"A conscious traveler can have an incredible impact on a local community & an incredible experience abroad at the same time." [Interview 08 - Jessica]
One of the most important components of the remote work & travel communities we're designing at LITT Nomads is the socially responsible aspect. It's key for us to make sure we're conscious of how we affect the areas we travel to, and that we, above all, positively impact the native people and environment.
I want to speak with individuals who are passionate about global social change to both highlight what we can do as individual travelers, as well as get insights on how we at LITT should incorporate conscious travel into the experiences we offer.
One of these individuals is Jessica Hansen, Global Engagement Manager of Kiva -- the first online lending platform connecting online lenders to entrepreneurs across the world. Jessica builds partnerships and programs to educate, empower, and inspire others to find innovative means of overcoming global challenges.
From refugee camps to classrooms, Jessica Hansen has worked globally to help people access the tools and resources to survive, thrive, and unleash their capacity to positively impact the world.
I, admittedly, can't say I've been the most conscious traveler. One thing I particularly wish I could take back is having ridden elephants and played with tigers during my first visit to Thailand years ago. Below, Jessica shares why tourist activities like this are doing a lot more harm than good, along with lots of other important nuggets on sustainable social entrepreneurship & socially responsible travel:
KW: What led you to work with organizations around the world, and where are you headed from here?
JH: I was lucky to have parents who showed me that it’s not only possible but important to connect with people from different cultures, to learn and care about the world I live in, and to see as much of it as I can.
My father’s from a small farm in Oklahoma and my mother is Thai, so the vast differences in culture, economics, and environment between the two halves of my family was stark and fascinating. I learned about poverty, and its many forms and consequences, which made me passionate about social justice.
Initially, I focused on the rights, protection and empowerment of women and girls, especially trafficking victims in Southeast Asia, but through my education and career, I learned how people like refugees are vulnerable to being trafficked, and also how interconnected the issues are - from gender inequality to access to education to food security to conflict to water and sanitation. It’s all connected and you can’t sustainably and effectively address any single issue without taking the others into consideration.
This passion and work has taken me to six continents (so far!) and allowed me to work with inspiring people at a number of amazing organizations around the world, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee, the Women’s Refugee Commission, Mercy Corps, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Doctors Without Borders, Nuru International, and for the past five years - Kiva.
My focus now is in supporting innovative, sustainable and effective projects and organizations that increase access to education, finance, healthcare, and opportunity for people living in poverty, conflict, or other challenging situations. I’m excited to see where it takes me.
From your perspective, what does it mean to be a social entrepreneur?
Being a social entrepreneur means one of two things to me. The first is being someone who is passionate about a social or environmental issue and wants to build a company that can address it in a sustainable way by using an effective business model. The second is being someone who is passionate about a business, but it isn’t all about the money to them - they want to do some social or environmental good in the process, so they make it a core part of their business model. Whichever path they are coming from, they are individuals who are innovating and creating better ways forward, showing us that businesses can have heart, and that hearts can also use business-savvy to build sustainability and scale.
What are some things a casual tourist should be socially and environmentally mindful of when visiting new countries?
This is a big question with many answers, all of which I can’t hope to cover here, but let me give a few examples to try to highlight some of the main things tourists can look out for:
There are terrible practices around the world that seriously harm animals and deprive them of their right to healthy, free lives. Most places that allow you to ride an elephant, take a selfie with a tiger, hold a sea turtle, or walk with a lion are doing incredible harm to the animals. Tourists flock to these attractions because they love the animals, but they don’t think about the cost. I was just in Bali a few weeks ago and a local guide was taking us to see some of the beautiful rice paddies but made an unexpected and unrequested stop at a coffee plantation that served Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee that is produced (in-part) by civets. What I’ve learned is that the extremely high price and increased demand for this coffee has led local farmers to capture these animals from the wild and keep them in forced captivity for their entire lives to increase their yields. There are places that harvest this coffee sustainably with absolutely no capturing of or contact with the civets, but the one our guide took us to was not one of them, and seeing these wild civets trapped in small cages was heartbreaking.
Tourism can have marked impacts on local environments in the form of pollution, land degradation, habitat loss, coral bleaching, soil erosion, climate change, water scarcity and more. Hotels and tourist facilities can often put a heavy strain on local energy and water in already strained communities. Looking into ways to make better choices and to offset your impact in terms of accomodation, air travel or local transportation, as well places that avoid over-usage of local water supplies for tourist amenities like swimming pools or golf courses, will help you have the least detrimental impact on the local ecology. Every choice we make - from refusing unnecessary straws in our cocktails to not having our towels washed unnecessarily - is part of our total impact.
It’s hard to know where to begin since the impact on people is so complex. Tourism can bring jobs and money to a region and help preserve culture, but it can also contribute to things like poverty, forced prostitution, human trafficking, and other harmful practices. For example, years ago, I went to visit family in Thailand and noticed that in the airport among exotic animals in an advertisement for Thailand were ‘long-neck’ women from the hill tribes in the north. I had thought that the dangerous and inhumane practice of neck stretching had died out, but spoke with some local experts, and it turned out that the impoverished tribes had learned that tourists would pay to take pictures with their daughters and wives if they had stretched necks, and so the harmful practice has been reinstated on a larger scale.
Most studies into what percent of your tourism dollars stay in the local economies of developing countries land at around 10% at best. That means around 90% of the money you spend leaves, going to massive airline outfits, foreign-owned hotels and restaurants, travel agencies or tour operators, imported food and drink, etc. Tourism has the potential to be the “largest voluntary transfer” of cash from the rich to the poor, where both sides win. It just requires a little homework in terms of making sure that your accommodation, food, tours, souvenirs shops and more are locally-owned and operated.
Overall, tourism can have a fantastic impact on local communities and environments, bringing tourism dollars towards local people and funding local projects to preserve culture, landmarks, and the environment. A conscious traveler, using their purchasing power wisely, can have an incredible impact on a local community and have an incredible experience abroad at the same time.
What's your go-to tip you offer international travelers who wish to volunteer or get involved with local communities while on short term trips?
The answer to this depends on what the travelers have to offer as volunteers. The easiest answer is for people who have specialized skills or knowledge, and can teach or perform services that are lacking and desperately needed in local communities around the world. For example, if you can devote a week or a month or more to performing surgeries, dentistry, or other life-changing services, there are a number of organizations you can check in with (Medecins Sans Frontieres, Partners in Health, or other highly-rated health care organizations). Sharing needed skills and knowledge with members of the local community is important, so that they are empowered to manage their own needs and handle challenges on their own long-term.
If you don’t have specialized and needed skills for the area you’re visiting, think about your overall goal. Is your goal to improve education for kids in Kenya, for example? If so, what do you think will help achieve that in an effective and sustainable way? If you go to Kenya to build a school, you’ve spent thousands of dollars traveling there and taken jobs away from local builders, when all those funds from your trip could’ve paid locals to build a dozen schools, filled them with books and desks, and trained and employed some teachers as well. If instead, you collect books to donate at home, the cost of shipping them or flying them over yourself is exorbitant, the content isn’t relevant (I moved here to San Francisco from rural Kenya and I can assure you that a book that teaches them ‘P is for Pizza, R is for Roller Skates’ is not providing them with useful or culturally relevant information), and those shipping/flight funds could have helped fund local Kenyan authors to create more relevant and appropriate resources. Think critically about what would help achieve the change you want to see and be okay if that means being a conscious consumer and tourist and volunteering if/when your skills are most useful.
Voluntourism tends to be more about the volunteers than the communities they serve, and in some places, it’s become big business. For example, there are findings that ‘orphan tourism,' where volunteers work for brief periods in orphanages, not only causes deep emotional pain and attachment disorders in the children affected, but has also become highly profitable for some ‘orphanages’ that will take children (many who actually have living parents) and both feed and treat the children poorly so that they appear more desperate and in need, which brings in more donations.
I encourage people to look into studies and articles on ‘voluntourism’ overall, so they can learn more about the best and worst types of volunteering to do abroad. I also encourage them to deeply research any project or organization they might want to volunteer with - through several sources that are not the org’s website - and think critically about if it is truly the best way to achieve their goal. They can also check out great sites like LokalTravel.com or Visit.org to help find local experiences, organizations, and connections.
The big takeaway here is that no other industry is positioned to have such a powerful impact in alleviating poverty and creating a better world. What it requires of us is some Googling and some critical thinking to make sure we are contributing to the solutions.
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