Let me portrait you two situations.
1. When I was 12 years old I visited Thailand with my parents. I remember buying a local batik shirt at a little market; I was super happy with my ‘authentic’ Thai souvenir. But when I came home I discovered a ‘Made in China’ tag on the inside. It turned out that my Thai shirt was definitely not authentic and manufactured in a Chinese factory.
2. Two years ago, I visited Kenya for the first time. As a first-timer, I was super excited to go on a wildlife safari. I went downtown and looked for local Kenyan companies and I ended up booking my trip with one.
But after talking to them for a while, I found out that this company was actually run by a third-party American organization that would use Kenyan salespeople to sell its big international tours, marketing it as local. This was a very disappointing experience and even more so finding out that the money I was spending was not impacting the local communities but it would go overseas benefiting the organization in the United States of America.
My guess is that I am probably not the only one to experiencing these things.
I consider myself a well-intentioned traveller. And with me, so many others. Not knowing where you money goes is very frustrating, because as a responsible traveller you want to make a positive impact on local communities. Many travellers, younger travellers, in particular, are looking for authentic and real travel experiences. They are longing for a true connection with local people and they want to travel more responsibly.
That’s why it’s time to talk more about the topic of responsible travel: how do you know who your money goes to and how can you ensure your travel money stays local?
In the 21st century, globalization has blurred borders all around the world. Tourism has emerged into one of the largest industries worldwide. Its trillion dollar industry has become a dominant income sources in many countries.
Furthermore, tourism and leisure industries are a HUGE contributors to the global economy. The Business of Tourism (2016) found that tourism was responsible 10.2% of the world’s GDP, and for approximately 1 in 10 of all jobs worldwide.
This sounds like tourism is a driving force for many economies, but here’s some food for thought: according to a report from the the World Tourism Organization (W.T.O.), only 5% of every dollar spend by a tourist stays with the local people and their communities.
This number is shockingly low, but this is nothing new. Especially small operators, guesthouses and local businesses have little to no opportunity at all to market to tourists. And they gain only a little share of the overall money spend. Barely any money will stay within the local community. They call this phenomenon: ‘tourist leakage’ or ‘zero-dollar tourism’.
You are probably thinking: where does all my money go then? Well, back at home package tours and arranged holidays are offered to a wide variety. Usually at a discounted price, so that many would happily agree to go on a package tour.
Now, leakage occurs in the following way. While people are on their holiday they sleep, eat, drink and shop in foreign-owned places and accommodations.
These foreign-owned places have foreign owners, foreign employees and use imported food. They are able to bypass local financial operations. Of course, this is not the case everywhere, but this counts for a majority of places. In the end, the money will end up with these foreign owners, not benefiting the local communities and economy at all.
As a traveller, you can definitely notice how zero-dollar tourism affects local communities. I’ll provide this to you with an example and you can probably relate to a similar situation yourself. The area of Yangshuo, in southern China is known for its dramatic karst-mountain landscape. When tourists visit this area they usually go on a river tour on the Li River (which we too, can highly recommend!).
However, you’ll most likely be fighting off little Chinese ladies trying to sell you all sorts of crafts. Obviously, this is very annoying and especially because you already paid your fair share to go on a tour.
But let’s think about why the local people actually are so pushy?
The local people of Yangshuo see dozens of tourists flock in every day, but they don’t see their own situation improving. They are forced to push on selling these things to you, because they are not taking a cut otherwise.
They won’t make any money of the tourists visiting the region, seeing the boat operators and tour guides are all foreigners and the money will just go past them. All they are left with is the negative impact of tourism such as trash and pollution.
As a responsible traveller, you want to make sure that the money you spend somewhere is ending up with the local people and communities. You want your money to be of a positive impact.
But how do you know that the businesses you engage with are locally owned, products locally created and food locally sourced? This is rather complicated seeing the tourism industry, and especially where the money goes and flows, is not transparent at all. Luckily, there are organizations working on this issue of transparency. They provide travellers with basic tools to follow their money.
A good measurement tool is known as Ripple Score which is created by G Adventures. G Adventures is an international sustainable travel organization offering well over 800 tours in more than 100 countries working with 2.000 suppliers.
The Ripple Score tool is rather simple and provides you with a good indication of the real-world impact of travelling. The higher the Ripple Score, the more money is staying with the local communities. They work with local services to make sure that your money spent on adventures (worldwide) ends up in the right places.
While this is definitely doesn’t solve the problem, it is a good start. More initiatives from local tour operators and community organizations are also emerging. Two great social tourism initiatives are Better Places and I Like Local.
We recently learned about these two travel platforms that connect the traveller directly with the local supplier. Because who knows better than someone local? These platforms are transparent and they provide you with tips using their skills and knowledge creating a worldwide network of local operators and authentic travel experiences.
Both platforms allow you to book authentic travel experiences directly with locals. As a traveller, you are able to experience the real place, connect with local people and the money you are spending is directly going to the local provider, creating a positive impact. With this money, the local provider is able to set up a sustainable business model with fair and reliable market prices. Definitely a win-win situation!
We recommend you to book through sustainable travel platforms such as G Adventures, Better Places and I Like Local. But there are certainly other ways for independent travellers to make sure that your travel money stays local and have a positive impact on the local economy and communities:
This a big part of zero-dollar tourism and because of many third-party organizations, the money will just go past local people and communities. Try to find out whether your operator is working directly with tour guides and operators.
This does require some flexibility and for some travellers on a tighter schedule, it might not be possible. In that case, sustainable travel platforms like the ones mentioned above are a great solution. It allows you to already browse and book real local experiences online.
Stay at locally owned accommodations, guesthouses and hotels
Eat and drink at local cafes, bars and restaurants (which is also a lot more fun)
Take local transport
Buy your souvenirs directly of the crafts (wo)man