Budget Travel or Poverty Tourism?

Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is nothing wrong with budget travel. At this point in my blogging career, I fund all my own trips and homegirl doesn’t have unlimited resources. We’ve all seen ultra-luxury hotels and Instagram travel photos, and for those of us who can’t afford an all-out 5 star experience, budget travel is often what’s on the menu. I’m a huge proponent of it. But we need to clear the air with a few problems going on in the budget travel industry.

The Southeast Asia Effect

You can travel cheaply in many parts of southeast Asia. Many (dare I say most?) travel bloggers have their bread and butter in this region. And it makes total sense–cheap costs of living, color almost-literally dripping from the sky, exotic animals and food around every corner, amazing architecture and incredible amounts of history and culture baked into every day–all for basically pennies. But friends, the rest of the travel world does not function like this, and even in SE Asia, this comes at a cost.

The reason travel, food and accommodations come so cheap in many regions of the world, my beloved Central America and the Caribbean included, is rather ugly. I won’t bore you with the economics of pineapple and banana plantations (this time–but if you’re interested, HMU on Twitter!), but cost of living and more importantly quality of life, are directly proportional to the cost of travel in a region. The cheaper the travel, the poorer the region economically. This is especially true of areas with high numbers of all-inclusive resorts and luxury hotels. That doesn’t mean all-inclusive resorts are bad, many operate ethically, and can be a good choice for a stress-free vacation, but they should always come with additional consideration.

Yes, travel is expensive. It is a privilege that many do not have the luxury to enjoy. That does not make those of us who can indulge in this exempt from the ethical implications of our choices.

Cause-Based Travel

This is the biggie for me. I can fully get down with organizations like Doctors Without Borders which takes licensed, professionally competent medical personnel and puts their skills to work in long-term or crisis health clinics. What I fundamentally have a problem with is the equation below that I see more often than not:

non-skill based volunteer + exotic tropical location + fundraising to pay for the trip = poverty tourism

A big culprit of this is Habitat for Humanity. What business do teenagers have building houses in Indonesia? Or a 20something student in Bali? None. They are not contractors, their work has to be supervised or re-done, but they get to feel good about their “philanthropy”. Wouldn’t the better solution be to raise the money and send it to local community development organizations where you don’t also have to fund white person-approved housing, food, and transportation? Where 100% of the proceeds could go towards actually making a difference? Where all the money goes towards paying for local labor and providing consistent income? Where the “developed world” doesn’t import another case of the savior complex? “But then who would see the good work I did! Where would I get my feel-good Instagram photos?” the gallery of tourists asks. 

This is the core of poverty tourism. Using poverty to feel good about your intentions for travel.

Solutions for Real Travelers

I don’t have all the answers–let’s clear that up now. But I do have some ideas on how to make budget travel more ethical:

Stay Local

Many local families in touristy areas operate hostels or bed and breakfasts. Hostels have a bad rep, probably because everyone thinks they are all bunk-style dorm rooms–which some are in all transparency. However, using hostel network sites such as HostelWorld, you can search by room type, location and more. Almost all of them are local-owned and there are hundreds of thousands in their database–you can ever book directly from their site. By staying at local-owned establishments, the money you spend goes directly back to the community you visit.

Eat Where Locals Eat

Not only is this a better way to get the feel for the country and culture, not to mention eat the best food in the region, it all ensures that the money you spend goes back to the place you’re visiting. Make the money you are spending count–and for the love of everything, stay away from American chain restaurants. Every time I see a McDonald’s, a piece of my soul dies. In Costa Rica, you’ll find the best food at local restaurants called Sodas. Order a casada with a refresco natural. Find me a more iconic duo. I’ll wait.

Invest in Sustainably Sourced Gifts

This one can be hard to vet, I’ll admit. It’s so easy to buy trinkets when you’re traveling. A big problem in tourism, specifically in Central America and the Caribbean, is deforestation. While that doesn’t seem to tie into gift giving or souvenirs–that ornate wooden carving you bought in the airport for your mom? From the rainforest. My big tip here is that unless you can buy from the artist themselves is to never buy wooden art, no matter where you are. I feel similarly about coffee/food products. If you can buy it in the airport or grocery store, it’s not a great investment. It’s made in a factory for pennies. Better to buy from local farmers and vendors at craft markets and community fairs. While it doesn’t guarantee the sourcing, the odds are better that you are supporting more ethically sourced materials and local arts movements.

Avoid Non-Skill Based Volunteering

Don’t do it. Just don’t. If you’re passionate about travelling and want to “do good” while you’re at it, partner with a skill-based organization where the things you are exceptional at can be used to benefit others. Avoid feel-good organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Unless you’re a contractor, in which case I digress.

TLDR; go local, always.

Travel is beautiful, eye-opening, life-changing and in my opinion the best way to grow as a person. It’s a luxury that is not guaranteed to everyone. But let’s all agree to stop pretending it is a way to alleviate poverty.

Disagree? Find me on Twitter (@vandernickr) and let’s chat!