How to plan a vacation that benefits everyone involved

Sustainable travel is not a kind of travel, nor a set of criteria; it’s a mindset that can be applied to every trip. Making a positive impact could mean showing more judgment about where we’re going, prioritizing destinations with strong environmental credentials and places that prioritize locals.

By choosing a specific tour, hotel or operator, we can show our solidarity with a marginalized part of society, or defend places that are victims of natural or man-made disasters. In cities, our hotel choice can help fund green innovations, or we can help break down prejudices on a migrant tour. We can even use our travels to help save a species from extinction.

Community tourism

Sharing a meal with strangers or glimpsing an indigenous ritual – these are meaningful interactions with people who often have life-changing travel experiences.
There are many experiences that connect travelers and communities. This could be by visiting a lodge owned by locals or a host family. But is it enough? According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, only five dollars out of $ 100 (£ 72) spent in developing countries remains in its economy.

The most exemplary responsible travel experiences do more than foster connections; they strengthen communities and help people become financially and socially independent.

Learning from each other and exchanging skills is a great way to make real connections. The sharing of skills also has a much deeper positive impact than experiences of symbolic volunteering.

A craftsman working on clay pottery in Goa, India (Photo: Lloyd Vas / Alamy)

Before embarking on any form of volunteering, think about your most valuable skill and explore where and how to share it with those who need it most. Look for specialist organizations that set up internships for specific professions or turn to charities that advertise skills shortages. For example, in Nepal there is a shortage of psychologists to deal with traumatized children and victims of human trafficking.

To create lasting impact and empower local people, look for internships or vacations that facilitate training or workshops. Go with an open mind and be prepared to learn as much as you say.


Building a school and digging a well are just a few of the activities that would once have been celebrated as responsible travel success stories. Today, however, “voluntary tourism” has a more murky reputation. Travelers could take home a much needed local source of income.

Worse yet, they could be complicit in corruption. The most extreme example is orphanage tourism. It is estimated that of the approximately eight million children living in institutions around the world, over 80% have at least one living parent. Many are forced to enter orphanages to earn money from tourists.

Support the company

Responsible tourism can better uplift communities by creating economic opportunities. Rather than just driving personalization, travel agencies need to support and facilitate the business – by funding entrepreneurs, reaching out to communities with ideas, and ensuring a sustainable level of personalization. Check with the tourist office about local businesses you should support.

Canoes in the Pedersen Lagoon from the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, Alaska (Photo: Niebrugge Images / Alamy)

Wherever you are in the world, there will be groups of marginalized people who will struggle to have their voices and needs heard. Tourism is well placed to help. In many destinations, travelers are open-minded, eager to listen and understand different perspectives. Some of the most successful examples are those that tackle gender inequalities and uplift women, which has a positive ripple effect as women are more likely to invest in education and community infrastructure.

Give back

The “impact journey” is a new kind of giving back journey. Look for organizations or businesses that create travel experiences that meet a tangible need, whether it’s building community infrastructure or delivering medical supplies. These experiences must be adapted; avoid generic approaches.

Some platforms offer meaningful ways for travelers to give back, including, Backstreet Academy, and Airbnb Social Impact Experiences. Impact Travel Alliance, based in the United States, regularly shares ideas on how to travel to support poverty reduction and equality.

In remote areas such as the Ura Valley in Bhutan and the Pindar Valley in India, the Village Ways trekking company works with each village to help develop a tourism business that the village then owns.

Other success stories include Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco, which is now run by the local Berber community, and Fordhall Farm Yurts in Shropshire, which is owned by 8,000 local shareholders. In British Columbia, Spirit Bear Lodge is owned by the people of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation.

Community property

Tourism has a “leakage” problem. Money spent in a destination often leaves the country and goes into the hands of international companies.

Be part of the solution by injecting your money into local businesses. In an ideal scenario, travelers would support lodges and tour operators that are owned by either local individuals or an entire community. In some destinations, there is no local infrastructure to support all forms of tourism. In that case, look for responsible companies that are working on community ownership models.

Community tourism – dos and don’ts

When community tourism is not managed responsibly, it can do more harm than good. Here are some things to consider before booking an experience:

  • Community tourism should not be voyeuristic. If a community or an indigenous people does not benefit from sharing its stories and culture, it is exploitation.
  • Guides should always be local.
  • If a situation is not comfortable at home, neither is it abroad.
  • Always ask for permission to take pictures and do so with respect.
  • When in doubt, ask: How would I feel in this situation if the tables were reversed?
  • Always follow local advice on interactions and cultural sensitivity.
  • Never disrupt school lessons.

Safeguard culture

Over 40 percent of travelers identify as “cultural tourists”. This form of travel can be positive for tourists, locals and heritage. Immersing yourself in a new culture forges connections, broadens worldviews and increases understanding.

Tourism can also finance the protection of heritage. Safeguarding culture can also be vital for the health of our planet. Respecting and improving more traditional rural lifestyles can challenge the rural exodus and the destruction of landscapes. But tourism is a double-edged sword. Last year, around 10 million tourists visited the most popular section of the Great Wall of China, and nearly 20 million visitors explored Venice.

Rather than following the crowds, we can use our trips to help lesser-known heritage sites or marginalized culture. To do this, we must seek out historic sites that would be destroyed without tourism and support social enterprises that help traditions flourish.
World Heritage Journeys, a partnership between Unesco and National Geographic, is a platform promoting lesser-known cultural tourism projects that have a positive impact in Europe and Asia.

Although they represent only 5% of the world’s population, indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Supporting indigenous lives is an essential part of protecting our planet, and tourism can help. Either the travel industry provides financial or in-kind support to ensure the protection of land rights, or it connects tourists with indigenous peoples who wish to share their stories.

This is an edited excerpt from Sustainable travel: the essential guide to positive impact adventures by Holly Tuppen (White Lion, £ 18)

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John McTaggart

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