From the eager-to-learn Generation Z to baby boomers with cash to burn, travellers with a purpose and sustainability-driven values now span every demographic. But while doing good for the planet and its people are compelling motives for travellers, it’s not the only factor driving them towards responsible travel opportunities – unique experiences are a key force at play, too.
A growing demand for unique travel experiences
Today’s travellers are “developing a more status-seeking mindset,” according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) 2018 trend report. Which means that, rather than lapping up rays on the beach, modern travellers want to experience something no one else has. Unique travel offerings are in such high demand thanks to overtourism, with few places being left untouched, and the relentless presence of social media, which has resulted in travellers looking beyond well-trodden tourist traps.
Why responsible travel initiatives are the answer
ATTA found that the definition of adventure is changing: risky, adrenaline-fuelled activities are favoured 45 per cent less than experiencing a new culture, meaning that long-term, sustainable, initiatives offering unique interactions with communities are most likely to evoke a sense of discovery.
But with voluntourism receiving some deservedly negative press over the last few years (in 2014, 77 per cent of Cambodian ‘orphans’ were found to have living parents), many people don’t know where to turn to satisfy their new-found appetite for unique travel experiences. While there are plenty of sustainable travel opportunities on offer – from diving with marine biologists to visiting schools and shadowing conservation initiatives – there aren’t many that genuinely get under the skin of a country and its population.
3 ways to facilitate meaningful travel connections
So, how can operators create responsible travel experiences without seeming contrived or voyeuristic?
1. Immersive community involvement
Responsible travel pioneers Volcanoes Safaris have been flying the flag for community engagement since opening a permanent village for one of the oldest surviving indigenous people in the Central African Forest. Since 1991, when settlements were cleared to make way for the creation of the Mgahinga National Park, the Batwa Community have been conservation refugees – the new Batwa Heritage Site will allow guests to explore their culture, past and present.
Malawi-based travel outfit Orbis Expeditions have taken a different approach, finding the perfect recipe for unique travel experiences in cross-cultural skills-sharing. Running several trips a year for schools, universities, women, entrepreneurs, companies and families, they allow travellers to experience the ‘real’ Malawi through an impact-driven lens. The focus of these nine-day trips is a Female Entrepreneurs Forum, where 14 Orbis clients from across the globe share their specialist skills with Malawian entrepreneurs. On both sides, the women are carefully selected to maximise impact and ensure there’s no risk of tokenism.
The idea for these skill-sharing expeditions came from Webb’s observation that there isn’t sufficient backing for small-to-medium businesses in Malawi. “There’s support for huge businesses, or aid, but nothing in between. For these women, having an accountant, teacher, marketer or operations manager sit with them, share ideas and demonstrate how business works is life-changing.”
2. Adventures with a purpose
Combining adventure travel with a worthy cause is nothing new, but until now organised trips have been conservation-based (such as rhino notching with andBeyond), designed for young people, or involve long-term volunteering commitments.
But over the last few years, hospitality experts have started to fill the gap. The Singita Grumeti Fund has partnered with BRAVE this year to launch an all-woman, five-day run across 90 kilometres of Serengeti wilderness. BRAVE founder India Baird hopes that the run “will change the face of conservation in the area, by creating opportunities for girls to become influential leaders.” Part of the event will involve joining a fun run for local girls and women so that participants and the local communities can meet, share the experience, and discuss fundraising hopes.
Meanwhile, Intrepid’s ‘Real Life Experiences’ promise clients the opportunity to do local things with local people, often based around food, while G Adventures take travellers to their community-based Planeterra initiatives. Adding to the flurry, earlier this year Much Better Adventures launched Adventures for Good, whose trip hosts – selected according to strict criteria developed with Tourism Concern – have a track record of delivering a positive impact on the environment or local communities.
When the Much Better Adventures team heard about the potential plight of one of Europe’s last wild rivers, they kickstarted a campaign to illustrate the benefits of tourism to the Albanian government. “Travellers not only experience the beautiful, untamed Vjosa River by rafting, kayaking or hiking, but they’re ‘voting with their feet’ to secure national park status for the whole area,” argues Bruce.
Despite their activist roots, Adventures for Good are tapping into something beyond altruism. By providing a definite purpose, these adventures trigger a much sought-after emotional response.
3. Experiences with emotional impact
Selecting trips that achieve a high level of impact is no easy task – which may be why larger companies struggle to deliver such ideas with integrity.
Kalahari-based lodge Feline Fields has successfully mastered the delicate art of emotional impact by launching their Bokamoso Volunteer Programme, which welcomes guests to split their time between The Lodge at Feline Fields and the Feline Fields Trust projects in nearby Maun and Tsao. Working for up to three months at a time, volunteers get to spend time connecting with the local community by organising educational events for local school children based around wildlife and conservation.
One of the Adventures for Good trips, with Relief Riders International, also brings an emotional element to the guest experience, using horseback tours to deliver healthcare to remote communities. On the pilot trip in 2004, the Red Cross told founder Alexander Souri that they had smashed records in the number of people treated – and since then they’ve improved the lives of 25,000 people across India, the Amazon, the Andes, Turkey and Ecuador.
Souri believes the trips resonate with travellers on a deeper level because kindness is the best form of healing, for the traveller as much as the receiver: “50 per cent of our riders return for two trips or more. When our riders experience themselves outside of their daily routine and travel intimately through one of the most vibrant countries on the planet in a dynamic, heart-opening way, the effect is profound. It really changes people.”
Proving that travel can be a force for good without dependence on philanthropy, voyeurism or an ‘us-and-them’ aid mentality, a rising tide of global citizens is lapping it up. They not only want to have a lasting impact on the ground: they also want to feel part of a world that is more human and connected than current affairs would have us believe. Now, more than ever, we would all benefit from pandering to their needs.
Since returning from a two-year circumnavigation of the world without flying, Holly Tuppen has worked as a responsible travel expert. As a freelance writer, researcher and consultant she advocates that having a positive impact on the environment and local communities is what makes good travel experiences into life-changing ones.