. I personally love shining a light on women and fringe groups, which made this tour a perfect fit for my interests, while creating sustainable benefits.
Today’s travelers are increasingly interested in “experiential, meaningful, local” journeys – and these values are in line with sustainability. However, large-scale voluntourism and eco-focused trips might not match the comfort levels of most leisure travelers. Instead, tourists can be encouraged to take small, mindful actions – such as booking homestays and ethical tours, or spending a day volunteering for a cause they believe in.
My case studies suggest that these “micro-sustainable” choices can fit one’s personal interests and be enjoyable, while also making a significant, positive impact on communities. Travelers are also more likely to take part in such “small” actions, as these require less time and physical investment. No matter how small, every choice that is mindful about a destination’s environment and residents will make a difference.