Just a few weeks ago we got back from a fantastic, 6-day winter vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii. I used to travel relatively often for work, and throughout my life I’ve had the incredible privilege of globetrotting to other continents to even living in northern Germany for nearly a year.
I can easily say that the travel I’ve experienced has fundamentally shaped me as a person. In Germany I fell in love with the exquisite efficiency of bicycles. Travelling Europe gave me a new perspective on living simply and balancing work and life. In Guatemala, I learned how content it’s possible to be despite having (from a materials point of view) next to nothing; how family and friends matter exponentially more than accumulating stuff. And in general I’ve learned that despite strikingly different cultures, landscapes and lifestyles, are core values, humor, mannerisms and desires are all quite similar.
But the more I look back on travel, I can’t help but think: at what cost to those countries did I benefit? Being a 1%’er in the global wealth department, it’s easy to quickly absolve myself of guilt, thinking of myself as the rich dude showing up in a less well-off country, spreading my wealth in a conveniently enjoyable form of activism, helping locals by buying their goods and staying in a hotel nearby.
But how much does this actually help? I mean, did they really benefit from having me there? These questions really struck me after our Hawaii visit. I found this great graphic about tourism leakage, showing only about 10% of your holiday money actually gets in to locals’ pockets:
What about how about non-monetary benefits?
I showed up knowing relatively little about Hawaiian culture or traditions. At our first night at the AirBnb, I stepped in the house with my shoes and our host quickly ushered us back out, saying it’s Hawaiian custom to remove shoes before entering someone’s house. Of course she was nice about it, but I had this wave of ‘white guy’ ignorance rush over me.
Then the rest of the week, we drove around in our decked-out sedan, spreading noise and emissions around the island, creating waste for the local infrastructure to deal with, and treading on what could likely be very sensitive ecosystems. For example, one week after our lovely afternoon snorkeling among one of the most amazing natural places I’ve ever been, surrounded by turtles, octupus (‘s?), and thousands of colourful fish and coral, I learned that many brands of sunscreen, including the one I lathered on my sun-fearing skin, are severely damaging to coral systems! *face palm*
As awesome as a trip as it was, I’m not sure I went for the right reasons.
When I was a student and could travel for longer periods of time, I was able to work on farms (WWOOFing), stay with local residents (Couchsurfing), learn the language, and give back in some form or another. It was a fantastic feeling: I felt the country was some iota better off from having me visit, and I wasn’t just some annoying, consuming tourist (well, not as annoying, anyway).
But now as a 9-5 workin’ man, the society-approved mentality is that I need to escape the cold winter and office grind to some hot destination, as if it will temporarily release me from the first-world problems I have living in one of the best places in the world. These short excursions inherently don’t incentivize people to dive deep in to the culture, country history or language. We’re just there to soak up some sun, get waited on and maybe buy some dinky souvenirs for our coffee table.
So based on that all that, I want to put together a future travel survey for myself (based off of this great checklist) that maybe you can relate to as well in some form or another, or develop your own personal list.
1. Why am I going, exactly?
What do I hope to gain from this trip? Am I visiting someone? How can this trip be mutually beneficial to me and the country I’m going to?
2. How can I contribute positively to their local economy?
Consider that spending your travel money in resorts, hotels and rental car companies is pretty much doing nothing for the local economy. Sorry but that cash is flying off to bigger pockets elsewhere. Research local websites on where to stay and how to interact so your $$ gets to locals.
3. Can I stay in one place for a while and help out somehow?
Volunteering abroad (do your research on these opportunities to avoid scams) could be a great option.
4. Just like camping, leave it in better condition than when you arrived.
Remember that many countries don’t have garbage and recycling trucks that take your trash and magically make it disappear like we do. Is it possible to travel zero-waste or close to? Spend money on experiences rather than stuff.
5. Given the time off I have to travel, is it worth going abroad?
If I’ve secured at least a couple weeks off, I should definitely consider a big adventure in a foreign country. But anything less, I have infinite amounts of cool outdoorsy and multi-cultural stuff I can do within a few hundred miles of my house.
So don’t get me wrong, I believe travelling is one of the greatest activities you can do to shift your perspective and better yourself as a person. If done right, it can help you become more altruistic and compassionate towards what the daily lives of those in other cultures are like.
But this is a ‘You Don’t Have to’ post. So while I absolutely don’t condemn travelling, it’s critical to at least consider and be consciously aware of alternatives. So as my title suggests, you don’t have to trot the globe to be immersed in world cultures. Here’s a picture from Holi Festival (a Hindu celebration) at the University of British Columbia last year. So awesome.
I live in Canada, one of the most multi-cultural and diverse countries out there. So before I hop on that plane, I should check what’s going on in my own backyard first. It might be I have the whole world right here, and my warm bed to sleep in after it all.