“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” –Mother Teresa
It doesn’t always require a lengthy time commitment or an elaborate volunteer placement agency to “do good” during your travels. Just making a conscious effort to infuse currency into local businesses and organizations can help immensely. Below are some simple ways you can contribute.
Stay in local guesthouses, apartments and homestays instead of chain hotels
Apartment and room rentals through sites like Airbnb, VRBO, Travel Mob and Home Away can be a great option for long-term stays or when traveling with others. It’s often cheaper and your money goes into the pockets of individuals.
Homestays give you a taste of how locals live and can be coordinated through local tour agencies, often as part of an overnight tour. If you don’t mind trading some modern conveniences like electricity and hot water for a more authentic experience, this is a wonderful way to support locals on an individual basis. My experience in Kratie, Cambodia was definitely bare bones, but it was a night I’ll never forget.
Small guesthouses are typically run by locals or expats and are easy to find via TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet. Listings with the word “guesthouse”, “homestay”, or “hostel” in their name are good places to start. Terms vary by location and don’t necessarily have different meanings. Look at the reviews and if people are always mentioning that so-and-so was welcoming and provided great tips, it’s likely that person is the owner or manager.
Book a food tour or cooking class with a local
If you’re interested in sampling the local delicacies or creating them yourself, opt for businesses run by one or two people as opposed to larger organizations. Some smaller businesses are recognizing the power of a TripAdvisor listing and will pop up from a search, but combing through expat blogs and travel forums can turn up even more options. Below are a few I’ve patronized:
Paon Bali Cooking School– Run by a former Balinese chef, students can take a day-long cooking course at the chef’s home in Ubud while overlooking a green, green forest.
Argentine Cooking Classes– Psychotherapist by day, culinary master by “night”, Norma’s love of cooking led her to conduct classes from her apartment in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano.
Hanoi Street Food Tours– Run by Tu, a local Vietnamese, and his Australian partner, Mark, small groups walk through the streets of Hanoi to sample many of its mysterious delicacies.
Saigon Street Eats– This one is run by a Vietnamese/Australian couple who offer street food tours specializing in different kinds of food: from pho to seafood.
Shop to support local organizations and artisan communities
I’ve been to many places that offer handicrafts made by village co-ops where they are paid a fair wage and get an opportunity to sell their work in larger cities. Some restaurants and small businesses employ at-risk youth or the disabled, giving them an opportunity to learn and earn. Below are a few I visited, but this just scratches the surface:
Friends– This is a great organization in Cambodia with restaurants and shops in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and even shop branches in Laos and Thailand. They also have a nail salon in Phnom Penh. The businesses are part of a larger social program to train marginalized youth and provide a positive environment for them to learn new skills.
Nepalese Women Skill Development Project– Their goal is to empower women through sustainable development. Rural women make bags, scarves, bed sheets, etc. You can purchase online through their site or in shops around Kathmandu. I bought some beautiful cotton woven handbags on Mandala Street in Thamel.
Fair Warung Bale– This small cafe in Ubud, Bali does double duty: it trains local youth in food service and also helps provide free healthcare to those who can’t afford it. One meal pays for two medical consultations. That’s some serious bang for your buck.
Baguette and Chocolat– Located in the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, this is a cafe run by the Hoa Cua school which provides hotel, restaurant and tourism training to disadvantaged youth. The organization has restaurants in other locations in Vietnam as well.
Animal Rescues and Sustainable Farming
Some organizations claim to help animals, but instead use your money to exploit them. Do your homework to find out which are legitimately doing good. Look at reviews and ask where your money goes.
Elephant Valley Project– This elephant reserve in Sen Monorom, Cambodia (northeast region of the country) improves the health and welfare of captive elephants. Some are rescued from the logging industry and given a place to learn how to be a “normal” elephant again, while others spend a short time at the reserve to receive veterinary care that their owners can’t afford. Beware of imitation organizations that use the animals as a tourist attraction. A day trip to the Elephant Valley Project will set you back $85, but that covers transportation, lunch, and walking through the forest to watch these beautiful creatures. And of course your money supports the project. Read more about my day with the ellies.
Jaguar Rescue Center– This animal center in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica rescues and rehabilitates wild animals, setting them free if they are able. A visit to the center includes a tour of the animals along with their stories. Your money helps fund the facility. It’s called the Jaguar Rescue Center after one of the earliest animals in their care, but they have an array of local wildlife to interact with, so don’t go expecting to see jaguars!
Caribeans– It’s the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Costa Rica, creating quality products from organic and locally sourced ingredients. You can visit the cafe or take a tour of the cacao farm and chocolate-making facilities for $26. Paul, an American expat, and his wife run the farm with the help of locals providing fair wages and sustainable practices. Your tour money supports this local enterprise, ensuring profits are infused back into the community.
Use Local Guides and Drivers
Consider finding a driver you like and using him/her for the duration of your trip. This is especially true in places like Bali and Costa Rica where taxi services are really just privately-owned cars, but you can also do it in cities with official taxi drivers. If you get a good vibe, ask if they have a card. You’re helping them by providing steady work, and you may get a price break with frequent use. Plus, they’re more reliable since they know you’ll likely call them again. You can also ask them how well they know the area. While not official tour guides, they may know hidden spots you won’t find in Lonely Planet. Just make sure their English is sufficient. Or they can drive you to tourist spots outside the city for less than official tours.
Other Opportunities to Help
Bloom Microventures out of Hanoi, Vietnam combines microfinance with responsible tourism. As a former Kiva fellow, I was intrigued by the model. During the tour you visit rural entrepreneurs living below the poverty line, trying to build or improve their business. Your tour fee is then dispersed as a microloan to help the people you just met. Our group of six visited a woman at her home who needed to rebuild her animal husbandry business. Our fee funded the purchase of chickens for raising and selling to the market. While the organization is still a little green, I think it’s a great idea, and there is definitely opportunity for expansion.
If you don’t have time to volunteer, consider picking a charity in the town you’re visiting and donate goods. Of course all organizations want money, but if they accept clothing, supplies, etc., it can make you feel a little more involved. And who doesn’t like an excuse to go shopping? Just contact the organization beforehand to find out what they need. You can even donate old clothes you don’t want to take home with you. Better yet, bring items for donation in your suitcase, making more room to buy locally made souvenirs. Finding a legitimate orphanage in Nepal is unfortunately difficult, but I eventually stumbled upon Sunrise Children’s Association, run by an Australian woman that seemed to check out. They’re located about an hour outside of Kathmandu, but have a drop off location at a hotel near where I was staying. I enjoyed filling my shopping cart with toiletries and cleaning supplies, knowing they would be put to good use.
It Doesn’t Take Much
You get the idea. It’s not hard to contribute locally while traveling and positively impact the communities you visit. It just takes a little time and research to find the organizations you want to support. TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum are good sources, as are expat blogs which can be a wealth of local info. Of course this is more easily done in developing countries, but even industrialized nations have causes that need supporting. Putting your money into the pockets of locals instead of larger international companies is a step towards leaving a place better than you found it.