By Liz McGuffee and Lauren Arena
When Lauren and I sat down to pen this article, we began by talking about how my motivation to find impactful travel opportunities was directly related to my desire to impact my children’s sense of self, beyond their daily lifestyle. And because we were fortunate enough to be expats, in close proximity to exotic destinations as a young family, we had plenty of opportunities to experience all the positive outcomes of meaningful travel.
For my children of plenty, I hoped travel could alter their perspective, and at least check their sense of privilege or entitlement, as well as my own. My reference points included church work trips and Habitat for Humanity builds, where I had the opportunity to work alongside people I was “serving.” Even with this notion in mind, I knew I was learning more useful skills than anything I was contributing.
When we returned home, I wanted to ensure the experience left a lasting impact on my family - that we were educated, realigned and perhaps even transformed. I don’t believe we ever met those goals, but, over time, I think we have all been changed.
Twenty years later, the term ‘impact travel’ has developed more fully and refers to the possibility that the negative impacts of travel can be mitigated, or even eliminated, through careful planning to ensure that tourism does not negatively affect the host community. Our gain is not their loss. Yet the environmental impact of travel is well documented - should we still be vacationing abroad?
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is responsible for the promotion of “responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, and promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability for the host communities.”
According to UNWTO, the travel industry constitutes 10% of jobs worldwide, but it is also responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So not traveling would also have a significant economic impact. Today, sustainable travel is one very important and achievable aspect of impact travel. In the face of climate change, there is greater awareness that travel – particularly airline travel - is bad for the environment. Our ability to offset any carbon footprint only requires a Google search and a credit card, and as travelers become increasingly aware of their carbon footprint, the power of social impact travel is also gaining momentum.
In addition to being sustainable and responsible, social impact travel can be transformative, build lifetime bonds and is about learning rather than ‘imparting wisdom’. Through the gift of perspective, travel can have life-altering individual (or family) impact.
In October, we had the opportunity to travel to Bhutan with Women4Impact; a social impact enterprise based in Singapore. Women4Impact’s initial impact was supporting the nascent law school in Bhutan by adding a donation in the package price, hiring young women as our guides and working to ensure sustainable approaches, such as limited conference handouts.
The trip also provided us the opportunity to develop personal relationships with Bhutanese law students and entrepreneurs, develop a better understanding of the culture of Bhutan and Gross National Happiness, and to experience the beauty of the country in an ethical and sustainable manner.
Of the 50 men and women with whom we travelled, we each gained knowledge, experience and, in many cases, wonderful new friends. A group of travelers continue to work together with Bhutanese entrepreneurs to support the expansion of their business into Singapore and other new markets.
The transformative nature of travel and building relationships through shared experience is something corporate incentive and meeting planners have preached for decades. Incentive travel can boost staff performance levels and build team bonds, and often includes an element of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where a corporate group will ‘give back’ to the local community. Far beyond planting trees and building bikes for underprivileged kids, corporate incentive travelers are now looking for more meaningful ways to engage with local communities and leave an impact on the destinations they visit.
Pacific World, a destination and event management company that has operated in more than 40 countries, including Singapore, has embraced this purpose-driven travel prerogative with both hands. “We see opportunities to make a difference in the areas of climate change, plastic pollution, waste management and social sustainability,” said global managing director, Selina Sinclair.
The company recently launched a grassroots initiative, known as the #BringchangewithME movement, to encourage its corporate clients to “think globally and act locally” by supporting sustainable development initiatives.
In Bali, the company helps corporate clients to reduce single-use plastic and organizes beach clean-up efforts. “We start by empowering and inspiring people at an individual level. From there, it ripples out – growing and evolving to where everyone believes in and supports sustainable solutions to move us forward,” Sinclair said. The new goal of corporate incentive travel, seemingly, is not purely to motivate staff to work harder, but to motivate behavior change.
In a similar vein, impact travel should be as enriching to the host destination and its communities, as it is to the traveler. Like the principles of Gross National Happiness, positive impact travel is about reconnecting to the self, others and nature. It’s about balancing inner and outer change. How will your next vacation make an impact?