How to support local communities while traveling

Does tourism help or harm local populations? That answer is as varied as the list of places to go and things to do.

Do a couple of quick searches on Google, and you’ll find lots of examples of locals bemoaning instances where tourists have trashed nearby natural spots or created unpleasant experiences by behaving mindlessly. Google some more, however, and you’ll also find stories of tourism reviving certain economies, and people recounting great stories of how locals celebrated their time traveling.

How can we make sure that our trips are more mindful of locals? It starts with an overall attitude of respect. In addition the following five tips can help us make sure our impact on local environments and economies is positive.

Eduardo and Gumercindo exchange knowledge and experience.
Eduardo and Gumercindo exchange knowledge and experience.

Take the time to understand.

Being mindful of a place you visit happens long before you leave your home. Remember that you are a visitor and do what it takes to arrive with an attitude of openness and humility. Take the time to read about the place you’re going to visit.

Don’t just research things to do and places to eat, but look into the history of those dishes, the history of the populations living there, and the present-day challenges they face. Also, take it all with a grain of salt and consider that there may be other perspectives beyond the one you first discover.

It can be easy to get swept away by the obvious attributes of a place, but getting to understand it beyond its beautiful buildings and landmarks can leave us with a deeper sense of connection.

A visit to the community of La Reforma
A visit to the community of La Reforma

Look for opportunities to connect with locals.

Take the time to meet people and learn from them directly. Don’t pass up the opportunity to hear directly from somebody who has lived in the place where you’re visiting for most of their life.

Make sure you do this in a way that isn’t just as a consumer of another person’s experiences, but as someone who expresses genuine interest. Use positive body language. Be open and empathetic, and locals will often be inclined to approach you as a visitor.

A handicraft market in Mexico
A handicraft market in Mexico

Choose souvenirs wisely.

If you visit somewhere new and experience something life changing, it makes sense that you might want to enjoy a tactile memento of your time away. Perhaps you’d want to bring home gifts to share the journey with others.

Be mindful of what you take back. Just because something is in a souvenir shop doesn’t mean its humor is always in the best taste or that it’s an appropriate gift. Also, many common souvenir items are not made in the best ethical or environmental conditions.

Instead, find opportunities to buy things made by local populations. In Plant With Purpose’s program in Oaxaca, handmade goods are an opportunity for many of the local participants to support their families. The right souvenir can be more than just a gift to bring back to friends and family. It can also be an opportunity to support a small business owner in the place you’re visiting.

Volunteer opportunities that ask for specific skills are often more intentional about making sure a real need is met.
Volunteer opportunities that ask for specific skills are often more intentional about making sure a real need is met.

Be extremely cautious of volunteer opportunities.

What’s wrong with the chance to go paint a school? Visit an orphanage?

On paper these can seem like good things to do. And sometimes they are. But sometimes bringing unskilled labor to a country with high unemployment isn’t wise. Some deceitful orphanages have used volunteerism to create a demand for human trafficking.

This isn’t to say that every overseas volunteer opportunity is a harmful act in disguise, but many are. Make sure to do your homework and when in doubt, ask around. Consider what sort of “help” you would appreciate as a person living in that community instead.

Locally owned safari groups in Tanzania welcome visitors
Locally owned safari groups in Tanzania welcome visitors

Find locally owned-and-operated activities to do.

In South Africa, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center hosts a three week opportunity for travelers to participate in the conservation of rhinos, cheetahs, and wild dogs. In Kompong Thom, Cambodia, the Sam Veasna Center hosts opportunities to visit threatened bird species in grasslands while providing sustainable revenue for local communities and funding for conservation efforts.

These opportunities help provide employment, protect local environments, and empower locals as they get to show their home communities with pride.

Plant With Purpose does not actively host volunteer trips, but Vision Trips that allow for relationships to be built, perspectives to be enriched, and our participating communities to feel celebrated. To learn more, visit the Vision Trips section of our website. To support our work in developing global communities consider becoming a Purpose Partner.

Philippe Lazaro

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How is the environment a root cause of human trafficking?