Many travelers think of themselves as global citizens, who care about the far-flung places they visit and people they meet as much as they would their own neighbors—some are even actively using their travels to spread a bit of good in the world. But, asks Tracey Croke, when disaster or difficulty strikes, and we’re at home, how can we use our resources to the best effect?
In her book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travels in an Unequal World, Dr Anu Taranath asks: “We need not necessarily have to travel to think about equity and making a difference. But if we are given the privileges to experience other societies and meet new people, then what good is learning from our global travels if you’re not going to put it to use when you get home?”
This question looped my brain as the events unfolded in Afghanistan recently; a place close to my heart after trekking through the Pamir Mountains with the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people in 2013.
Travelers now more than ever see themselves—and their tourist dollars—as a force for good. But when a humanitarian crisis strikes anywhere in the world, we feel distraught and completely helpless. What good can we do from afar for the places we visited and the people we met—or are yet to visit and meet?
If you’ve previously traveled to a country that’s gone into crisis, it’s likely you’ll have contacts who can give you sound information about which organizations are still operating effectively and where aid is getting through.
In Afghanistan, for example, the adventure community rallied to Support Guides and Fixers who worked with international tourists and small-scale media creators but were omitted from governments’ ‘priority lists’ crucial for evacuation.
Among them, Afghanistan’s first female professional tour guide, Fatima Haidari, who is a well-known outspoken activist for women’s rights, has recently reached safety in Europe. They continue to assist and advise many others who’ve been left without an income facing an uncertain future.
Asking governments to increase resettlement visa quotas is an immediate need in any humanitarian crisis. You can make a difference by signing petitions, calling or writing to politicians. Every voice counts. In the past, leaders have responded with increases in humanitarian visas following calls to action and public outcry. This generic guide will help get your opinion published in the mainstream press. Organizations like this one, who help expediate humanitarian applications, will be grateful for extra admin hands.
There are many ways to support refugees when they reach their destination. Talent Beyond Boundaries who operate in the US, UK and Australia, connect businesses to skilled displaced people. Helping someone rebuild their life in a new country can be as simple as going for a hike.
Digging deeper into Dr Taranath’s question, top of my “what travel taught me” list is the earth-shattering story omitted from most school curricula in ex-empire-building countries: How one half of the world—The Global North—gained all the advantage from the other half—The Global South.
The suffering in Afghanistan, like so many countries across the world, is the result of hundreds or thousands of years of grabbing control of territory and resources. In the 19th century, the British Raj and Soviet Tsarist empires came face to face in Central Asia. Afghanistan was the tug-of-war country that separated the two imperial forces. In 1889, Lord Curzon, a British statesman said: “Our relations with Afghanistan in the 40 years between 1838 and 1878 were successively those of blundering interference.” You could copy and paste this quote to any country with an ongoing crisis.
It’s confronting to think that colonization is where modern-day travel sprouted from.
We love to travel for all kinds of reasons; to relax, to have fun, to learn, to find ourselves, to have mind-blowing experiences, and—my favorite—to make those fuzzy-moment connections with people.
Travel can do good, but let’s be honest, it’s still an extractive act. We may love travel, but how can travel truly love us back while the relationship is still so lopsided? And if pent-up ‘revenge travel’ has its way, when we’re back in full throttle, we’ll be blundering across the world again like it’s 1869.
Another genius stroke of 19th-century ‘civilizing’ (removing all rights, displacing and dispossessing) is how easy it’s been throughout history to blame oppressed populations for the instability created. Demonization starts early in life with ‘goodies and baddies’ and thrives well among today’s politicians so they can put the fear of the ‘other’ in us. Keeping us ‘safe’ from the ‘axis of evil’ was a sure-fire vote winner. We can analyse historical events until we glaze over, but the bottom line is always profit and power—for one half.
Longer term support for the people and places you care about means narrowing the wealth gap. And at 10 per cent of the world’s GDP, travel has the clout to make a difference.
Tourism is a USD$9 trillion global industry, but many local businesses and communities never see a cent of it. In the popular tourism destination of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, The Rarámuri (loosely translates as ‘running people’), made famous by the book Born to Run, launched their own community-based tourism project after being simultaneously exploited and economically excluded by outside enterprises. Imagine if we start digging more into that deficit and research better choices that shifts equity to local people?
We know money talks and from that perspective, travel has a big mouth: Ask operators which human rights initiatives and social projects they invest in? What do they do to protect cultures and the environment? How do they empower women? Book community-run tourism projects and family-run hotels direct. Stay with a coffee-farming family in Costa Rica, learn to make 26 types of noodles with youths in Vietnam… mindful and thoughtful travel (responsible and sustainable travel with clogs on) is what all the cool kids will be doing.
Being at home doesn’t stop us from being right at the heart of a faraway community, as storyteller Hesham Moadamani reveals on a virtual walking tour through his resettlement city of Berlin, where he interlaces Germany’s history with his own personal story fleeing Syria. But why stop at travel when we can help balance the equitable scales in our daily lives?
Consider brands that top the ethical charts. Question who is really paying for that bargain? Who better to design and produce adventure gear than Nepal’s famous Sherpa? When businesses who give a crap float to the top, others will follow. Every step we make towards the environment contributes, because it’s the vulnerable who stand to suffer most from the potential devastation highlighted in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Have a look at where your pension is invested (hint: defence contractors are making a killing).
Scientists are split as to whether group conflict is hardwired in our DNA or developed when we dropped our hunter-gatherer tools, put down roots and decided what’s yours is mine. However, science agrees that humans—uniquely in the animal world—are capable of extraordinary acts of altruism and compassion.
Assuming we do have a choice about that, any empowering action, however small, will contribute to a happier and safer world for us all. And in this respect, travel could be the gift that continues giving 365 days a year.