Tourism is roaring back as pandemic-era restrictions fade away and destinations welcome visitors again. But how can destinations and businesses promote help create more responsible stewards? Dr. Rachel Dodds, Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, shares a few practical steps.
Travel is different now
When I took my daughter to Disneyland last past spring, I noticed two things: how many people there were and how much garbage was being produced with single-use everything. My daughter, however, noticed how many cool rides there were and how hard it was for me to find vegetables on menus.
As we travel, or host travelers, we all experience something different. Travel is different post-pandemic and some of us are more aware than ever about the issues that affect our planet.
With tourism numbers almost reaching pre-pandemic 2019 levels in some destinations, other destinations are experiencing too many tourists. Others, meanwhile, are still struggling to attract them. Tourism can be a force for good as it can raise awareness of other cultures and environments and bring needed dollars into many economies. Tourism can also, however, create many negative impacts in destinations.
One impact is increased carbon into the atmosphere. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourism is responsible for approximately 5% of global emissions and approximately 22% of all transport emissions. One long-haul flight is about equivalent to driving a car for a year. Another key impact for destinations is the strain on communities and resident quality of life. When too many people visit a place at the same time, this can result in overtourism. This phenomenon has been defined as “the acceleration and growth of tourism supply and demand, the use of tourism destinations’ natural ecological goods, the destruction of their cultural attractions and negative impacts on their social and economic environments.”
The need for destination stewardship and more responsible travel is clear:
There are more people: From 1950 to 2022 the world population increased from 2.5 billion people to over 8 billion in 2022.
There are more people travelling: Pre-pandemic tourism numbers increased 56-fold from 25 million in the 1950’s to over 1.4 billion in 2019.
Travel is resource consumptive in terms of carbon, energy, waste and water. For example, it is estimated that cruise passengers can generate as much as 1 kg of waste per person per day.
Many tourism workers are low paid with few breaks and uncertain schedules. Many hotel workers in all-inclusive resorts make less than $1 per day and often work seven days a week. Some cruise workers make no salary at all. This is not responsible tourism.
Many places are suffering from overtourism – more visitors than a place can handle.
[Managing large crowds of visitors continues to be a challenge for many destinations] [Photo courtesy of Shlomo Shalev]
What does this mean in terms of destination stewardship?
Destination stewardship means all stakeholders creating a shared future that is collaborative and mutually beneficial. In other words, it is about examining who benefits and at what cost.
All stakeholders (government, visitors, businesses, Destination Marketing Organizations and non-profit groups, and residents) have a role to play but let’s focus on how destinations and businesses can engage tourists in their destination stewardship goals.
A few practical steps include:
Show your visitors what’s really happening in your destination. Be honest and share your challenges about conservation and/or inclusion and ask for their help.
Always show value. Asking someone to turn off their lights is often seen a corporate money saving technique. Suggesting to visitors where they can see the stars better when they turn off the lights is a value add.
Invite critiques from the visitor’s point of view. As Albert Salman, CEO of Green Destinations once suggested ‘ask visitors what would they tell the Mayor.’
Ask visitors to behave more responsibly and put in place guidelines to ensure they do so. Campaigns like Amsterdam’s Enjoy Respect Campaign was very successful in sharing with visitors what was acceptable behaviour.
According to a recently released book: Are We There Yet? Travelling more responsibly with your children, it is about providing solutions rather than focusing on the problem. Travel can be a force for good and so we need to remember the positives such as understanding other people and cultures, spending money in the local economy and protecting and conserving the places we love.
[Supporting local merchants is one key step that visitors can take to practice responsible tourism] [Photo courtesy of Norbert Braun]
Destinations can encourage visitors to undertake a few practical steps to make travel more responsible:
Travelling in offseason or to places less loved to avoid overtourism
Taking the least carbon intensive route – even Google will now calculate your transport footprint
Booking on sites that benefit the local community including: Fairbnb, Ecobnb, Book Different, Sabbatical Homes, etc.
Support local. There are many local tour operators, restaurants and experiences where the money goes straight into the local economy rather than ‘leaking’ out to foreign owned business. Check out Lokafy, Travel like a Local, and more
Do your research and ask questions. What is the responsible tourism policy of the accommodation you are staying in? the tour operator you are booking with?
If all stakeholders take responsibility for their actions and become destination stewards everyone gains from it.
For more information, check out https://sustainabletourism.net/ or find out more about how to be a better individual destination steward in terms of planning, packing and traveling in Are We There Yet? Traveling more responsibly with your children, available on Amazon.com
Lessons from the pandemic have revealed how stronger rural communities can make for stronger cross-cultural touring, say Ann Becker and Jorge Moller Rivas. They propose a framework for doing so.
Ready for visitors: A Mapuche woman prepares a meal over a wood fire. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]
Pandemic Insights Suggest a Course for the Future
As long-time travel leaders, we joined forces in 2019 to create and lead a US/Swiss women’s small group cross-cultural exchange trip predominantly in the Araucania region of Chile, home to the majority of the native Mapuche.
Our group experienced homestays in traditional rukas, stayed in locally owned lodges, and visited with many small business owners and community leaders, mainly women. Local guides led us on hiking adventures that showcased the extraordinary beauty of Araucania’s forests and lakes. They shared as well the interwoven history and culture of the communities for whom this area is home.
Experiences like this one illustrate what we call “human encounters”: Connecting visitors with local hosts in deep, meaningful ways—sharing and learning with one another; eating local specialties; building cultural bridges; and contributing to more sustainable communities and a healthier planet by integrating more sustainable practices.
Within less than a year of our return, the Covid-19 pandemic exploded globally. A new reality confronted many rural communities – how to keep the pandemic at bay and minimize human casualties while addressing income loss due to job and business disruptions. Hosting visitors was out of the question.
Located in central Chile, Araucania is one of the most diverse regions in the country, with rich culture, history, and environmental beauty. Scenic attractions such as rainforests, volcanoes, lakes, and the Andes combine with an indigenous culture to provide visitors with a special interactive experience.
Traditional Ways Help Cope with Covid
In some cases, the pandemic has been a catalyst to draw on traditional practices for safety and survival. For instance, in the Mapuche community that we had visited, Llaguepulli, the families have returned completely to farming and bartering different crops with one another to sustain themselves. Traditional practices have revived elsewhere as well.
The island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a special territory of Chile, is home to more than 7,000 people. Recognizing the island’s fragile heath care infrastructure and its many elderly residents, the Mayor responded quickly to the first signs of Covid in March 2020. He called the community to TAPU, the ancestral concept of self-care based on sustainability and respect. The community reacted by responding diligently to lockdown protocols which have led to successful virus containment.
In July 2020, the Mayor revived another ancestral principle, Umanga: teamwork among neighbors to help support one another and their communities. Many indigenous Rapa Nui inhabitants are now working together to cultivate the land and manage family gardens.
Crisis as Opportunity
The new Covid reality also offered new opportunities. In the community of Drake Bay on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, the Covid disruption provided time for local leaders of the Drake Bay Nature Guides Association (AGUINADRA), to engage with residents, national park rangers, and other nearby communities in collaborative problem-solving and actions to address issues such as emergency food distribution, spikes in wildlife poaching, and area infrastructure improvements. Efforts such as these have helped to strengthen community connection, capacity, and resilience that will help mitigate the negative consequences of future pandemics or natural disasters.
An Aguinadra guide leads a client in crossing the Rio Claro in Corcovado, Costa Rica. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]
Covid has thus revealed new everyday heroes, including local producers and suppliers, guides, and small business owners. With increased community recognition and appreciation, these local heroes now have greater pride in their efforts and identity.
Living life in lockdown has also affected the vision and emotions of many travelers. Perhaps it took the pandemic to realize fully the importance of connections and spontaneity with others. While technology has afforded virtual connections for many, it is no replacement for physical proximity and time together. As the months dragged on, we have yearned for connection even more.
Other realizations have come into play as well. These include the freedom and joy of being outdoors for one’s physical and mental well-being and a deeper appreciation of nature’s gifts.
The group celebrates a successful hiking adventure amongst the scenic mountains and volcanoes of Araucania. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]
Life in lockdown has also contributed to a growing awareness and appreciation of local businesses and their importance in home communities. The pandemic put a spotlight on area farmers and local business owners who were able to sell food and essential wares while major supply chains stumbled. These are the people who helped sustain their neighborhoods; in turn, their communities often stepped up to help support them when they faltered due to ongoing Covid restrictions and illnesses. Neighbors began to understand that they were doing more than buying food from a restaurant; they were supporting mothers, fathers, and families whose lives were intrinsically intertwined with the well-being and vitality of the community.
In addition to Covid, the year since George Floyd’s death has begun finally to illuminate for many that connecting with people and communities different from our own teaches us, pushes us, and sometimes forces us to confront our normal way of thinking and operating. These learning muscles are absolutely vital in the ongoing fight for racial justice in destinations anywhere.
Human Encounters Framework
The pandemic put human needs and connections front and center. As we think about the future of tourism, we propose taking what we are learning about ourselves and one another to encourage more “human encounters” such as those of our Chilean cross-cultural exchange two years ago, as well as earlier individual efforts that we have made in Central and South America.
We envision a Human Encounters Framework that includes the following dimensions:
Greater appreciation, respect and economic support for host communities;
Deep cross-cultural engagement and increased pride in purposeful travel;
Diversification of offerings, suppliers, and sustainable value chains for the travel industry;
Contributions to repair and regeneration of the destination and the planet.
The Human Encounters Framework can be an important change factor in the development of rural communities and destinations post-pandemic. A focus on the autonomy of local communities and stronger bonds among the different actors in the value chain is a good foundation on which to build powerful cross-cultural experiences with visitors.
Trips centered on human encounters must be designed with sustainability in mind. They should, prioritize care for local identity, traditions, and values, as well as for the natural surroundings, minimizing detrimental impacts and respecting limits of acceptable change. We hope this can lead to more co-development of visitation protocols that are in the best interests of travelers, local communities, and destination ecosystems,
In Drake Bay, Costa Rica, there are signs that this is already happening. As the nature guides have resumed carefully leading small numbers of visitors into Corcovado National Park and contiguous reserves, these local stewards are proud to share stories of how they helped combat poaching and improve and diversify trails in the protected areas.
Over time such travelers will become change agents themselves and build greater awareness of the importance of rural communities – their identities, their interactions with natural surroundings, and value of their work.
[Above: Volunteers prepare to work on “CARE for the Cape Day,” Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo: Judith Selleck]
Volunteering Can Give Better, Deeper Travel Memories Than Any Selfie Stick
Editor’s note—Million Mile Secrets shares with us the following survey of volunteer travel opportunities. MMS earns commissions from readers who sign up for credit cards. See their full Advertising Policy.
Experiencing new cultures or cities with friends and loved ones is eye-opening, enriching, and challenging in ways that help develop our characters and help us grow as individuals. Though some folks might choose to travel for rest, rejuvenation, or the opportunity to adventure somewhere new, you might also use your travel dollars and vacation days on an intentional trip, such as volunteering, giving back to a community, or serving others in times of need.
At Million Mile Secrets, many of us have had the privilege of engaging in “Voluntourism” on many occasions.
For folks who might consider fundraising or contributing to non-profit work while traveling, using points and miles earned from the best travel credit cardsfor flights or lodging can have a significant impact on making these life-changing voluntourism trips even more accessible!
I’ll share our personal experiences (and lessons learned!) while discussing opportunities to make an impact while traveling.
Responsible Travel: How to Find an Organization That Actually Makes an Impact & Doesn’t Harm the Environment
As the late Mahatma Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Travelers are seeking opportunities to make an impact with their time while traveling and learning about other cultures and environments. And more than ever, people are considering how their traveling might have a larger effect on the destinations and people they come into contact with.
These encounters can also lead to transformative experiences for the traveler – expanding their worldview, teaching them a new skill or craft, or encouragement to be cognizant of their everyday life choices back home.
On the other hand, some opportunities catering to well-intentioned tourists and volunteers can simply be moneymaking schemes or actually work against the causes you want to support.
The first decision for any aspiring travel volunteer is to decide which cause, destination, or organization aligns with what you’re personally trying to accomplish or are passionate about. For some, this decision may be informed by cultural or religious beliefs, or by circumstances or disasters that warrant additional help or outside assistance.
My Good and Bad Experiences With Voluntourism
My wife went with her school to support a community’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. She and her team of 10 people volunteered to distribute aid, clean up schools, and generally serve the local citizens however they could in their brief week-long visit. This trip was coordinated by a school partnership with a reputable, local resource – which made trusting the receiving organization far simpler.
On the other hand, I’m embarrassed to admit my wife and I visited the once famous Kanchanburi “Tiger Sanctuary” outside of Bangkok, Thailand, as part of our honeymoon in 2015. We spent time bathing and playing with the tigers, feeding them, watching them play, and watching them train with staff. We were sad to hear the “sanctuary” was shut down shortly thereafter for inhumane animal treatment and allegations of abuse.
We read about the tigers possibly being drugged, but also heard from others who visited and (seemingly) reputable websites which disputed those claims and assured visitors that the animals were well cared for.
Although we loved our visit, got cool pictures, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary (the tigers we encountered were incredibly energetic and youthful), we were sad to think our visit might have furthered the cause of mistreating these majestic animals. The lesson learned as a result was that the more intentional and dedicated research we can do in advance, the better!
If you’re passionate about the idea of your philanthropy or voluntourism being truly effective, check outWhen Helping Hurts – a great resource on the topic of creating long term, sustainable change!
Choose an Organization to Handle the Logistics (and Ethical Investigation!) on Your Behalf
Several companies offer a service to research voluntourism opportunities and match you based on the goals or causes you are most passionate about. This means whether you want to work to alleviate poverty, preserve endangered species, or simply help renovate a school or community center, there’s an organization somewhere that would love to have you visit and volunteer.
A couple of my favorite websites for checking out reputable volunteer opportunities include:
There are also organizations that would love to have you visit them, learn about their mission, and volunteer to help further a given cause. But you’ll have to do the investigation yourself, and reach out to organizations and causes individually. This can be tougher from a booking perspective, but rewarding if you have a charity, organization, or cause you want to devote your time and efforts to.
Examples of trustworthy causes and websites that would love to have you volunteer are:
As you likely already know, “Humans are the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species through poaching, habitat destruction and the effects of climate change.”
But incredible work is being done across the globe by informed volunteers to revert these changes, support endangered species, and work toward creating a sustainable future for incredible animals.
Whether you’re passionate about a specific animal species or family, or if you just want to make a positive impact for endangered species somewhere, there are numerous resources that can recommend tangible actions you can take. These include traveling to unique locations to build and protect animal habitats or rescue missions, or working alongside local governments or agencies to prevent or discourage poaching practices.
For more information on some of the organizations and causes that support these efforts to protect endangered wildlife, check out the following websites:
A similar, but different type of voluntourism might include volunteering to restore or protect a specific habitat or ecosystem, such as oceanic conservation or protecting the Peruvian rainforests. These can be tailored or more niche opportunities depending on the conservation efforts you’re passionate about—but the need is equally as urgent.
For example, someone passionate about protecting and preserving our oceans might volunteer with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Volunteers with the ONMS might participate in a variety of ways such as diving, beach cleanups, identifying whale species, assisting with water quality monitoring, and many more opportunities. And I’m sure you’d get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way!
There are a whole host of organizations dedicated to the cleanup and preservation of our oceans, but a few of the trusted groups we know of are
Likewise, you might feel a special calling to assist in the preservation of the world’s rainforests. As you may know, deforestation is a growing issue caused almost entirely by humans and growing agriculture around the world. If you want to volunteer to prevent deforestation, there are various programs in rainforests and countries around the world that would gladly receive your efforts and time.
I’m a huge advocate for any type of voluntourism, but the efforts closest to my heart involve working to serve people and communities in need. This is a broad grouping of volunteer efforts, but can include anything from:
Building homes for the underprivileged
Volunteering to distribute food or medical aid where necessary
Working to partner with sustainable businesses to encourage long-term change in communities
In 2014 I had the privilege of traveling to Kolkata, India to volunteer briefly at homes established by Mother Teresa for mentally and physically disabled individuals. It was important to me to work with a group that was serving others, making lasting change, and not inadvertently creating dependencies that were unhelpful in the long term.
I desired to love and serve the individuals who lived at these homes – as well as spending time with and encouraging the hard-working staff who had devoted their lives to caring for the less fortunate. It was incredibly challenging, joyful, and rewarding, and the long hours of manual labor were nothing in comparison to getting to sit with, talk with, and hear the (sometimes painful) stories these individuals endured.
This is just one example of an organization or volunteer opportunity that is working, in one city in the world, to be part of a greater solution – to care for and love others as we might care for ourselves. It was a joy to spend vacation days, miles, and points not to sit at a luxurious beach (which I also love!), but to learn a new culture and engage with individuals and situations not in my comfort zone (after all, my Bengali is virtually nonexistent!).
Although there are endless opportunities to support our global community through financial giving, support/mission trips, or other types of philanthropic work, some of our favorite resources or websites include:
How to Use Miles and Points to Book Your Travel and Support Volunteer Efforts
I hope you’re able to spend time thinking, researching, and investigating where and how you might want to engage in voluntourism and give back to our global community. And once you’ve decided, now comes the fun part – planning your trip!
Redeeming points and miles to their fullest value can help alleviate the financial costs from voluntourism. After all, reducing your travel and lodging costs can either make voluntourism more financially accessible, or allow you to give more freely to support and further the causes you care most about. Especially for groups of trips that rely on fundraising efforts, utilizing points and miles can reduce a trip’s financial requirements.
In general, I recommend you start planning for flights first. Similar to taking a vacation, traveling for voluntourism will almost always require the largest purchases to be flights – and hotels/lodging second. So any way you can use points and miles to get free or reduced flights is a huge win!
I would also recommend you start planning and building a strategy for your trip as early as possible – as flight prices are often cheapest and award flights are most readily available.
Note: Depending on your destination and voluntourism adventure, the points and miles required for your flights may vary. As always, I recommend you start by checking out our list of the best credit cards for travel!
Then, move onto to hotel/accommodation planning and think about where you’ll stay on your trip. Many voluntourism activities come with lodging included as part of an overall package, so be sure to check out the details depending on the specific trip you want to take. Or even consider camping if you want to truly spend as little out of pocket as possible!
If you’ll be traveling to remote locations, you might find fewer chain hotels to redeem your points for free nights. But large cities around the globe offer tons of opportunities for voluntourism, and cities are often a great option for redeeming points to save big on hotel stays.
You might also be traveling with friends, family, or a team of volunteers, in which case it might make the most sense to book an Airbnb or VRBO in order to secure lodging to comfortably fit several guests.
Regardless of how or where you want to volunteer, I can’t encourage you enough to find a goal, cause, or organization that you support or are passionate about and take the first steps toward contributing to that cause.
Voluntourism has grown immensely in recent years – and for good reason. Many of us travel to expand our horizons, learn more about other cultures and people, and challenge ourselves to be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic of others.
While you’re planning your trip or your voluntourism adventure, redeeming miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help fund your trip and reduce your out of pocket costs. Then, you can have additional funds to donate directly to causes you care about – or be able to plan a return visit even sooner!
Please mention in the comments if you know of organizations that are responsible and trustworthy! While you’re planning your trip or your voluntourism adventure, redeeming miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help fund your trip and reduce your out of pocket costs. Then you can have additional funds to donate directly to causes you care about – or be able to plan a return visit even sooner!
[Above: Canoeing into the Boundary Waters. All photos by Thomas Winderl]
America’s Most Popular Wilderness Threatened
It seems hard to believe that the largest wilderness area in the United States is just a car ride away from my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is just that—a 6-hour drive into northern Minnesota up near the Canadian border. You’ll see signs of city life slipping away. First, the turn-off in Grand Marais, heading towards the Gunflint trail on a 2-lane highway through the northern pines of the Superior National Forest. Cell service begins to fade in and out with the rise and fall of the rolling hills. Sparkling blue water flashes through the trees. Trailheads become more and more frequent. Finally my friends and I arrive at the outfitter to pick up the canoes. No more than 15 minutes later we are back in the car following the outfitter to our designated launch point with the overnight camping permit we had picked up earlier that day at the Ranger Station in Grand Marais. There are three of us, ready to spend four nights escaping to the wilderness, canoes our transportation and everything we need tucked in our backpacks.
The ability to visit a place like this is not guaranteed. The BWCAW ecosystem is resource-rich. Valuable copper and nickel mineral deposits are suspected to lie below the protected lands and adjacent National Forest areas. The Boundary Waters is a federally protected Wilderness Area, but nothing is guaranteed in today’s world. In 2015, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed legislation that banned sulfide-ore mining. In September 2018, the Trump administration lifted a ban on mineral exploration in lands right next to the BWCAW. The pristine beauty that is found in the Boundary Waters and the ecosystems it holds are currently under threat of being destroyed by the copper mining industry after the White House’s Secretary of the Interior cancelled a decision to put a 20 year pause on any mining exploration while an Environmental Impact Study was conducted.
What’s at Stake
I marvel at those who are living in the past, refusing to understand the value in protecting the diverse ecosystem that we are now beginning to explore. The expansive landscape is covered by hundreds of lakes, all located in close proximity to one another. Portaging between them is a common part of any BWCAW adventure. In the early part of the day, we see a few other canoes on the water, a kayak here and there, and that is all—despite it being Labor Day weekend. As we weave through the maze of small islands left by glaciers cutting through the region, loons call out to one another, breaking the silence with that distinct sound any true Minnesotan can quickly identify.
It doesn’t get more pristine than the untouched ecosystems found throughout the wilderness area. Under the Leave No Trace policy, visitors are respectful of the earth and pack out everything they pack in, including all garbage. That ensures that visitors have as little impact as possible on wildlife that lives here: black bears, moose, wolves, deer, and many others. The trees are alive with large predatory birds such as bald eagles and hawks, which can count on a fresh supply of fish in the lakes below. The lakes are full of trout, walleye, northern pike, bass, and perch—a fisherman’s heaven.
We look for our island campsite by navigating through the islands using our map. The campsites aren’t marked, blending into the shoreline. We can identify them only by getting out of the canoe to confirm the site has a fire grate. All sites have a fire grate and a toilet. Camping is not permitted at nondesignated sites, another effort to limit the human impact on the natural environment and leave it untouched for future visitors to enjoy.
Unpacking the canoe as we arrive at our campsite.
We find our site and pitch camp for the night. I boil water to make dinner while the other two go off to collect firewood. Only dead wood is allowed to be burned in the Boundary Waters, and there are plenty of fallen sticks and trees around that make a perfect fire for the evening. As the water comes to a boil and I prepare the light-weight dehydrated meals we had brought along, the beauty of the sunset catches me off guard. I couldn’t help but watch as the sun slowly dropped, sliding in between the sea of islands in front of me. Vibrant oranges, yellows and reds filled the sky, all reflected in the glass surface of Seagull Lake.
It didn’t seem possible that just earlier that day we had been sitting in our car, driving through Duluth on the way north, but here we were alone in the wilderness with no other signs of human activity in sight. All three of us sat out on the southwest point of the island eating our dinner in silence, taking in the scenery and sounds of the natural world we are fortunate enough to be a part of.
Sunset on the Boundary Waters.
The land around us is federally protected—for now. The threat from mining is very real, with a massive potential impact. The water systems in the Boundary Waters are so closely connected, with many directly connected by a series of streams, that contamination of one will have a ripple effect, spreading throughout the lakes.
Mining versus Tourism—and Public Will
A 2012 study found that 100% of the mines tested leaked contaminates, with 92% having lasting effects on the water quality in the surrounding areas. By lifting the ban on mining exploration, the Trump Administration threatens not only the natural beauty of the region, but also the $913 million in tourist revenue generated in Minnesota during 2017, a significant portion of it directly or indirectly attributed to tourism in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The move by the Trump Administration breaks a commitment to Congress and the American people, who spoke out and voiced their vote to keep the BWCA Wilderness protected. Per the Save the Boundary Waters press release, it “completely disregards the voices of over 180,000 American citizens who participated in good faith in public comment periods held by the US Forest Service. During the first comment period for the study 98% of respondents urged protection of this wild and beautiful place.”
American people have been rallying through online campaigns, contacting state representatives, and funding public campaigns to gain attention to the issue through advocacy groups in local communities.
Those people are the face of this battle for the BWCAW. Government-protected land wasn’t always a concept found in countries across the globe. Others are in similar situations around the world, struggling to make their friends, neighbors, and community see the long-term need to reduce the human impact on the natural world.
To side with BWCAW protection, people can contact their state representatives today, voice their opinions, sign the petition at https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/ and help protect one of America’s greatest national treasures.
I leave you with a personal appeal. Do you wish to look back on your life and realize that when you were are at the forefront of an environment war you took no action? Or do you want to think back on moments like this one—bobbing silently in your canoe, taking in the sunset on Seagull Lake, and knowing that because of people like you the Boundary Waters Canoe Area remains safe from harm?
[Above: Talktalkbnb website image. Photos by Eugene Kim.]
Home Sharing for Language Learners
For about 3 weeks, I talked my way through a unique and affordable travel experience, having access to another culture and language first-hand and truly living like a local. During those three weeks, I got acquainted with the Spanish legal system, Madrid’s hipster lifestyle, and the secret to making the best gazpacho. The experience also confirmed some beliefs about the best ways to save the places we love.
TalkTalkBnB is a free platform (unaffiliated with Airbnb or any other travel site) that allows residents to “learn languages at home while hosting native speakers” and allows travelers “free accommodation worldwide while practicing your language with locals.” I had stumbled upon the site in May, while looking for a change of pace from my living situation in Madrid and saving a bit for upcoming travels.
Talk Your Way Around the World
Hosts and guests mutually agree on length of the stay and conditions such as provision of meals and the frequency and length of conversation practice. So despite the platform being free to use, it’s not quite free accommodation. Your time is the currency that pays for it. In my case, I could offer Spanish speakers some practice in English.
“So it’s couchsurfing, but for language practice,” summarized a friend. Exactly. Having enjoyed the cross-cultural exchanges and friendships made over the years through couchsurfing, I decided to give TalkTalkBnB a try. For me, a huge part of the appeal was in getting to know locals and having a cultural exchange. It would be my final three weeks working in Madrid and a final impression of the city.
My neighbor, the Supreme Court of Spain
A Matching Service
The site works as a directory, listing profiles of people from around the world and giving proactive, independent travelers and language learners the information they need to make arrangements for staying or hosting. It is up to you, the traveler or host, to not only create your profile, but to search for and reach out to those you’d like to stay with or host. Profiles should have photos, basic information about the host or traveler, languages spoken (along with a self-assessment of proficiency), and travel or hosting details. For the experienced user of the site, one should also have references from others – guests or hosts – met through the site. References, however, were rare. Of all the hosts I contacted, only two had references. Although the site has been around since 2015, it’s still very much under the popular radar.
Part of my TalkTalkBnb profile.
As I searched the profiles of 138 Madrid hosts, I narrowed down my list of prospective hosts to about 11, based on the language they were most interested in learning, background, interests, possible length of stay, and proximity to public transit.
Within a week of reaching out to the 11, I was pleasantly surprised to have two responses. I met with both sets of potential hosts (each a couple who were fairly fluent in English and with whom I felt comfortable). I began to think of them not just as potential hosts, but potential housemates—people who I would have daily interactions with and, I hoped, befriend. Using TalkTalkBnB as a housemate matching service rather than a formal guest/host arrangement helped make my experience a more relaxed and rewarding one. I could really get to know a place and its people, rather than just trading preset language-learning hours in exchange for a place to sleep while visiting typical tourist attractions. I planned on giving just as much of myself to the people I’d stay with as they gave to me.
Three weeks after creating my TalkTalkBnB profile, my search was over. My new housemates? Sara and Fernando (or Fer), a husband and wife lawyer couple and their Jack Russell/Bodequero terrier, Lola. Although they hadn’t hosted before and lacked references, I immediately felt at ease during our first meeting. In true Spanish fashion, we stopped by a couple of different bars, lingering at each to enjoy good food and good conversation. At our second stop, a Basque bar and eatery, Sara and Fer introduced me to the guindilla pepper and to gilda, a pintxo (a Basque-type tapa) made with olives, guindillas, anchovies, and miniature pickles. It was to be my first in a series of lessons about Spanish culture. By the end of the evening, we had agreed that I would be their first TalkTalkBnB housemate for three weeks in June.
Nervous for the move-in (Lola capturing my mood)
Move-in day included a welcome meal (homemade burgers and some wine from Gailicia) and an invitation to a poetry reading, courtesy of Sara and Fer. Throughout my stay, I got to enjoy home cooking and plenty of good conversation. From music to politics, food to family life, the legal world and Spanish slang, we conversed in English over numerous lunches and dinners and whenever each of our busy schedules allowed.
And because the arrangement was more housemate-style than guest-host, cultural exchange came about more naturally. Not only did my new housemates offer to cook (showing me, for example, how a particular spice smoothed out gazpacho), I did as well, introducing them to Korean food, American banana bread, and other foods less familiar to the Spanish palate. And without any pressure to spend a set amount of time with each other, conversations never felt forced.
Sara and Fer being introduced to Korean food by the author.
My accommodations included a private bedroom and bathroom and access to the common spaces of a beautiful apartment at the confluence of two desirable neighborhoods, hipster Malasana and the gayborhood of Chueca. Having reached near peak gentrification, these neighborhoods were stuffed with quirky bars (serving everything from mezcal to vermouth), cool cafes with cold brew, restaurants ranging from Asian street food to traditional Spanish, markets with rooftop bars, artsy boutiques, and vintage stores. When I wasn’t exploring these neighborhoods or talking with my laid back, kind, and flexible housemates, I could afford to take short trips around Spain.
A Model That’s Good for Destinations
Weekend visit to Peñas de Riglos in Huesca, Spain.
As a traveler staying with locals, I learned about lesser known events and places. For example, Sara and Fer would tell me about different music festivals in Spain, ones in cities less popular and touristy than Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. In turn, I would tell them about places that I’d come across in my travels around Spain. During one weekend, for instance, I traveled to Peñas de Riglos in the northeastern province of Huesca, a mecca for hikers, climbers, and white water rafters. As my housemates had never been there, I was happy to share tips and photos with them for their future visit.
In that way, TalkTalkBnB works well for local economies. For rural communities that are tourism-dependent, like Peñas de Riglos, this word of mouth advertising provides a boost for businesses and events off the radar for many out-of-town visitors, whether for a coffee shop or a local festival. And it allows locals a chance to find out what’s beyond their towns by hearing tales from their new-found traveler-friends.
Even farmers can benefit. While tourism often involves frequenting local eateries, it can also involve home cooking, which means shopping at local grocers, who in turn support local farmers. For example, as someone who likes to cook, I often seek out local markets to get fresh and harder-to-find ingredients. The closest (and one of the best, I thought) was an indoor farmers market called Mercado Barcelo, where I found high quality local ingredients at a fraction of the price of supertouristy markets such as Mercado San Miguel in central Madrid.
Sites like TalkTalkBnB help distribute tourists (and their spending) to different parts of a city, supporting not just the popular places, but the lesser known ones.. By staying with Sara and Fer, for even three short weeks, I developed a new appreciation for the city and a deeper appreciation for Spain. For its small towns, its neighborhoods, its markets, and its food. For its customs, its music, its radio programs, and even its politics. And by developing this appreciation, these authentic, non-commercial, and localized travel experiences and exchanges make not just the traveler, but the destination, better.
[Above: TheAreiro-to-Ruivo trail in central Madeira rises above the clouds and fog.]
It was my second day of a week-long winter vacation on Portugal’s magnificent Madeira island, and the Areiro-Ruivo trail fit the bill for a rugged, yet not overly strenuous hike through some stunning landscapes. With its breathtaking views, precipitous passageways, and verdant cliffs, it was a magical experience—an experience enhanced by the diverse ages of people on the hike. This beloved trail hosted multiple generations of outdoor lovers from 60-something pensioners to 30-something backpackers down to primary-school-age kids with their families.
And that cross-section of travelers on the trail hinted at Madeira’s secret to being a winning destination for travelers: It’s growing appeal to all ages.
Teleférico view of Funchal, capital of Madeira.
Before heading to Madeira in December, I knew little about the island except that it a) had a reputation as being a hikers’ paradise because of its mountainous terrain, b) promised good food, especially seafood and tropical fruits, c) would be warmer than most of the rest of Europe in winter, given its proximity to Africa, and d) could claim soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo as another famous export besides its sweet namesake wine. I had also read that Madeira, once a prime vacation spot for pensioners from the UK and other parts of colder-climate Europe, was changing into an all-ages destination.
For destinations that depend on tourism, age diversity not only means support for a broader variety of local businesses, but also greater loyalty among its customer base. For example, in the restaurant industry, when a destination attracts travelers from different age groups, the fast-casual, local menu-of-the-day, and Michelin-starred restaurants—that is, budget, mid-priced, and luxury—can all benefit from a share of tourism dollars.
What’s more, a destination that caters to a diversity of ages means children, youth, and young adult travelers are more likely to return – having been introduced to those destinations at a younger age.
What Madeira has done really well is provide affordability, accessibility, and an assortment of adventure activities to draw in travelers from across the age spectrum.
Affordability As more people travel internationally to more destinations in the same year, low cost airlines and budget accommodations are among the biggest considerations for destination selection. This is especially true for younger travelers with limited disposable incomes. Madeira is not only served by several low-cost airlines, but has also seen discounted airfares from major airlines.
View of shared dorm room at my second hostel in Funchal (photo from Booking.com).
Additionally, while budget hotels and home-sharing services like Airbnb are popular with these travelers, hostels are often the go-to accommodation of choice, not just for the lower price point, but also for the chance to meet (and team up) with other independent travelers. In recent years, Madeira has seen several new hostels opening up in the center of Funchal, the capital. I ended up staying in two—one, a worn, bare-bones but comfortable hostel, and the other, beautiful, modern, and ultra-efficient. In both, I met friendly travelers of varying ages from around the world, most of them skewing toward 20s and 30s. And in both hostels, a bed in a shared dorm room cost around €17 (about USD 20) per night. In talking with my fellow hostel-mates, I learned that a combination of affordable flights and the availability of hostels helped put Madeira on their travel list, as on mine.
Adventure Activities Madeira also made it on to our wish lists because of its world class hikes and walks—part of the growing adventure-travel niche. Besides hiking alongside peaks, such as Picos Areiro and Ruivo, there are dozens of hikes along Madeira’s famous canals, known as levadas. These levadas, originally built in the sixteenth century, brought water from the west and northwest of Madeira to the southeast for agriculture.
One of several levada tunnels that you encounter on the Caldeira Verde walk.
Today, the levadas continue to provide water to the south of the island, and with the additional service of providing hydro-electric power. The more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas on the island often have the additional benefit of serving as walking paths, some an easy walk and others involving tough climbs and hair-raising descents.
During my three hikes—Picos Areiro to Ruivo, São Lourenço, and Levada do Caldeirao Verde—I was impressed with not only the amazing scenery but the general upkeep of the trails. They were well marked and well maintained, making it hard to get lost and easier to avoid dangerous spills.
View from the São Lourenço trail.
Besides all of the walks and hikes, the hostels I stayed at provided information on several outdoor guides and trip operators for other adventure travel activities like canyoning, diving, and snorkeling. While I didn’t book any guides or trip operators, the fact that such offerings existed meant there was a healthy number of travelers interested in them – with much of that interest from younger travelers.
Accessibility Madeira makes itself accessible, by providing good, traveler-friendly information and serviceable public transit. For travelers who prefer to explore on their own, this accessibility can also help make a destination more appealing.
One of the covers for the Funchal USE-IT map and guide (2017 edition).
Upon my arrival at my first hostel, the owner provided me with two free guides that were indispensable to my stay on Madeira. The first was a handy map and guide to Funchal, by the European grassroots volunteer group USE-IT, which “stands for no-nonsense tourist info for young people,” according to their website. Not only did the map orient me, it provided information on history, local foods, festivals, must-see sites, and other things helpful for travelers, including transport options and how to find free wifi hotspots. The USE-IT guide was so useful it barely survived the trip, after being hauled around in my backpack and opened countless times.
The second guide, a three-page pamphlet, presented over 20 hikes on the island, many of them levada walks. The pamphlet made planning for these levada walks easy, including transit options to reach them.
You can even check out weather conditions at key locations by means of web cams scattered throughout the island – another useful tool for travelers to plan their itineraries.
Public transit, while not very frequent and not widespread on Madeira, did make it possible for me (car-free on vacations for five years and counting) to be able to do the Levada do Caldeirao Verde hike on my own. The São Lourenço hike can also be reached by bus. For the car-accessible-only trail from Picos Areiro to Ruivo I was able to split the costs of a cheap two-day rental car with a friendly group of travelers—a couple of Czech sisters and a Slovak solo traveler— from my first hostel.
The Slovak told me of another hike that he had done taking the public bus. The guide listed a few others accessible by bus as well. While renting a car is desirable for experiencing the best of Madeira, you can still experience many of the island’s highlights by bus with careful planning and enough time (say, a week or more).
Award Winning Island Destination Given all this, along with impressive scenery, world class food and drink, and living cultural heritage, it’s not surprising that the 2017 World Travel Awards (the “Oscars of the Travel Industry”) gave Madeira the title of “World’s Leading Island Destination”—a title it has now held for three consecutive years.
Even more important, by drawing in a younger set of travelers through its strengths—accessibility, affordability, and adventure travel—Madeira isn’t only promoting destination loyalty but ensuring tourism longevity.
[Above: A Sierra Gorda panorama. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]
Featuring Sierra Gorda, Querétaro, Mexico
We chose the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve as the international pilot for this series because of one organization’s well-established success in their approach to conservation: Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda. In the videos, our two millennial hosts enjoy exploring the region as they discover how Grupo Ecológico has achieved its success.
Video hosts Ian and Christian at Cuatro Palos, Sierra Gorda. Photo: Hassen Salum
By working closely both with the local rural population, many of whom live at subsistence level, and with a succession of state and local governments, Grupo Ecológico has helped protect a wide variety of natural habitats while gradually making northeastern Querétaro into a scenic paradise for international travelers seeking an authentic Mexican experience.
You can now see and link to the Sierra Gorda videos on our YouTube channel, World’s Inspiring Places. There are three versions:
Subscribe to the channel to see additional videos about Sierra Gorda and shooting World’s Inspiring Places pilot.
The World’s Inspiring Places is a short-form online travel series created by Erika Gilsdorf, owner and producer of South Shore Productions, and Jonathan Tourtellot, director of the Destination Stewardship Center, both based in the United States. The series aims to showcase stewardship success stories around the world where people are working to help conserve or preserve the cultural and natural heritage of a destination, or creating a unique travel experience the supports and builds on that heritage.
Destinations do not pay for the videos; we look instead for external support free from local conflict of interest. In the case of Sierra Gorda, we are grateful for generous support from Freightliner.
The mission of World’s Inspiring Places is to encourage travelers to visit, enjoy, and appreciate authentic destinations that protect their nature, culture, and sense of place; to help individuals, businesses, and governments care for these places and the people who live there; and to inform and inspire leaders to secure a solid economic future through wise destination stewardship.
For two reasons, we encourage you to enjoy the Sierra Gorda videos and link to them through your own social media, blogs, or websites. First, Grupo Ecológico’s work is truly a model for the rest of the world, worthy of dissemination. Second, we seek new topics for World’s Inspiring Places and, of course, ongoing sponsorship support for a series that will, we hope, showcase the world’s best examples of great stewardship and rewarding travel.
Our thanks to Grupo Ecológico for their help with our six-day shoot this past August, and with my own visit in October. Our appreciation also to Freightliner for their financial support and to Antonio del Rosal of Experiencias Genuinas for his assistance in serving as our Mexican liaison.
If you have a proposal for the next World’s Inspiring Places, please see our page on how to apply, or contact us to begin a conversation.
Contact us, too, if you would like to download your own copy of a video, including a high-resolution version for audience presentations and the like.
[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]
Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses
The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.
“Hi Maria! How are you doing? And how’s your dad?”
“Well, he’s better, but….”
Eventually, the food (excellentjamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.
I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)
Key to having successful food tours? Be a responsible tourism operator.
Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.
Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well
Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition. “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise. However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.
James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.
“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.
“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.
It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.
A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).
For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.
Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians
Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.
A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.
“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.
Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.
History and context
Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war. We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop. Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest. But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there? Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box.
This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.
Cultural introductions and bridge building
Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.
Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).
And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.
Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds. An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.
Longevity through diversity
Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity. It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.” Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel. Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies? Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.
Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.
[Above, a trail into the Drakensburg. All photos by Lucy Matthews.]
Advantage: Independent Traveler
As I paid for South African Lavender soap at the hotel gift shop checkout counter, the local university student who worked there part-time asked me if I had been to the Litchi Orchard. “My friends and I love to go,” she said, “It has good local musicians and fresh, healthy restaurants. Not a lot of tourists know about it.” Because my friend Elspeth and I were traveling independently in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, we had no set schedule that day and were able to take advantage of this local tip to visit a hidden gem off the beaten track of a package group tour.
On my first night at the hotel—about thirty miles outside KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city of Durban—the waiter told my friend and me that he had not often seen Americans in the region that weren’t on a package group tour. I was surprised.
I have always loved traveling on my own or with a friend and strongly believe that independent travel helps the visitor to immerse more fully in the distinct surroundings of a destination, to engage in more cross-cultural exchanges, and to discover places off the worn tourist track like the Litchi Orchard.
Litchi Orchard, KwaZulu-Natal.
Why cater to independent travelers?
By visiting small towns, buying crafts, staying in local lodgings and more, independent tourists can contribute to local economies, engage with local communities, and have unforgettable experiences in places that group tours miss.
From the practitioner perspective, destinations can encourage more independent travel by providing easy access to resources for doing so—regional transportation options, day-tour operators, off-the-beaten track highlights, and information on thematic tourism routes. Following routes for independent travel requires advance planning, and that means tourists will begin learning about the area before they arrive and therefore be more thoughtful participants in the local culture. They will also be smaller in number than at more popular tourist spots. The routes therefore can bring in economic and cross-cultural benefits while not overwhelming small towns.
Most important for healthy destination tourism, independent travel can result in great stories—stories that can entice more travelers to visit. Read on for my own examples.
My Choice: KwaZulu-Natal
When I told friends I was going to visit South Africa, most assumed I would be heading to the popular international destination of Capetown. Someday I definitely want to visit Capetown as well, however my friend and I were drawn to explore a part of the nation less familiar to American tourists and located on the other side of the country, on the east coast by the Indian Ocean—beautiful KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a land of mountains, beaches, and rolling sugarcane fields.
KwaZulu-Natal is a fascinating place full of a variety of influences. Even the name of the province bespeaks its inherent multiculturalism. KwaZulu means of the Zulus and Natal means Christmas in Portuguese, a reference to the visit here by Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama around Christmastime in 1497. You would have to stay for a while to truly understand the province, it is such a mix of environments, cultures, languages, and histories.
Eucalyptus in the Durban Botanical Gardens.
Our hotel was only 1 to 3 hours from many of the attractions of the province. Since we were traveling independently, we could book several private half- and full-day tours with guides to take us to some of the exciting destinations of KZN.
During our extended drives—to the city of Durban and to two diverse World Heritage Sites, the Drakensberg Mountains and the St. Lucia wetlands—we were able to have long conversations with our KZN guides. One was a South African of British heritage who told us about his experience growing up in Zululand. Another guide was Zulu and told us about his traditional upbringing and how he balances tradition with modern South African life. Since it was only my friend and me in the car, all our questions were answered and we had an excellent opportunity to really dig deep on issues we were interested in. As we passed traditional Zulu round houses, cane fields, gum trees, vendors selling pineapples by the side of the road, students selling lychees at tolls, rolling hills, and distant mountains, our guides would tell us about the countryside, about current South African politics, about navigating the many languages spoken in the country and in the region, and many other elements of South African and KZN history and current life.
Better Stories, Richer Memories
Because we traveled independently, we had the opportunity to meet many locals. On one of our private tours, our guide drove us to the Drakensberg Mountains. There we joined the hourly tour of the Khoi San cave paintings at Giants Rock. We were the only Americans. Everyone else on the cave tour was Zulu, and in fact the first portion of the tour was conducted entirely in Zulu. Claiming that it takes much longer to say something in Zulu than in English, our Zulu guide who had brought us from the hotel then paraphrased the cave tour guide’s fifteen-minute introductory speech in a few sentences.
One of the Zulu men on our tour asked to see what U.S. currency looks like, and a Zulu woman asked to take a picture with us. Seeming this exotic to locals made me truly feel that I was somewhere that Americans don’t often go. The experience of being the only two Americans for miles around would be impossible on a package, pre-scheduled group tour.
If I had traveled with a tour group I believe I would not have had as many cross-cultural interactions with South Africans, and may not have been as observant to my surroundings. Traveling independently also meant I was able to construct my own schedule based on what activities and sites interested me, and to spend some days exploring off-the-tourist-track places that were recommended by locals. Traveling independently in KwaZulu-Natal was certainly feasible with enough advance planning. I highly recommend it.
Hippos in the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, a World Heritage site.
I regret that I did not have time to explore the Midlands Meander during my trip to KZN. Tourists can access resources at midlandsmeander.co.za to plan their trips based on their chosen activities and can explore the route at their own pace.
With a bit of careful planning from both the tourist and the practitioner, independent travel can be easy, creating lasting memories for the tourist, economic benefits for locals, and important connections between tourist and place.
[Above: Rolling Americana Survives in Today’s Cuba. Photo: Lucy Matthews.]
Relations between the United States and Cuba are changing, and have been since late 2014 when President Obama began normalizing ties.
While tourism itself is still banned, United States citizens can legally visit Cuba under twelve travel categories. My May 2016 group trip fell under the “educational activities” umbrella, and was organized by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and Cuba Educational Travel (CET).
Warming relations between the US and Cuba, including expanded ways for Americans to visit, have led to a huge increase in travel to the country. It is not uncommon to hear Americans saying they want to visit Cuba “before it changes” and citizens of other countries scrambling to visit “before the Americans ruin it.”
Tourism has been a part of the Cuban economy for some time, however with large increases in US visitation, it is likely to change. With improved relations with the island nation, American tourism companies are looking for ways to put down roots in Cuba. Our visit coincided with the first journey of an American cruise ship (Carnival Fathom) coming to the island nation in more than 50 years.
At one point, we had a fascinating tourism lecture from economist Rafael Betancourt. Among many thought-provoking components of the discussion, he mentioned that due to a current lack of sufficient levels of tourism infrastructure in port cities, increases in cruise ships to the island are considered beneficial (with a floating hotel, increased visitor numbers don’t have to mean an accommodation overflow).
As visitation to Cuba increases, there are some who are concerned about what form this tourism might take.
Hotel Moka Las Terrazas complements the landscape. Photo: Lucy Matthews.
A positive example of ecotourism was Hotel Moka Las Terrazas, where we stayed in the mountains our first night in the country. It is an ecolodge created to exist in harmony with nature and to bring visitors to the small community of Las Terrazas, where inhabitants aim to live in balance with the environment. To achieve this aim, many residents help with reforestation projects. The community benefits from Hotel Moka because tourists visit the local shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Another form of tourism held up as a positive example was that of “casas particulares.” Similar to Airbnb, casas particulares are often structured as visitor housing in a separate section of the owner’s permanent residence. We spent a few days in casas particulares in the town of Viñales. This was a great way to spend more time with local Cubans, to eat home-cooked meals and to experience an approximation of day-to-day Cuban life.
A “casa particular” in Viñales, Cuba. Photo: Lucy Matthews.
The task ahead for Cuba is to figure out how tourism can benefit rather than overwhelm or commercialize the island nation. From what we heard on the trip, there does seem to be interest in managing Cuban tourism in order to maintain what makes Cuba “Cuban,” however there didn’t seem to be a high level of coordination around this aim.
What Cuba I will see if I return in 10 years? Today’s visitors who say they want to see the island before it changes—likely picturing those elements of island life that are remnants of the 1950’s—are probably right: The island will change. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If change is managed properly, tourism can do what it does best: highlight a distinctly Cuban sense of place and be an economic driver and catalyst for cross-cultural exchange. If left to a mass-touristic model, the Cuba I visit in 10 years may more closely resemble Miami than Havana.