Why Ecotourism and Sustainable Travel Must Be the Wave of the Future

As much as I love to travel, there is no doubt I feel concerned about the negative impact that travel can make on a place due to overtourism and additional stress on the environment. As the world economy improves and more people are being lifted out of poverty, tourism is on the upswing as well. World Count estimates that approximately 1 billion people arrive in a new destination each year which translates into a new arrival every 30 seconds somewhere around the globe.

“Should we feel guilty for traveling”?  and “How is tourism the harming the environment and what we can do about it?” are excellent moral questions us as travelers have to often consider when planning a trip, especially to a threatened destination such as The Great Barrier Reef, Iceland, and Machu Picchu to name a few.

In this thought provoking piece, Dafina Zymeri of SUMAS (a Sustainability Business School in Switzerland), shares some areas where travel has negatively impacted the environment and the very culture of a city and how we as travelers can travel more consciously. I have added in my insight where I deemed necessary to expand upon a topic. I am hoping this is the first of many conversations on the importance of sustainable travel for we must protect and think responsibly about our impact as travelers upon the very world in which we desire to see.

It has been estimated that over half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016. What impact does tourism have on this fragile ecosystem and should we go there? Photo credit: Pexels

The Burden of Overtourism

If you search on Google “How tourism is…”, the first suggestion to finish the sentence it will give is “How tourism is killing Barcelona.” Pretty sad, isn’t it? Well, we travelers – or tourists, whatever you call yourself – are destroying the environment of those beautiful countries we’re visiting. Of course, we don’t mean to do so but we are flying, visiting and trampling all over the planet. Our increase in visiting some of these destinations is undeniably having an impact and perhaps not such a positive one.

Let’s take the case of Barcelona. Check out the Guardian’s recent article “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay“. We have all seen and experienced beloved destinations like Barcelona that have sadly began to lost their charm and have become overrun with all things tourist. Trinkets, t-shirt shops and crowds and crowds of people is making a once culturally rich city feel more like a Disney-styled theme park. Will Barcelona eventually loose the charm and uniqueness that initially made it so popular with tourists in the first place?

If this isn’t sad enough, the huge increase in popularity of Barcelona is having its own negative impacts on its own people who live there. Barcelona native residents are enraged with the cost of living that they say was inflicted by tourism. Per The Guardian, it used to cost 250€ (or around $280) for a short-term rental permit but now that they are not being issued anymore. Needless to say, the average monthly rent in Barcelona (which is the most expensive in Spain) is around  700€. Residents are seemingly being forced out by high rents in Barcelona neighborhoods with a high presence of Airbnb. Since Airbnb’s intention is “revitalizing neighborhoods”, how is that possible when neighborhoods in their presence are actually losing population to a large degree?

 

Is tourism ruining the charm of such beautiful places as Barcelona?

 

Here’s another example to touch your conscience: The beautiful beach of Maya Bay of Phi Phi Lei Island in Thailand had banned, for a certain time, boats of tourists from landing on the shore. The tourists that want to take the trouble to visit need to do it by foot from the neighboring beach Loh Samah Bay. I was heartbroken when I read what the Chief of Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park said the reason behind the temporary closure was that the marine life and corals need time to recover.  How utterly devastating. The beach we go to see, swim in, and take pictures of to need a break from us!

And what about Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site? Thousands of tourists are trampling across ancient ruins every day at a level that is truly unsustainable for keeping them around for further generations. Although UNESCO has strongly recommends that they cap the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, 5,000 tourists visit and walk across these threatened ruins daily. Don’t we want to safeguard and protect Machu Picchu for future generations to enjoy?

Isn’t this how Machu Picchu is supposed to look? Untouched?

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Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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Ignite

Meet Ignite: Journeys that Connect, Inspire and Transform

Over the past decade I have been fortunate to have been able to travel the world and also do good along the way. For me, it all began during that fateful trip to Nepal in 2010. I had gone on four different volunteer trips before Nepal but for some reason this trip truly changed my life and made me realize that even I can make a difference and impact in people’s lives. After returning from the trip, I engaged my children in helping me raise $4,000 to open up a reading center in rural Nepal through the non-profit organization  Read Global. I realized that little things can make a big difference and have a ripple effect within a community. I was hooked. And, I’ve realized that I am not the only one.

There is a growing market for impact-based travel as more people like myself want to travel and do good. However, finding those opportunities can be a bit daunting especially ensuring that “the doing good” is truly doing more good than damage.  For instance, there has been a call by many international children’s welfare organizations to put an end to orphanage volunteering as it can have a negative impact on vulnerable children. In the past, I have volunteered with children in developing countries and wasn’t fully aware of some of the potential consequences and ethical complications until I became more involved in social justice work.

Over the next several months, I am working on putting together a list of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations around the globe. While I’m researching these different organizations, I am rounding up guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by the team at Ignite, an organization whose mission is to provide experiences that benefit humanity and the planet.

Ignite Journeys

Hiking in Nicaragua. Photo credit: Ignite

Ignite: Journeys that Connect, Inspire and Transform

There is a growing demand among travelers to engage in travel for good. More than $2 billion is spent annually on impact-focused travel and year-over-year demand continues to increase, as people look for something more than a stay at an all-inclusive resort. They want to travel responsibly and support sustainable development around the world.

Ignite is energized by this growing demand to pursue purpose, social responsibility and global citizenship. Fundamentally, Ignite is a people development company. We help people become the best versions of themselves through purposeful journeys that combine cultural immersion and adventure. We provide these journeys for individual travelers and we also work with companies who offer our journeys as a way to recognize and develop their employees.

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How FLYTE is Empowering Students to Study Abroad

Traveling and studying abroad has the ability to change and transform a person’s life and create more cross-cultural understanding. In today’s world, it is critical that we understand other cultures, and there is no better time to experience the transformative power of travel than when you are young and impressionable. Unfortunately, travel is expensive and usually only available to those who have the money to pay for it. This results in an entire segment of the world’s population who are denied the transformative experiences of seeing and exploring new places, and is especially true when it comes to teens and young adults. Organizations like FLYTE are trying to change the game and empower more youth to see the world.

Founded in 2015 by the New York Times Bestselling travel author, Matthew Kepnes of the website Nomadic Matt, FLYTE is a nonprofit organization that empowers students living in underserved communities through transformative travel experiences.

I was able to speak with FLYTE to learn more about how they are empowering youth to take FLYTE and experience the world. Here is what Matt has to say.

FLYTE Ecuador

Students participating in one of Flyte’s programs in Ecuador

Why More Students Should Tale FLYTE and Travel Abroad

By Matt Kepnes (Founder of FLYTE) and Carmela Resuma (Executive Director, FLYTE)

As travel enthusiasts, we all understand the power of travel. It’s one of the most impactful educational tools that changes perspectives. It breaks down borders, fosters empathy, and makes us realize how connected we all are.

As a former high school history teacher, I know the value of an education. I understand that I am privileged enough to be able to travel the world and do what I want because of getting a good education. Not everyone gets that chance. Let’s face it: Not everyone is able to travel. Whether it’s money, family obligations, or circumstance, travel is out of reach for a large percentage of the world’s population. Most people never even leave their own state let alone the country (only 35% of Americans have a passport!).

This is especially true for students in underserved communities – from inner city Chicago to the middle-of-nowhere Idaho. These students – in communities and from families with limited resources – don’t get a chance to expand their worldview, meet people from other cultures, and bring what they learn in the classroom to life!

That is why in 2015, I created FLYTE. While many wealthy school districts send students on overseas educational trips, schools and teachers in underserved areas have little or no opportunity to offer their students these experiences. Their schools and communities lack the resources to make such a trip happen. I wanted to create an organization which was open to everyone around the country. I wanted an organization that helped people in forgotten parts of the United States because everyone deserves a chance to see and learn about the world!

At FLYTE, we empower youth living in underserved communities through transformative travel experiences. We provide teachers and students with the planning and funding they need to take what they learn in the classroom and put it to use in the real world!

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CasaSur Charming Hotel, Santiago

Staying at the CasaSur Charming Hotel in Barrio Italia, Santiago

One of the best ways to ensure a fantastic trip is to do your homework before traveling especially when it comes to finding the perfect place to stay. Thanks to TripAdvisor (and my dad is does all the research on it), we found the intimate CasaSur Charming Hotel – a boutique hotel with only six rooms in the lovely tranquil Barrio Italia. It was truly a treasure of a find!

The CasaSur has only been open for a little over two years but in that short amount of time, it is already ranked #1 on TripAdvisor of all 200+ hotels in Santiago. An impressive feat for this tiny little hotel. As soon as we arrived and met our hosts, the owner Eduardo and his delightful, charming staff, we realized what a special place it was.  Eduardo was awaiting and welcomed us by name. His charismatic personality made us instantly feel at home and that is how he intends his hotel to be: Something a little bit different and unique.

After traveling the globe as a Civil Engineer, Eduardo decided to change his career path and open up his own boutique hotel running it the way he thought travelers would like best. A place that surrounds and welcomes guests with harmony, serenity and peace. A home away from home with inspirational quotes written by hand on the chalkboard each day and where each guest is treated as a part of the family.

After a bit of searching, Eduardo found the perfect place for his hotel: The lovely, tree-lined neighborhood of Barrio Italia located only a short walk from the trendy, more rowdy Barrio Bellavista. In 2013, he purchased the old run-down house on Eduardo Hyatt street and put his skills as an engineer to use fixing it up. In 2015, the doors to CasaSur Charming Hotel opened for the first time and his gorgeously-appointed, intimate hotel has been open ever since.

CasaSur Charming Hotel, Santiago

The immaculate white CasaSur Charming Hotel with sits at the end of a quiet street outside and is walking distance to several amazing restaurants and shops.

Eduardo, the owner of CasaSur Charming Hotel doing what he loves best…talking to his guests

Eduardo put his engineering skills to work to create a lovely hotel with beautifully -appointed rooms, a stunning open air terrace and a delightful reception area. A freshly-made breakfast is served every morning on the outdoor terrace or inside if it is cool out. There is even a self-serve bar where you can purchase a bottle of Chilean wine or a beer without having to leave the comforts of the hotel.

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Every morning the quotes are changed on the chalkboard and the new guests are added to the list. It is a very welcoming place!

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The location of CasaSur couldn’t be more perfect. Located in the Barrio Italia (formally known as the Barrio Santa Isabel), this historic neighborhood has been up and coming for the past decade with dozens of fabulous restaurants to choose from, gorgeous boutiques and lots of interesting shops such as antiques and even furniture restoration. What I loved best is that I didn’t feel at all like a tourist in Barrio Italia. We walked, talked and ate with the locals. It was the perfect way to experience local culture and practice sustainable travel. After staying at locally-owned and run boutique hotels, I’d have a very difficult time ever staying at a big American hotel chain again. You miss half the experience of truly traveling and engaging with the country you are visiting.

Barrio Italia, Santiago

The tree-lined streets of Barrio Italia are loaded with open-air restaurants, boutiques and bars.

Barrio Italia, Santiago, Chile

View of the Andes from a rooftop restaurant and bar in Barrio Italia.

Barrio Italia, Santiago, Chile

And the jacaranda’s were all in full bloom and gorgeous!

Barrio Italia, Santiago, ChileBarrio Italia, Santiago, ChileWe had an endless amount of delicious restaurants to choose from for dinner. Every meal was fantastic and there is food from all around the world just within a few tiny blocks. Best of all, we ate dinner with all the locals and even at local time (normally 10 pm). It took some getting used to the late dining hour yet once we did, we loved it.

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Towards the end of the stay Eduardo and his staff felt like family. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time at the CasaSur. I would have loved to have learned more about Eduardo’s fascinating family history. Both his grandparents had escaped WWII and the Nazis, fleeing Berlin and Hungary before the mass extermination of the Jewish population. They met in Chile and were so afraid of being persecuted that they baptized their children and raised them Christian. I had no idea until that moment that Chile even had a Jewish population. These are the tiny pieces of cultural knowledge that I’d never have learned without staying at a small, locally-run boutique hotel, and these are the stories I will always remember from my trip.

If you go:

CasaSur Charming Hotel is very small and fills up fast. Book well in advance! Eduardo and his staff can also provide you will tons of fantastic day-trips and excursions. You will love it there!

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The Power of Transformative Travel: How Studying Abroad Changed My Life

Today I am in New York City attending the prestigious Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship — a sequel to the acclaimed White House event held in 2014. Co-hosted by Hostelling International USA (HI USA) and Partners of the Americas, this event touches on my personal passion for the transformative power of travel, and the belief that travel is and should be for everyone. The goal the conference is to inspire a new generation to study abroad and experience the transformational power of travel. I have been asked to share my own personal story and here it is. Feel free to follow the summit online and read other stories using the hashtag #studyabroadbecause.

 

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

The first time I ever left the country was at the tender age of six. I was tiny, timid and loved playing with my dolls. My family rented a station wagon and we drove south of the border of Texas, along the coast and then west into the mountainous, tropical mystery of Cuidad Valles, Mexico. On the drive, we passed people living in deplorable conditions; in homes of hand-made shacks and tarps alongside the road. I stared out the window at this strange landscape, wide-eyed with wonder.

When we arrived at our hotel, we were surrounded by the local children who came to meet the new guests. There I stood, painfully shy and in pig-tails while the children danced around me shouting, “Niña rubia, niña rubia… Quiero tocar tu cabello” (Blond girl, blond girl, I want to touch your hair). They were fascinated by my shiny white blond hair, blue eyes and nordic pale skin. They had never seen it before. This was the mid-70s a time when not many foreigners came to visit a small town in the middle of Mexico. I was equally spellbound by them. Their dark black hair, sparkling brown eyes and skin. The playful rapid-fire Spanish coming out of their mouths. It was a moment in time I will never forget, and began my life long love of travel and culture.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain

The first time I went overseas, I was 13 years old. Young, awkward, impressionable and ready to find my place in the world. I had the experience of years of family travel back home under my belt. Yet going to Europe for the first time was a new kind of adventure. It was 1984 and none of my friends had ever been to Europe. It felt exotic. I was filled with a rush of anticipation of what I would discover.

The moment I road up the escalator from the Paris metro and stepped out onto the streets to see the awe and wonder of Paris for the very first time, I was mesmerized. Paris blew me away.  I made my decision right then and there, looking down the magnificent Champs-Élysées, that I would someday live in Paris and spend a semester studying abroad there. I returned home, enrolled in my first french class and continued to study french in college to prepare me for the day I’d live in France. My junior year of college, I applied to a study abroad program in Paris at the Sorbonne and was accepted. My dream had come true.

Me standing at the Cite Universitaire in Paris circa 1993

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Labadie, Haiti

The Two Contradictory Worlds of Labadie and “Labadee” Haiti

“Sonje lapli ki leve mayo ou”. – Remember the rain that made your corn grow. (Haitian proverb)

After all the stark contradictions I’d witnessed in Haiti, the sharpest contrast of it all was seen during an afternoon spent at the beach in Labadie. Here along the northern coast of Haiti sit two vastly different worlds: Labadie, a small, poor Haitian seaside village and “LABADEE®”, the private trademarked beach leased by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines since 1986.

Labadee is the largest tourist draw in all of Haiti and its beautiful, luxurious compound is a far cry from the poverty and despair witnessed right outside its gates. No Haitians are allowed within the high-wired fences and security of its pristine grounds unless they are work on the property.  Inside the compound lies a fantasy world of crystal white beaches, zip-lines, inflatable rafts, watersports and all the food you can eat with a gigantic cruise ship floating in the background. Outside the compound lies poverty and despair and people living on less than the price of a beer a day.

I had heard that this was one of the most gorgeous beaches in all of Haiti and we were going to try our best to check it out even if it was supposedly private. I was armed with a few facts about the property and Royal Caribbean’s relationship to the community. A history that is shrouded in controversy yet filled with potential. A couple hundred Haitians are employed at the compound and Royal Caribbean has done some things to help the neighboring community. I was curious to see for myself what I discovered.

As we left, Cap-Haïtien I noticed a huge improvement in the roads. The same roads that took us over 8 1/2 hours to travel only 148 miles/239 kilometers from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien were dramatically better on the way to Labadee. Instead of rugged, washed out potholes some of the road was as smooth as silk and the roads that were in need of repair had an entire team of construction workers on the job with even a Chinese engineer. It was shocking to see that the roads leading to a major tourist draw were better than the roads in the nation’s capital. But it was a sign that the right money talks and perhaps it will enable Royal Caribbean to bring its estimated 600,000 tourists a year (1) who come to Labadee to get out of the private compound on excursions and visit some of Haiti’s fabulous historical and cultural sites.

The views leading up to Labadee were spellbinding. Rocky lush green shoreline and brilliant blue sea for as far as the eye could see. White sandy beaches and luxurious houses and resorts. It felt like we were in another country! This was not the Haiti I’d seen over the past five days.

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Key Tips for Travel Planning with an Eco-Impact

“The declaration by the UN of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.” – UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

There could be no greater time in history as a traveler to impact our future and the world than now. As the international community embraces the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the UN General Assembly last September, tourism has a significant opportunity to support three of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) ranging from promoting sustainable, inclusive economic growth to conserving and sustaining the use of the oceans, seas and marine resources.

There has been more talk than ever about sustainable travel but what exactly does sustainable travel mean?

“In its simplest definition, sustainable travel can be defined as travel that positively impacts the community, environment and economy of the destination visited” states Kelley Louise, Executive Director of Travel+SocialGood, a global community of changemakers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good.

As a member of Travel+SocialGood and a strong supporter of sustainable travel,  I am continually on the search for sustainable travel resources and operators. I have been highlighting sustainable travel opportunities on my blog for quite awhile to help readers discover these experiences in one quick and easy place. (Here is a list of the past 20 posts in case you missed them).  

I hope you enjoy this guest post written by Jonny Bierman, founder of Eco Escape Travel,  a community-based ecotourism content hub with the mission to provide reliable ecotourism and adventure content that aims to grow a community of responsible travelers and inspire ethical travel. A special thanks to Sue of the fabulous travel blog Travel Tales of Life for introducing me to Jonny. Here is the post.

Avatar Grove. Photo credit: Eco Escape Travel

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Gaia Conscious Travel: Promoting Mindful Travel Experiences around the World

“For me, Gaia is about walking the talk, joining the dots between the beautiful venues and activities that operators have developed worldwide and the people who would enjoy and benefit from those experiences. At the same time, we wish to contribute towards making travel a more conscious industry worldwide” – Joanna Tomkins, Founder of Gaia Conscious Travel

Gaia Conscious Travel is an international online travel agency geared at the ever-increasing community of mindful travelers. Founded in 2016 by Joanna Tompkins, Gaia Conscious Travel offers a unique selection of travel experiences that enhances the traveler’s sense of connection with the social or natural environment visited and with themselves. Each travel experience is classified and searchable in categories and also placed under three main collections: People, Nature and Life.

I had the opportunity to interview Gaia’s founder, Joanna, to learn more about the mission behind Gaia Conscious Travel. Here is what she has to say.

Me: Tell me more about your background. You were born in the UK, moved to France and travel has always been a huge part of your life. What has traveling the world taught you?

Joanna: Besides the UK and FranceI also lived for 15 years in Spain. Now I have been living in South Africa for 8 years. Life traveling versus holiday traveling has made me flexible, especially as I have travelled from North to South. It has taught me that there is not one way to do things. The industrialised world’s thought patterns have told us that maximization is intelligent, that profitability is the only way, but more ancient cultures are wiser as they have a quintessential and emotional intelligence that allows Gaia to thrive and all beings to be at their fullest. That I have learned from moving South.

On a personal level, at times one can live in the present moment, absorbing past experiences, quietly watch things unfold. On the other hand, when the vibration is high and the life cycle is right, we can dream high and manifest energetically to make things evolve positively for the beautiful planet that we live on. We have the freedom of choice, the responsibility to live that dance.

Me: When did you start Gaia Conscious Travel and what was the inspiration behind it?

Joanna: I could see that there is a gap between what people talk about and their deepest concerns, around their spirituality, their health, their feeling of belonging, etc, on the one hand, and the travel options available. I believe that we can travel taking those life goals with us, gaining more consciousness as we travel and having a more positive impact on the places we visit.

Southern Angola © Middle Africa

Me: What does the name Gaia mean?

Joanna: In Greek mythology Gaia was the mother goddess who presided over the earth. More recently, the Gaia hypothesis, developed by scientists in the 1970s also known as Gaia theory or Gaia principle, proposes that “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Basically, all is connected.

Me: What differentiates you from other travel organizations? (i.e. Describe your focus on conscious travel and your conscious travel principles).

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Unearth the World

Volunteering Abroad with Unearth the World

For it is in giving that we receive”. – Francis of Assisi

Volunteering abroad can be an immensely rewarding, transformative experience. My first international volunteer trip was in 2009 to Costa Rica. I spent a week volunteering at a nursing home and it was a wonderful experience that taught me so much and filled me with that missing piece of traveling: Connecting and giving back to the local community. Three more international volunteer trips followed: Rabat, Morocco in 2010, Xela, Guatemala in 2011 and La Ceiba, Honduras in 2012.

It was during that fateful volunteer trip to Honduras that I began to think hard about the ethics and standards of international volunteer organizations. I had volunteered abroad with three different organizations and each one was remarkably different. Some charged exorbitant prices to volunteer abroad selling the experience as a “volunteer vacation”  where you really only volunteered for a few hours each day and truthfully did not make much of an impact. Other organizations charged less for the opportunity, yet clearly they had no idea about the volunteer experiences they were selling. This was the case with my volunteer work in Honduras. I worked at a daycare center that was not the best and ended up reporting them to the US-based volunteer organization.

The silver lining is that my unfortunate experience in Honduras was a wake up call. I realized that not all international volunteer organizations have the most ethical practices or intentions in mind. The good news is that ethical volunteering does exist and when done right can have an enormous impact on both the local community and the volunteer. These experiences can be life-changing at any age either as a young college age student, a mid-career professional or even as a retiree.

It is my goal over the course of the next few months to introduce you to some amazing international volunteer organizations. The first one is Unearth the World.

Unearth the World

One of Unearth the World’s volunteer projects: Working on the farm in Nicaragua

In 2013, Kathryn Pisco and her husband Mike left their corporate jobs and decided to take a trip of a lifetime in an attempt to unearth and discover the world. Over the next 250 days, the pair traveled to over 20 countries and volunteered at 5 different volunteer projects.

It was during their volunteer experiences that they learned the ins and outs of volunteering abroad. Although their time volunteering was meaningful, they were surprised to see how broken the system was. A lot of projects charged tons of money for volunteers, were not exactly beneficial to the host community and were not sustainable. The couple returned home and realized that they had to share their knowledge and experience of what they learned.

In 2014, they launched their social enterprise Unearth the World, an international volunteer organization that strives to improve the international volunteering industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible international programs.

Today they work with 6 non-profit partners in Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Zambia which they have personally visited to ensure that each volunteer experience benefits the local community and provides sustainable change. Since they founded Unearth the World, 200 people have already dedicated 3,500+ hours of service over the past two years in collaboration with their six international nonprofit partners. 

Unearth the World

Harvesting coffee in Guatemala is another project that Unearth the World works with.

I first met Kathryn at the Women in Travel Summit in April and instantly connected. She is a mom like me and has a passion for sustainable travel and a zest for life. I knew I wanted to feature Unearth the World on my blog so I set up a phone interview to learn more. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

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Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Our Family Costa Rican Adventure: A Stay at a Farm near Arenal

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”  -Roald Dahl

As we inched up the gravel road at a snail’s speed, we admired the sensational beauty of our surroundings. Lake Arenal was off in the horizon, and the farm was surrounded by lush, thick jungle. The sounds of birds and a group of dogs greeted our arrival while a group of distant howler monkeys warded off their turf with their deep throaty howls. The masterpiece of all however was the piercing view of Arenal Volcano. It was literally right in your face begging not be ignored. As we unpacked our bags, we knew that this was going to be one place that we would never forget. A place of dreams and fairytales. A place of magical mystique.

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Heading up the gravel road to the farm

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Lake Arenal beckons

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

The mighty omnipresent Arenal Volcano is literally right in your face

We had found the Parrot Hill Ranch through good friends of ours back home in Minneapolis who had stayed at this remote Air B&B property back in February. They have children the same age as ours – 10 and 12- and informed us that the farm was quite a memorable, unique experience. It was an opportunity for the kids to fully integrate and immerse themselves with Costa Rican life and stay at a very different kind of lodging on a working farm. I secretly liked as well that this is the way to travel sustainably. To support the local community and get a taste of their culture. It would not at all be luxurious like our last place however it would certainly be unique.

Central America Costa Rica Family Travel TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION TRAVEL RESOURCES
Observatoire, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Where to Eat and Stay in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“Anpil men chay pa lou” – Haitan proverb meaning “Many hands make a load lighter”.

To say that the bustling, congested and vibrant capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, is a bit chaotic and overstimulating would be an understatement. Monstrous traffic combined with endless honking horns, pedestrians, street vendors, motorbikes and every thing imaginable being sold on the street leaves you with such an immense sensory overload that your head is spinning by the end of the day.

As a newcomer, it is hard to conceive that peaceful, beautiful places coexist with the utter chaos of this hectic city of neglected potholes, broken down cars and uncollected garbage. However if you dig deep within the local culture and outskirts of town, you will be surprised at what true treasures Port-au-Prince has to offer.

Above the urban sprawl rising up the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle lies the affluent suburb of Pétionville which was founded in 1831 and named after Alexandre Sabes Pétion (1770-1818), a Haitian general and president who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Haiti. Today Pétionville hosts some of the most desired restaurants, shops, hotels and residences in the capital. The views from Pétionville are beautiful and the air is much clearer and calmer than in Port-au-Prince.

However, the growth of Pétionville has not come without a price. A lack of governance in development has led to some serious problems with squatters. On the outskirts of Pétionville, a massive slum of rural migrants have dangerously built homes moving up the slopes of the mountainside, offering little protection against mudslides, heavy rains and earthquakes. The slums are always in view and are a big contradiction to the large mansions and wealth of Pétionville.

Oftentimes it was hard for me to wrap my head around the luxury I was experiencing and the horrible conditions just across the way. Yet, as a conscious traveler to many developing countries, it is something I just have had to accept and hope that at least my voice as a blogger and my tourist dollars will somehow help.

Hotel Montan Pétionville, Haiti

Off in the distance, moving up the hills at the edge of Pétionville lies the slums. These were built illegally by rural migrants who came to the city.

Pétionville, Haiti

Sadly these slums are poorly constructed and prone to washing away during mudslides. A lot of destruction and devastation happened here too from the 2010 earthquake.

From Port-au-Prince, there is one main road that winds up the mountainside to Pétionville. The road is narrow and depending on the time of day, traffic can be horrific especially if there is a stalled car. It is best to plan at least an hour from downtown to Pétionville unless you leave very early in the morning or very late at night.

As you drive up the mountain, the road is filled with art stands selling all kinds of local Haitian art. The views of the city are spectacular but it is hard to stop since there are no shoulders on the road.

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One thing I love to do when I travel is stay and eat local. Being conscious about where my tourist money is spent and how can have a big impact on the local community. Sadly, the majority of revenue earned from tourism often goes into only a few hands (large international corporations or wealthy elite) and very little money goes to support the local community. This is a huge missed opportunity because supporting local businesses creates a ripple effect that benefits entire communities of people. More local jobs means more income enabling more people to send their children to school, buy food and afford homes. In a country of vast unemployment, sustainable local tourism has an enormous potential to help eradicate Haiti’s crippling poverty.

I was pleased that our guide Haitian-American Natalie Tancrede of Explore with Nat selected all locally run and owned venues for our stay in Port-au-Prince. We could have chosen to stay at the beautiful new Marriott Hotel downtown but instead opted to stay at the tranquil, family owned Hotel Montana in Pétionville. It was my second stay at this beautiful hotel and I would go back there in a heartbeat.

Here is my list of the best places to stay and eat in Port-au-Prince.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Montana

The Hotel Montana is a true gem. Located up in the hills of Pétionville high above Port-au-Prince Hotel Montana has been run by a Haitian family since 1947 and is designed in Haitian Art Deco flair. The grounds and 45 rooms are stunning and the staff is delightful. There is a large open-air terrace that has a restaurant, bar and pool affording breathtaking views of the city below. The personalized service is lovely and it feels like a home away from home for many of the guests.

Hotel Montana Pétionville, HaitiHotel Montana Pétionville, Haiti

Pétionville, Haiti

Haiti TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION TRAVEL RESOURCES