Over the past twenty years, the world has truly become a smaller place. Once hard to reach, remote parts of the planet that used to be only for the most adventurous of tourists, have become more accessible. Places like the Himalayas of Nepal, the tiny fishing villages of Southeast Asia and the bushland of the Maasai have opened their doors for travelers, allowing us to see their beautiful unique cultures as never before.
Although it is wonderful that more of the remote corners of the world are now accessible, it comes with a price. The negative impact of tourism on the environment, culture and people of a place, threatens it’s very own authenticity and landscape. This is why choosing sustainable travel is critical if we want to preserve and protect these destinations for the future.
My father and I have been trekking in remote places for decades and every place we go we use local trekking guides and companies. I honestly admit that the initial reasons behind our choice were purely convenience and economical. However, the more we began using local guides, it became clear how incredibly rewarding and important it is to hire locally. Not only do you get a more intimate cultural experience by getting to see a country through their eyes, your investment also greatly supports the local community in which you are visiting. By hiring local, all money you spend on your trip is directly reinvested back in that very place that is so special instead of profiting an international corporation who only has financial interests to gain.
Furthermore, the cross-cultural friendships and understanding that are made and shared by hiring local are priceless. Not only does it create goodwill, it brings a new perspective and understanding on both sides of the relationship. As a client, you get to learn as much as possible about a culture, history, society, life, flora and fauna and environment. As a guide, you gain a better understanding of people who are so different from those portrayed in the media. Together, you can create life-long friendships that promote cultural understanding and peace.
Here are three examples of why supporting local guides matters.
The very first big trekking trip I took was to Nepal in 2010 with my father. We had hiked together for many years in the US and did our first small multi-day trek to follow the Inca Trail in Peru. This time we wanted something longer, and more daring and adventurous. We wanted Nepal.
A year before booking our trip, I never would have even imagined going on a trek in Nepal. It felt like a place that only existed in my imagination or across the glossy pages of National Geographic. Yet a timely article on trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal peaked my interest and made me realize that this far away dream could be possible for a stay-at-home mother of two. My dad and I were both approaching a milestone birthday so we decided to step out of our comfort zone and go for it.
Our trip to Nepal to hike the Annapurna Circuit was one of the best travel and cultural experiences of my life. By chance, we chose Nepali-based Earthbound Expeditions, an award-wining responsible travel company that we had heard about in the New York Times. The price was right, the staff was local and they had excellent reviews. Little did I know, this connection would begin a life-long commitment to hiring local and giving back.
The wonderful, charismatic owner Rajan has been running the company for years, employing a local crew of guides and porters who were delighted to share their culture with their guests. On our trip, we had a Hindu guide and a Buddhist porter with us the entire time who taught us about their unique cultures, heritage, history and geology of their land. We stayed at local tea houses that support the remote villages of Himalayan Nepal.
At the end of the trip Rajan connected me with local initiatives to help support rural Nepali communities upon my return. Inspired by such an amazing, life-changing experience I fundraised enough money to build two reading centers in rural Nepal thanks to the contacts made by Earthbound Expeditions. It opened my eyes and heart to an entirely new way to travel. One with purpose and meaning.
My next big hiking trip was to the Condoriri Valley of Bolivia, a place only known by experienced climbers. This time we did a google search of the area we wanted to visit and found a slough of trekking outfitters offering tours. The expensive US and International corporate brands popped up on the list, offering the same package for double the price. Yet once again we chose local and found Andean Summits, a small locally-run climbing and trekking outfitter based in La Paz. Founded in 1994 by two best friends, Javier Thellaeche and José Camarlinghi, Andean Summits has been bringing travelers to some of the most remote peaks of Bolivia, all by employing local staff and using sustainable, environmentally friendly practices.
During our four-day trek, we camped alone at the foot of the Condoriri Valley and had beautiful, homemade indigenous meals by our cook Eugenia. The entire staff from the driver down to the muleteers (a husband and wife team who supplies the mules to help carry our camp to the base of the mountains) were local. It was a beautiful, intimate experience.
Last July I joined the non-profit Solar Sister and climbed Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and funding to bring solar electricity to Sub-Saharan Africa. As an avid hiker, I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for years but realized that it had become a rather popular adventure and it seemed like everyone was climbing Kilimanjaro. I needed to find a way to bring more meaning to what I was doing and to give back. Thus, I joined the Solar Sister team an international, inner-generational group of people wanting to make a difference.
As part of our climb, each member fundraised enough to provide training for 8 new women Solar Sister entrepreneurs and bring light and electricity to their community. It was a beautiful mission.
For our trip, our lead guide was American however our entire support team and staff of 30 were all local Tanzanians. Unlike Nepal where the rules are often broken, the Tanzanian government has strict policies on ethical labor. Each porter had to weigh in the bag before heading off as no bags could weigh more than 33 pounds. Porters also receive fair wages and a big part of their income is based on tips. Although porters spend a lot of time away from their families, the income earned is often much better than other opportunities and helps send their kids to school.
What I loved most about my experience was the giving back component. I strongly believe that it is a gift to travel so being able to give back to Tanzania through my fundraising was quite an amazing feeling. The thrill and honor of summiting Kilimanjaro wasn’t only for my own personal gain, it impacted women I’d never know in Tanzania. For me, perhaps it was the greatest gift of all.
As travelers, we have a choice. We can go with international brands and companies or we can purposely chose to support local. As the world continues to open up to tourism, let’s use our money wisely to promote sustainable tourism. Just think of the amazing impact and difference we can make.
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This post was written as part of Travel + Social Good, a community of change makers united by a love of exploration and doing good. Every month, a group of dedicated travel journalists and bloggers will share stories about sustainable travel. To follow along on Twitter search #travelgood.