February 19, 2020

While many view travel as a one-way ticket to self-improvement, it should be regarded as a round trip, mutually transforming not just our lives, but those of the locals living in the host countries. The late Anthony Bourdain, who was a chef and TV travel host had this to say about his wanderings, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.” Travelling shows us the most breathtaking places around the world, but it also unveils many heart-wrenching sights; the poignant injustice of poverty, the human ravages of natural landscapes, and cantankerous diseases that consume entire societies. These portraits of pain can prompt us to be more compassionate travellers by helping to shift our perspectives through greater awareness. When we become more mindful of the world, we recalibrate the way that we travel by seeing a destination through a local’s eyes instead of our own. In order for travel to have a meaningful and transformative effect, we must have an open heart to learn the lessons it can offer. Through small ways, we can all become more compassionate travellers. Here’s how.

Support India’s young widows through tourism

Fernweh Fair Travel empowers women with skills to surmount their impoverished circumstances and brings sustainable development to underprivileged communities by offering curated tours for people who enjoy off-the-beaten-track experiences. They provide a livelihood to women by training them as travel guides and revive local handicraft by giving employment to the artisan tribes. Take your pick from mountain adventures to yoga holidays, or perhaps an intimate homestay, cared for by women from the shelter project.

Develop an understanding of lesser-known female cultures

Join femaleled expeditions from Intrepid Travel to have a  better understanding of female cultures in places where they have been oppressed by patriarchy. Book their Kenya Wildlife Safari tour and meet female wildlife rangers to get their insights into working in a male-dominated industry or travel to Umoja Village, a women-only settlement which is “a sanctuary for survivors of genital mutilation, rape, and forced marriages” to hear their motivating stories of survival.

Help refugees in Greece

Since the onslaught of a major financial crisis, Greece has been sinking under the quagmire of its national debt. Travellers can practise compassion by making choices that have positive impacts on the environment. Consider a tour with Greece’s “ultimate eco-walking” company, No Footprint, which focuses on low-impact walking tours. These tours promote local businesses and educate visitors about solutions to environmental issues. Or perhaps volunteer at Lighthouse Relief, a safe space created for refugees, who have been stranded in camps across mainland Greece since the closure of borders in March 2016.

Choose hotels which practise mindfulness and social consciousness

Travelling with more compassion translates to finding sustainable solutions to reduce our carbon footprint. The Good Hotel in London is regarded as a leader in conscious luxury because of their mindful approach to travel. They are touted to offer “a premium hotel experience and the opportunity to give something back to the local community whilst travelling.” Sustainability is at the heart of all their choices: from staff involvement to operation procedures. Their Good Training programme provides hospitality training to unemployed individuals, helping them to reintegrate into the job market. And their buildings reflect a commitment to eco-friendly durability—natural ventilation systems and water reclamation systems are integrated into the hotel design to save energy.

Don’t regard animals as props 

Swimming with dolphins, hugging koalas or elephant trekking are fun experiences, but the pleasure is only limited to us. Conversely, it can be a traumatic experience for the animals as their stress levels spike after prolonged interaction with humans. Our presence disrupts their lives and the natural order of things like their feeding and resting habits. So even as we work closely with conservation projects, we must be mindful of our interaction with the animals. Avoiding excessive photography and contact can go a long way to contributing to their well-being.

Do a toiletry detox

Ditch new plastic mini toiletries and decant from bigger bottles into smaller recyclable bottles. While hotel amenities are potentially nice souvenirs, avoid going overboard with hoarding as it encourages increased production of plastics, resulting in more non-biodegradable waste. Take into account chemical-free or organic toiletries like Pai—their ultra-pure certified organic skincare products are completely free from irritants. Opt for their chemical-free sun cream which won’t harm marine life and damage coral reefs during dive trips.

Although compassionate tourist practices are one way to raise awareness and give back to the local communities, a darker side lurks in the shadows. Are these practices a form of modern imperialism, where privileged individuals superficially interact with those less fortunate for an instant feel-good effect? Is there a misguided sense of superiority when we bestow someone with our charitable acts? The image of conscious travel being elitist and morally righteous seems to prevail. Conscious tourism is now in danger of becoming a form of fashionable dissipation.

As long as we are conscious of the true intention behind our call to help others when we travel—a genuine desire to make the world a better place but not under the pretence (subconscious or not) of charity, travelling more compassionately can have indelible effects on the lives of people we meet. Travel is like a string connecting people that would otherwise have not met, giving travellers a chance to take home stories from other cultures to share. In the wise words of Bourdain, “It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” The only thing we should leave behind is a warmth in the hearts of the people we touch.