How to give back on your travels

Our sustainability contributing editor looks at the most powerful ways you can support places and communities as you travel, so you can give back more effectively

3 mins

Travel can take us out of our comfort zone and catapult us into another world. It brings us face to face with the natural environments that we only see in documentaries; with cultures that we barely catch a glimpse of on the news; with wildlife that we’ve only encountered in books; and with traditions that we’ve yet to learn about. We can come to understand different ways of living through travel, and are often invited to engage in unique, sometimes life-changing encounters. If we allow it to be, travel can be enriching, liberating and an education like no other. Yet it could be doing so much more.

Why does a global industry worth an estimated £6 trillion give so little back to the people who are the backbone of these experiences? With much of the income from tourism funnelled towards international brands, very little is left for the local communities that welcome us. There are examples everywhere. According to the 2021 documentary The Last Tourist, only an estimated 14% of every dollar of tourist income remains in Kenya, while the majority of this income is distributed across foreign-owned hotels and suppliers.


“In Kenya, only an estimated 14% of every tourist dollar remains in the country”

Yet, when tourism money does makes its way into local communities there are myriad benefits. Businesses are able to invest in training and skill development, leading to a rise in employment levels; young people are inspired to focus on their own futures; and workplaces can become safe spaces for women in difficult family circumstances, empowering them to be independent. This positive chain effect can go even further, too. A community that has good infrastructure, steady employment rates and opportunities to progress has the means to protect its surroundings, rather than turning to quick-fix ways of securing an income, such as wildlife poaching.

The truth is: how we spend our money while travelling can have a make-or-break effect on the communities we visit, and we owe it to our hosts to be more conscientious about where our tourism cash goes. So, how do we ensure our money is put in the right hands when travelling?

Perhaps the most powerful method of giving back is to actively support the local economy as we travel. Rather than staying at familiar chain hotels or branded resorts, reserve a room at community-owned accommodation. Guesthouses, inns, farm stays and B&Bs tend to be rooted in the community and usually offer a more personable experience, with traveller reviews typically providing a great way to gauge what to expect from your accommodation. Similarly, eating and drinking at local bars and restaurants (especially in field-to-fork establishments), rather than at a resort, feeds directly into the local economy, just as buying souvenirs from craft centres and markets supports regional artisans, empowering them to potentially develop their own businesses.

While Kenya may be struggling to keep its tourism dollars in-house, the growth of safari conservancies in places like the  Masai Mara has been a boon to the Maasai people, as they benefit directly from lodge stays and are, in turn, incentivised to protect the local wildlife (Shutterstock)

While Kenya may be struggling to keep its tourism dollars in-house, the growth of safari conservancies in places like the Masai Mara has been a boon to the Maasai people, as they benefit directly from lodge stays and are, in turn, incentivised to protect the local wildlife (Shutterstock)

This attitude extends to planning your trip as well. If booking through a tour operator, opt for a company that partners with local businesses. This will ensure that income goes back into the host communities. Operators who invest in vital initiatives and local groups typically have a better understanding of the region; they will also proudly promote their work through impact reports and detailed descriptions of their social initiatives, so they are often easier to root out and find online.

Tour operator Experience Travel Group, for example, runs a social enterprise scheme that works with local restaurants in South-East Asia. This not only introduces travellers to delicious local cuisine, but income from their meals goes towards youth training within the hospitality sector. Similarly, G Adventures’ non-profit partner programme, Planeterra, invests in initiatives that support marginalised communities, such as Delhi’s ‘Women With Wheels’, a female-run taxi service that trains and employs Indian women from resource-poor backgrounds.

Local operators can also provide a donations list on request, allowing travellers to bring useful goods – from books and stationery to women’s hygiene products and sports bras – to serve the needs of a community. The international Pack for a Purpose programme also teams up with local businesses to offer drop-off points for donations on arrival.

By giving back in these small yet empowering ways, we can ensure everyone benefits from tourism. Try it on your next trip; you won’t regret it.

Supporting local businesses can have an empowering effect (Shutterstock)

Supporting local businesses can have an empowering effect (Shutterstock)

Why voluntourism is not the answer

While most voluntourists are well-intentioned, some projects exploit local people. In Cambodia, for example, there have been instances of families living in poverty being persuaded to place their children in ‘orphanages’ in exchange for handouts. These so-called orphanages then charge tourists to live on-site, play with the kids and teach them English, all without any security checks or need for childcare qualifications. In turn, the children can develop attachment disorders thanks to the quick turnaround of people. Sadly, the number of such places in Cambodia has risen in line with tourism over the last 30 years, according to the documentary The Last Tourist. A better way to help is to support local businesses so that people can look after themselves.

A practical guide to giving back

1. Book locally owned accommodation and avoid big chains and all-inclusive resorts that filter revenue away from the community.

2. Eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores to help community businesses prosper.

3. Travel with an operator that details its positive initiatives. If unsure, always ask: how do you support the local community? An ethical operator will have a comprehensive answer.

4. Tailor donations to suit the communities that you visit with the ‘Pack for a Purpose’ scheme (, and only take supplies that are actually needed.

5. Avoid commercially motived voluntourism projects. If you choose to volunteer, do so because that specific initiative has a genuine need at the time and it happens to coincide with your visit.

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