The Impact of Our Travels (Part 4)

This is Part IV in MSL's first series piece. For Part I, click here.

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I love cruises. In every sailing, there inevitably comes a moment when I wander the decks—usually some time around midnight, when it's quietest—and attempt to take in every detail of the ship, locking in as many memories from the trip as I possibly can in my waning hours aboard. Toward the end of my most recent sailing, however, I was actually met with a different sensation—it was a bittersweet feeling of excitement. Though I was sorry to see so many exciting moments pass into memory, I also couldn't wait to get home and share the stories of our volunteer efforts and experiences in new communities with my friends and family. Fortunately, our Fathom Travel impact guides came up with an opportunity for us to stretch our legs as storytellers with an open mic event, giving us the chance to vent our narratives before setting foot on dry land.

Stepping up to the stage on our last sea day, I took my place behind the mic and clicked through a series of images that were immediately recognizable to everyone in the room, as well as a few that drew sympathetic gasps and nods of pained familiarity from a few others. The story I chose to tell connected our clean up of hurricane debris from Guana Bay Beach in St. Maarten to the relief trip my college coordinated to Breezy Point, Long Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In both cases, I explained, the resilience and kindness displayed by the communities that we'd gone to help left the most indelible mark. I was quick to assume, when first setting out on both occasions, that it would be a one-sided exchange. I was wrong on both counts; it's never just the visitors who have something to give.

An underlying concern that goes hand-in-hand with the issue of the Savior Complex is the lingering impact of a traveler's visit. Here, impermanence can often be dismissed as disregard. It's simple enough, with the perceived insincerity ascribed to the traditionally introspective tourist outlook, to breathe life into the perception that the average visitor cares little for the daily struggles and long-term issues faced by their hosts. They might even forget them altogether once they've returned home.

This is not true in every case.

As we've explored this week, there's more to Voluntourism than just going off somewhere and doing something good. Branching out from underneath this recognizable banner are two approaches to travel that hit on the most fundamental piece of this sprawling puzzle: a visit is an exchange. Regardless of the duration or itinerary, every traveler imparts something on the communities they visit and takes home something in return. The old mindset of "I came, I saw, I conquered", in framing travel as an individual escape skewed its focus in favor of the tourist. Social impact and sustainable tourism are two routes by which we can level the scales in a way that benefits travelers and their host communities equally. 

Sustainable Tourism emphasizes minimizing the footprints that travelers leave behind them. Proponents of sustainable travel look at Voluntourism, the broader banner under which these altruistic programs coalesce, as an imperfect vehicle. It has the potential to carry the industry to where it hopes to be, but there are drawbacks. Simply setting up shop in a needy community isn't enough. Without the foresight to ask what would likely become of the communities they partner with should operations be forced to shut down suddenly, social entrepreneurs can risk becoming yet another detriment to those whom they seek to serve through dependence. Pioneers in the field of sustainable tourism recognize that becoming a part of the community means carving out a niche. That niche can just as easily become a vacuum in their absence. 

Social impact activities represent another side to the coin and are aimed at one, simple goal: Connection. Coordinating activities that promote communication and interaction between travelers and their hosts, social impact coordinators act as mediators in an exchange that has proven fundamental to our evolution as a species. Through the sharing of stories, the individualistic bubble of the traveler is dealt its greatest blow. The interpersonal component woven into these types of travel experiences elevates them from a momentary meeting between host and visitor to a shared journey. They also help coordinators and NGO's keep a finger on the pulse of the community, fostering relationships with elders and leaders at host sites that serve as a sort of litmus test. 

There's no one right way to travel. And even the best intentions, when hastily executed, can result in a terrible mess. Social impact travel and sustainable tourism are two underlying elements of the broader concept that we recognize as "Voluntourism" and tend to be overshadowed by the more egregious examples of blunders abroad committed with good intent. But these programs, when enacted responsibly, engage the voices at the other end of the table to ensure that the communities which depend on the influx of visitors for their livelihoods also have a say in their own destinies.

In Breezy Point, I was blown away by the generous display of concern shown by residents who came out into the sand-swept streets carrying trays of food with the well-being of our volunteers on their minds. It is a form of love that I have seen repeated in countless faces at sea and in communities stretching from the East Coast of the United States down to the Caribbean. Travel unites us in the most wonderful of ways. It binds myriad stories into one, common narrative. Utilized properly, it can be the route through which we overcome the barriers of our world to affect change.

-MJ

Stay tuned to MSL this week for additional chapters on "Voluntourism" in our first week-long series!

Photos by Canva