First off—the standard travel stuff. Where are you from originally? Where do you live now? Where are you going next?
I (Emily) am originally from Seattle. Aaron was born in Australia but moved to Seattle as a child, and that's where we met (many years later)! Seattle is still home base for us. Our next trip is a big road trip through National Parks in the Western US this summer - including our first visit to Yellowstone!
How long have you been promoting ethical travel? What was your first foray into traveling and working abroad?
We've been blogging for about two years, but have been promoting ethical travel since long before we officially had a blog. We've always been passionate about traveling in ways that help, not harm, the places we visit.
My first foray into traveling and working abroad was as a college student hoping to "save the world". I spent a summer volunteering in Kenya, which led to my decision to go to nursing school so that I would have a skill that would allow me to travel and do humanitarian work. Shortly after that, Aaron and I moved to Tanzania together to volunteer for 6 months.
In the decade since then, I've participated in many medical missions and learned so much about how damaging "voluntourism" can be if it's not done responsibly. One of the main reasons I wanted to start our blog was to speak honestly and openly about volunteering abroad.
What do you think are the most common mistakes or misperceptions people have when it comes to volunteering in other countries?
The most common misconception about volunteering abroad is that good intentions are enough. I have no doubt that people who volunteer in orphanages or spend a week working at a medical clinic have their hearts in the right place. Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from causing serious harm.
Most people are surprised to hear that many children in orphanages in developing countries aren't actually orphans. The increasing popularity of orphanage volunteering has basically made children a commodity - meaning that foreigners have created a demand for orphans and they're willing to pay big bucks to spend a week snuggling babies, so local communities will find a way to fill that demand.
In many cases poor families are encouraged to hand their children over to orphanages, where they're told they'll get an education. Instead they're raised by a revolving door of strangers, which can cause lifelong psychological damage. (This is why we don't have orphanages in the U.S.—studies show it's a terrible way to raise children.) The best solution for these kids would be to invest in programs that help lift their parents out of poverty, but that would cut foreign volunteers (and their money) out of the picture so instead these kids end up in orphanages to entertain tourists.
Medical missions also have hidden problems: Who follows up with patients after volunteers leave? Why are we spending money to fly foreigners in to treat patients instead of training local staff? Is it ethical to allow medical and nursing students to treat patients in developing countries when they aren't licensed to do so at home?
It's the responsibility of the volunteer to do a LOT of research and ask the hard questions before they ever step onto a plane. Just meaning well isn't enough. (Here are some questions we recommend asking yourself and any organization you're thinking of working with.)
What are some resources/organizations you recommend so people can be sure they're actually helping/supporting communities they visit?
We put together a massive ethical travel resource to help answer that question! There are tons of resources to learn more about responsible volunteering, cruelty-free animal tourism, how to travel sustainably, you name it! There are endless resources out there to help you no matter what aspect of ethical travel you're interested in.
For those who want to learn more about volunteering overseas, I highly suggest reading Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. In fact, I don't think anyone should volunteer unless they've read this book first!
What would you say are 3 ways someone thinking of traveling/volunteering abroad can prepare and "do it right"?
- Think critically about the long-term effects of your actions. After you go home from your volunteer trip, what happens to the people you helped? Who continues the work? Is someone trained to repair that water pump or solar panel you installed, or will the community be dependent on foreign intervention permanently? Does bringing American high schoolers to build houses really help, or does it take paying jobs away from locals who need them? The answers aren't always easy, but if you're truly volunteering to make a difference (and not to get a cool selfie and a line on your resume) you'll want to do it right.
- Spend your tourist money in the local community. It can be easy to travel without every really setting foot in the local community. If you stay at an international hotel chain, eat at expat-owned restaurants, and take tours with big foreign-based companies, then very little of your money is actually staying in the country you're visiting. Tourist dollars can make a huge difference to a community, so spend them wisely. Seek out locally owned places to stay, eat, and play. The bonus is that you'll probably have a way more interesting and meaningful experience, and see things that most tourists will miss!
- Use social media carefully. Ask yourself: Would you want a photo like this posted of yourself, or your child, for the world to see? Volunteers often share photos while traveling that they would never take at home (like pictures of children you don't know, or photos of patients in a hospital). Also, be intentional about the story you're telling with your photos and captions. Is it something positive about the place and the people you're visiting, or are you reinforcing tired old stereotypes about poverty and helplessness? Assume that the locals you're with will see the photos you post - would you want a visitor to talk about your hometown that way? You may very well be the only reference point that your friends and family have for the country you're visiting, so use that power for good.
What countries would you say could benefit the most from tourism and volunteering abroad?
I think any country can benefit from tourism if it's done the right way! That said, I'm a big believer in visiting off-the-beaten-path places. That takes the pressure off of super popular places (like Santorini or Venice) which are suffering from over-tourism. Plus, cities and countries that are less visited can benefit so much more from tourist income. We've had fantastic experiences in places that aren't popular tourist destinations, whether it's a rarely-visited country like El Salvador, or a remote location like a safari in Tuli, Botswana.
How do you see travel evolving in the coming years?
I hope that travel evolves to become more thoughtful and meaningful, rather than just checking countries and experiences off a bucket list. I'd like to see travelers recognize how much power their choices have (where they stay, who they spend their money with, how they interact with locals, etc) and use that power to affect positive change. If travelers make it clear to the tourism industry that we want responsible, sustainable options that benefit local communities, then those options will become more popular and accessible!
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