In The Independent’s new travel trends column, Trendwatch, we explore types of travel, modes of transport and the top buzzwords to watch.
Thinking back to some of the most vivid days I’ve had on my travels, these are almost always the ones I’ve spent with the locals. Knocking down the chai at dawn with a student from Mumbai, bursting with enthusiasm and caffeine. Dropping into a ceramic workshop deep in Bali and buying beautiful homewares directly from the makers, the chalky scent of wet clay in the air. To be kindly instructed by a junior jimador (tequila farmer) in central Mexico as I amateur-pitched a stump of agave.
On one particularly memorable day, my Thailand tour group was greeted by several local women in Baan Talay Nok, a village on the country’s west coast that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, leaving many residents widowed. During our visit, we chatted with the women with the help of our Thai guide as they taught us how to cook spicy fish curry and barbecued sweet pastry sticks wrapped in banana leaves. They showed us how they make soap from cooking oil – setting up a shop so we can take home cinnamon and turmeric infused treats – and how to shred a coconut on a traditional stool Thai “toothed” like a pro. Despite the language barrier, what I remember is a lot of laughter.
This was organized by intrepid journey – a pioneer of this kind of “community contact” day, mixed with a bit of social enterprise. It is a type of travel experience that is increasingly in demand for group and adventure travel.
In G Adventures‘ Year-end customer survey, a whopping 68 percent of respondents said the most important factor for people when traveling is that their money benefits local people. Meanwhile, in a recent study by Booking.com, 67% of respondents said they wanted their travel spend to directly benefit the local community; and in a Skyscanner survey, 39% said they would prioritize spending with local businesses.
Travelers’ new question seems to have moved from “How can I meet locals?” to “How can I meet locals in a way that will directly benefit them?” This means not only engaging with local people, but also buying from them – using their transport services, restaurants, accommodation and guiding skills in a sustainable way.
And, as a series of new multi-stop and adventure tours show, travel agencies are taking that demand seriously.
Erica Kritikides – senior brand and product manager at Intrepid Travel – calls this type of tour an “impact experience”. From day one, all of the company’s trips have been designed to empower local communities at large: your tour leaders are always close to the destination and, wherever possible, they work with local suppliers, especially those owned to women or minority groups. In Morocco, 90% of its suppliers belong to local interests.
However, the recent travel crisis has provided a golden opportunity to examine this area of the business.
“It gave us an opportunity to really review our travels and ask, are we doing everything we can in this space?” said Kritikides. “At the end of 2020, we undertook a review of our top 100 bestselling trips, because if we can make a difference on those trips, we can make a huge difference for those places.”
Intrepid worked with its own collaborators in some 25 countries to identify more community-boosting experiences to incorporate into tours, and added a total of 22 new actively beneficial community experiences for 2022.
“It’s not just about supporting a business,” says Kritikides, “it’s about supporting a business where we can see the profits going directly to a community or conservation project.”
One example is Madi Valley Homestay, a village-run community of homestays and activities in Nepal, where locals earn a sustainable salary by hosting, feeding and guiding Intrepid guests. It’s a win-win: customers love learning about local customs and eating home-cooked food, while the proceeds have funded a fence for the village to protect residents from the wild animals that roam it.
In Jaipur, he works with the Pink City Rickshaw program, which trains women from low-income households, trains them in English, guides them and helps them obtain driving licenses. For travelers, that means a fun local sight-seeing tour on an eco-friendly electric rickshaw, picking up street food and chatting about their guide’s experiences in the city.
As far as feedback goes, the company finds this type of experience to be often a highlight of their trip.
“[Clients] maybe book a trip to Machu Picchu, but they come home talking about Manos Unidas, a fantastic social enterprise that we support in Peru,” says Kritikides.
They are by no means the only tour company making more use of homestays, local food outlets and local-run workshops: Wild Frontiers has added Meals on Wheels with locals to its itinerary at Sri Lanka, plus optional drum stops. -making workshops or cooking classes – while at the high end, luxury hotels like Aman’s deploy excursions to visit small businesses like pottery workshops in rural Turkey, where guests attend workshops and buy directly from the manufacturer.
AT Responsible travel, great care is taken in selecting accommodations and excursions that benefit the community – such as its Himalayan trekking holidays, which pay locals to host travelers, cook meals and guide groups.
For G Adventures, community support is such a priority that in 2018 it came with the “Ripple Score” – a figure showing customers what percentage of their tour spend will stay in the local economy.
Its range of community-driven experiences includes a fascinating day of knowledge exchange in Peru, where members of the Ccaccaccollo community of Cuzco teach travelers how to dye and hand-weave alpaca wool.
One trip that reached 100 on the Ripple Score is its “Hike, Bike and Kayak Thailand” itinerary – which has a strong focus on community experiences, such as hill tribe trekking and kayaking trips with rural communities.
“From the start it was about transparency – some of our tours are already at 100%, but others we’re not doing very well and we’re holding ourselves accountable, working to improve those numbers,” says Jamie Sweeting, the company’s vice president of responsible travel and social enterprise.
One of his favorite social enterprise partnerships is Sólheimar in Iceland, an eco-village that is home to a mix of disabled residents, their families and carers.
Tour groups are taken for lunch breaks at its café – which the company has helped develop – and can browse arts and crafts in its gallery, buy toiletries made by residents from plants and Icelandic herbs, or take part in workshops with the locals.
Basically, the travel companies that conduct these positive community tours want to make sure they don’t drift into something more voyeuristic or leave tourists gawking at the poverty-stricken conditions.
“We really tried to create an opportunity where people own their own business, they host you in their village, in their own way,” says Sweeting. “You are a guest and you should act like a guest.”
He cites the example of a Rio de Janeiro tour that takes groups to a locally developed brewery – owned and run by locals – in a favela.
It’s less about wandering the favela to take photos and leave – it’s about meeting and supporting locals with out-of-pocket expenses, as well as trying a tasty local product.
Sweeting isn’t a fan of “voluntourism,” a term that’s been around a lot over the past decade. In fact, he stamped it out of the company’s tours, determined to focus on more lasting experiences.
So what is the difference?
“Community tourism is by definition community owned, led and managed,” says Sweeting. These are the inhabitants “invited to share their culture and their history, in their own way”.
You’re not here to ‘fix’ anything or ‘build’ anything, he explains – unless it’s spending your vacation money in a way that then directly impacts on local infrastructure and employment.
It’s always very easy to get it wrong, he admits, and that aspect of G’s touring is an ongoing process.
Above all, these community experiences should be enjoyable and inspiring for travelers, emphasizes Kritikides — tours don’t have to be heavy or dark to connect with and support locals.
“These experiences need to be a lot of fun – if they aren’t, they don’t resonate as strongly. That’s key to them being memorable and powerful.