Disaster Tourism: Helpful or Hurtful?

When I was travelling through Indonesia, I happened to spend a day in the town of Banda Aceh. There is not much to do over there, my guide told me. The only tourist attraction is part of the trend of disaster tourism. Indeed, Banda Aceh was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. So, the main tourist attraction over there is to stroll through the memories of this tragedy: boats brought inland by the wave even though the sea is kilometers away, various memorials in honor of the victims, and the museum telling the story of this catastrophe. I have to admit, seeing the swarm of tourists snapping selfies made me wonder if this was a way to further understand what happened in this town, or just a grim tourist activity.

What is disaster tourism?

hurricane Katrina dark tourism

Disaster tourism is about visiting the sites of major catastrophes, either man-made or natural. It’s considered a subsection of dark tourism even though the two are very hard to set apart.

According to Erika M. Robb, in an article published by the American Anthropological Association, “dark tourism includes both places with violent legacies and those at which violence is an ongoing reality. It encompasses a wide variety of visitor motivations—educational, memorial, or recreational.” 

It is hard to have an opinion on disaster tourism because it encompasses a very wide range of different attractions: National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, Katrina Tours, slum tourism, the ruins of Pompeii, the house where JonBenet Ramsey died, the Memorial and Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, etc. 

Within those options, some seem like an important part of History, while others just seem unnecessarily gruesome and/or voyeuristic. But they all have one thing in common: violence.

Why does disaster tourism attract visitors?

dark tourism concentration camp

First of all, disaster tourism is supposed to be educational. Indeed, whenever you are visiting a place, you might want to learn more about its history. And even though you might have heard of the tragedy beforehand, it is clear that hearing or reading about something is completely different from seeing it with your own eyes. Most promoters of these kinds of tours are claiming they are raising awareness about the events in question.

Indeed, seeing the cells in Alcatraz federal penitentiary, seeing with your own eyes the skulls of the many victims of the killing fields in Choeung Ek in Cambodia, or even seeing the devastation caused by Chernobyl in Pripyat, Ukraine, can help you better understand the reality of the tragedy. Because even if you know about it, you don’t really fully understand it until you see it with your own eyes.

But it can also be part of a more solemn work of memory, of honoring the victims of the disaster in question.

But can you really fully engage in the educational and memorial part of the activity when you are on a vacation? According to Robb, “there is an obvious tension between undertaking important witnessing work and following a vacation itinerary. How might tourist activities before and after visitation to dark tourism sites frame the experience (e.g., going to dinner at an expensive restaurant, seeing a cultural performance, going clubbing). Dark tourism will, in some cases, result in the transformation of violence into one more attraction, wedged in between more typical tourist activities.”

In the end, it all comes down to your own motivations. Are you willing to engage and learn, or are you looking for a thrill?

Can it be useful for the local communities?

slums of mumbai

Organizing tours in areas struck by disaster can be useful for different reasons. It can be important for the community to raise awareness about the catastrophe and its consequences. It’s about remembering and teaching outsiders what has happened. It can be important for a community to tell their own story.

But it can also have an economic impact. In such areas, the money that tourism brings can help rebuild the community and provide employment for the local population. But then, you would have to be careful in choosing a company that actually helps the community or at least employs locals.

However, not everyone feels positively about tours in their own neighborhoods. For example, after hurricane Katrina, many tourists came to New Orleans to tour the most affected areas, which was not very well received by the residents. Indeed, some locals were shocked that people would actually come over for the sole purpose of snapping a picture of the devastation, as it felt disrespectful to the victims.

How can I choose an activity without causing harm?

Protect the local community

First of all, it’s never a good idea to go to a disaster area right after a tragedy struck. People are mourning, healing, and won’t want tourists taking pictures of their grief. You want to help out? There are many ways to do so from home! If you want to contribute, you can always make a donation to an organization that could use your help. Plus, if you go, you will probably get in the way, bother the local population, and participate in using possibly scarce resources.

You want to donate your time? Check if the community is actually trying to recruit volunteers. Otherwise, you will end up getting in the way. Indeed, you need more than good intentions to help, and you might make it harder for professionals to do their job.

To choose an appropriate activity, like always, research the subject. You will find out whether or not this type of tourism has been well accepted by the local community. You will read different opinions about this topic and you will be able to make an informed decision.

But most importantly, when you go to a disaster tourism site, behave appropriately. That is the main point. Whenever you participate in these types of activities, the way you conduct yourself is fundamental. Always act respectfully and with humility.

Protect yourself

If you need to make sure you are not harming the local community, you also have to make sure you will not hurt yourself.

Some sites might still be dangerous, such as war areas, or nuclear testing sites (like Bikini atoll for example), or even areas right after a disaster (think about the aftershocks of an earthquake for instance).  

But it’s not just about physical harm. Choose your activity wisely: some sites can be very hard to stomach and be very upsetting, be sure to be prepared. Tuol Sleng Museum, formerly S21 prison in Cambodia or Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda might be extremely distressing. Be sure that you are ready for this.

So, should you engage in disaster tourism? I do not hold a definitive answer. It’s a personal choice and it comes down to your own intentions. As far as I’m concerned, you should avoid these kinds of activities if you are just coming for the story and if you are not willing to learn and honor. But I do recognize that it can be educational and important to remember some of the tragedies which have struck humankind. Just because you are on vacation does not mean that you should not learn.

According to Robb, “When atrocity becomes a recreational attraction, visitors are themselves inflicting further violence as they search out unique and “authentic” experiences. Ethically, we must question whether tours undertaken in the name of social justice or global awareness are actually experienced as such or whether they might instead work to mask the recreational, voyeuristic allure of violence.”

Again, it’s all about what you do with these experiences!

Sources :
National Geographic – Seven Years After the Storm, Katrina Tours Cause Controversy – Caroline Gerdes – November 6th, 2012 
Forbes – Dark Tourism: Are These The World’s Most Macabre Tourist Attractions? – Duncan Madden – September 25th, 2019
Tourism Teacher – Disaster tourism explained: What, why and where – Dr. Hayley Stainton – October 19th, 2020
American Anthropological Association – Violence and Recreation: Vacationing in the Realm of Dark Tourism – Erika M. Robb – May 5th, 2009
Women on the road – Dark Tourism: Should Tragedy Become a Tourist Draw? – May 1st, 2018 – Why Indulging in Disaster Tourism Could Be a Tragic Mistake

Should You Go ‘Slumming’ In Your Travels?

Have you already seen announcements from travel agencies offering slum tours? This growing trend is about offering you a way to experience the most underprivileged areas in the world, as a tourist. While many people are claiming this is plain and simple poverty porn, people responsible for this kind of tourism are claiming they are fighting stereotypes. And it seems to be working: according to Forbes, slum tours accounted for about 1 million visitors in 2016. But can this type of tourism really be ethical?

“Slumming” is nothing new

There are records of slum tourism as early as the 19th century when rich Londoners visited poor neighborhoods in order to observe how the other half lived. It even led to the entrance in 1884 in the Oxford Dictionary of the word « slumming ». It soon made its way into the US where visitors could experience the poorest parts of New York and quickly, most big cities.

Organizers were quick to realize the business opportunity it represented. In order to have tourists pay good money, the experience needed to be exciting, so the organizers started to hire actors to play drug addicts or even to fake shootings on the streets! Tourists came for a thrill so, the experience needed to be worth their money! 

These slum tours were obviously making a joke out of these neighborhoods and actively reinforcing stereotypes. However, nowadays, companies offering this type of experience are actually claiming the moral high ground.

Why are people organizing such tours?

No companies offering slum tourism could possibly be taken seriously if they were acknowledging the voyeurism and exploitation their critics often accuse them of. So, they’ve had to add moral justifications to what seems at first glance like a grim tourist attraction.

Generating income for locals

Another argument held by defenders of slum tourism is that it generates money for the community. So, not only would you learn about poverty, but you could actually help raise people out of poverty. 

In 2006, Krishna Pujari and Chris Way started Reality Tours and Travel to visit Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Mumbai (which you might have heard of, since it is the place where the movie Slumdog Millionaire took place). This company gives 80% of their profits to a sister charity, “We do this because a large percentage of our income is generated through the Dharavi tours and we felt that it was right to put most of the money back,” Mr. Pujari asserts to the BBC. 

If you listen to organizers of these tours, it seems like these attractions are a win-win. But are they?

Who really profits?

Giving back to the community seems like a good intention. But are those tours really making a difference in the lives of people living in slums?

According to Forbes : « As far as who makes the money from these tours, David Ways (a travel writer at TLWH) claims that, “Tour operators promise they give money to the people there but in comparison to what they themselves are earning, it’s a pittance.” Fabian Frenzel (professor at the University of Leicester) concurred that the direct economic stimulation in the communities from these tours is negligible ».

It seems like the argument of « giving back to the community » doesn’t hold much ground and looks more like a white saviorish dynamic, rather than a real way to empower a community. According to the National Geographic, the reality is quite far from what the organizers are claiming, as a resident of Dharavi state “We see foreigners several times a week. Sometimes they come and talk to us, some offer us a bit of cash, but we don’t get anything from these tours.”

Each travel agency has its own rules, but it is safe to say that not all of them will have a positive economic impact on the communities they use as entertainment.

Awareness raising

Most people defending slum tours claim it helps raise awareness about the living conditions of its inhabitants. Indeed, it can show the difficulties that people face, but it’s not just limited to that. 

In fact, most tours will stop by community projects, shining a positive light on the ways the community is working towards improving the situation or even on all the small businesses that are thriving. The point is to change the perception people might have of what slum life looks like, and most importantly, o

fn slum residents.

Harold Goodwin, director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism in Leeds says in a New York Times article: « Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means. To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity ».

If you want to educate, you need to show the whole picture

Trying to show slums in a positive light can sometimes feel a little bit counterproductive. 

According to the Guardian, researchers at the University of Bath have studied Tripadvisor reviews for slum tours and the result is that most visitors seem to misunderstand the challenges faced by the population: « In recounting their experiences on Tripadvisor, the tourists regularly described the townships as productive, vibrant cultural spaces, rich in non-material assets, inhabited by happy and hard-working people. »

« Overall, the majority of reviews represented residents as satisfied with their circumstances, with several reviewers remarking that they thought the children in the townships had better lives than those from privileged backgrounds. »

Another study mentioned in the National Geographic ends up at a similar observation : « Analyzing more than 230 reviews of Reality Tour and Travel in her study, Dr. Melissa Nisbett of King’s College London realized that for many Dharavi visitors, poverty was practically invisible. “As the reviews show, poverty was ignored, denied, overlooked and romanticized, but moreover, it was depoliticized.” Without discussing the reason the slum existed, the tour decontextualized the plight of the poor and seemed only to empower the wrong people–the privileged, western, middle class visitors. »

So much for education! It seems like these tours really manage to show the slum in a positive light, which can help people get rid of some stereotypes. But if the structural issues of poverty aren’t addressed, then tourists are obviously missing a big chunk of the picture.

The main critic: the issue of voyeurism

How would you feel about buses after buses of people coming to your door to observe the way you live and comment on your house, neighborhood, way of life etc.? Some companies are only allowing small groups and forbidding picture taking, but is it enough to make residents feel like they are not watched like circus freaks? Plus, not all travel companies take such precautions.

It is possible to educate yourself about poverty, without visiting a slum in the way that you would visit a zoo. Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions about slums residents, but there are ways to educate yourself about this issue without robbing its people of their dignity. 

Indeed, many people in India are fed up with poverty porn: according to the National Geographic: “Mumbai resident Hemanth Gopinath says: “The educated urban Indian is a tad sensitive about how certain attributes of Indian history, society and culture are portrayed in the western media […] criticism against the tour company in question, is that they highlight a negative aspect of the country to foreign citizens and also possibly engage in profiteering at the expense of the underprivileged.”

Are there cases in which it can be empowering?

A few examples seem to contradict the negative light of slum tourism. The difference lies in a very important distinction: these kinds of tours are initiated by locals. In South Africa in the 1990’s, Black South Africans began offering tours of their own townships to raise awareness about their living conditions and point out the reality of segregation. 

When the idea as well as the execution comes from the community itself, it’s a very different story. The point is to show the whole picture: it’s about fighting stereotypes as well as addressing the larger issue of wealth distribution, politics, racism etc. 

Learning about the hardships of locals is important when you travel and you should absolutely do it. However, using them for your own benefit is a totally different approach.

Planning an interesting and ethical trip is not that easy and you have to think about many things in order to abide by your own moral standards. But we have to do the work to reshape the industry of tourism so that everybody can benefit from it without losing anything on the way, including dignity.

Sources :  
The Guardian – Slumming it? Township tour reviews ‘gloss over poverty’ – Jamie Doward – August 16th, 2020 
The New York Times – Slum visits: tourism or voyeurism? – Eric Weiner – March 9th, 2008 

What You Need for a Safe and Rad Covid Roadtrip

I’ve done A LOT of travel. I not only love it personally, but have a career that affords me copious amounts of paid travel and digital nomadism if I want it. When friends text me, they start by asking, “Where are you at right now?” 

While the pandemic has put a real damper on that movement, I’ve found a safe haven in my 2008 Ford Escape. I’ve always loved a road trip for clearing my mind and working through what’s going on between my ears, but during 2020, it really was a lifeline to friends and family and peace of mind when I needed to make sure the world was still out there. I am so grateful to be able to afford and manage a car in NYC. 

So here’s my list of things to bring along on your road trip, starting with the most important thing during these times. 

Mask | Hand Sanny | Gloves

Cuba,,Missouri,,Usa,-,May,11,,2016,:,Bob's,Gasoline

Duh, a mask. Have several stowed away in the glovebox just in case. 

I don’t stop much on a road trip, unless it’s to get out on a backroad and take a deep breath over some stunning scenery, but when you have to fill up or use the bathroom, wear disposable gloves and/or use that hand sanitizer. I recently got these Everyone bottles of spray hand sanitizer, which come in aromas that aren’t Nail Polish, Vodka That’ll Burn Your Stomach Lining and I’m Choking.  

Snacks

People don’t think about this enough when they’re packing for a road trip. 

Look, I like stuffing a McDonald’s chicken sandwich and greasy ass fries in my face every now and then, just like the best of us gluttons, but I save that kinda thing for short trips. When you’re in the car for a significant portion of the day (my longest is 16 hours), it’s key to eat something other than junk, because your digestive system is already gonna be unhappy and you need both your mind and body to be in the game. And you know, gas stations, even the impressive ones like Buc-ee’s, just aren’t gonna have things that make you feel good about yourself. 

Here’s a typical snack assortment: 

Trail mix – Nuts, dried fruits and this is the kicker, I break up some dark chocolate bars to mix in.

Fruit – No brainer, although you know, maybe not oranges unless you peal them beforehand. 

PB&J – Easy to make, easy to eat. 

Yogurt – I drink those little Activa cups like a smoothie, especially as they get warmer, they’re a bit more liquid. I promise, it still tastes good. 

And do not forget the water!! I take a large reusable water bottle, but also pack 2-3 extra water bottles. It doesn’t go bad, and it sucks to be stuck on the road, not wanting to stop and lose momentum, just because it feels like you just consumed a wool sweater. 

Pillow

After,Sunset,On,The,Pacific,Ocean,Looking,Down,The,Famous

I, for one, cannot wait for our autonomous car overlords so I can really use a pillow in the car, but until then, it’s still good to pack. 

One of those small, decorative ones on your couch can be used behind your back to adjust a little and relieve some pressure and pain. Your favorite from your bed, throw it in, because no matter whether you’re saying at a hotel or crashing with a friend, they don’t always have the right cushion for your pudum. And you want to get a good night’s sleep for another day of driving tomorrow. 

Collapsable Trash Can

Changed my freaking life. Before I had one of these, I’d get off a road trip and have a whole day long cleaning session ahead of me, which you know, sucks when you’re getting off of a long drive and just want to relax. 

The flexibility of a collapsible one means that you can stuff it in between seats and suitcases and it’s not as wobbly as a hard, plastic bin. 

Utensils | Napkins

Aerial,View,Of,Countryside,Road,Passing,Through,The,Green,Forest

Look, the snacks, they’ll keep you going for a good amount of time, but if you’re anything like me, after five or six hours, I’m gonna have to eat a warm meal. Especially in the era of covid-19, you’re either going through the drive-thru or ordering take out. Who says you can’t eat enchiladas or lo mein on a road trip? 

That said, if you’re gonna turn your center console into a table for flimsy take-out boxes, you need plenty of napkins and a sturdier set of utensils than most restaurants provide. I have the K-Bar Tactical Spork in my glovebox. Who doesn’t love all the utensils in one utensil! 

First Aid Kit

Also the name of a great band, but this is something you should just always keep in your car. While you probably won’t use it that often, you’ll be stressed and annoyed in a time of (hopefully) small crisis that you don’t have one handy. 

And you might as well throw a thermometer in there now too. I check my temperature like it’s an OCD tick nowadays, and it gives me peace of mind that I’m not gonna be a patient zero. 

10 Packing Essentials for Under $10

How you pack can make or break a trip. Being under prepared can set you up for discomfort or way too many desperate searches for the nearest, and likely overpriced, store. It can even have some pretty gross hygienic consequences (you will see what we mean below). But being over packed can mean lots of back pain for backpackers, overweight charges, and even a higher likelihood of getting your stuff stolen. Packing her doesn’t have to be expensive though. Here are our favorite must-haves for any traveler all for under $10.

1. Goop bottles

For everything TSA tries to take away – shampoo, conditioner, lotion, body wash – these bottles are silicone, squeezable, and are durable enough to be used for all your trips. They even come with their own TSA approved clear, reusable plastic bag. While you can find lots of expensive versions of this same product, we have found these little babies are built just as tough and cost more than half the price.

$9.99 usd

2. Toothpaste Tablets

While technically not under $10, these are such good value, we decided it was worth it. TSA won’t let you get by with a full size tube of toothpaste, plus putting it in your checked bag means the pressure changes and tossing of your suitcase could end in a big mess of a surprise when you finally start your trip. Those are just a couple reasons why we love these toothpaste tablets. You pop one in our mouth, chomp around a bit, add a wet toothbrush, and wah lah – you have toothpaste. And unlike traditional tubes, you won’t run out for at least a few trips to come with just one bottle of this stuff. 

$10.95 usd

3. Toothbrush covers

Speaking of toothpaste, there isn’t much use having clean teeth if your toothbrush has been dropped on a hostel floor or thrown in your backpack along with your shoes. Yuck. These silicone toothbrush holders are something we don’t leave home without. We like silicone because it’s more durable and sustainable than plastic and we like this 6 pack because toothbrush covers are not meant to last forever. Do yourself and your oral health a favor and cover your toothbrush! You’ll thank us next time TSA has their grubby hands in your toiletry bag looking for your deadly nail clippers.

$6.58 usd

4. Flip Flops

We have two words: hostel floor. Really though if you are staying in a dirty hostel or in a 5 star hotel, showers and floors are not to be totally trusted. Just ask our team member who got a mysterious foot fungus in Central America that made her skin fall off. You don’t need a fancy pair of Havianas, they don’t take up much room, and they are so important no matter where you go! These flip flops are cute, simple, sturdy whether you plan on wearing them all day long or just as slippers and shower shoes in your accommodation. 

$9.99 usd

5. Clean your whole body bar

Affordable, fair trade, and a charity: what’s not to love? We’ll give you one more reason to add this to your packing list: it replaces almost your entire toiletry bag! This bar is a shampoo and cleans your whole darn body all in a 7 ounce solid bar. We’ll be honest, if you are a body wash snob (we see you, scroll back up to number one) or have fussy hair, this may not be the best solution. It smells amazing and works wonders but it won’t replace your fancy pants conditioner. 

$7.90 usd

6. Infinity scarf with hidden pocket

Keep your purse at the hotel and stash your passport or some extra cash in the hidden pocket of this scarf! While the photos suggest a phone isn’t too heavy to be really obvious, we suggest buying this beaut as a more accessible option than in your bra. It’s lightweight and comes in loads of colors, making it great for even spring days when it’s not too cold. 

$8.99 usd

7. Portable luggage scale

The benefits of a luggage scale are obvious when you are packing for a trip, but if you take domestic flights in your international destination, there are likely different weight rules. If you are a shopper, this little gadget could save you big overweight fees on the way home.  We love this one specifically because it’s cheap, it works, and it’s easy to pack. 

$7.99 usd

8. Collapsable Water Bottle

This water bottle folds up in a little disk that you can throw in your purse or backpack for hikes or city walks. Almost all accommodation has fresh water, and this is an easy to pack solution tat cuts on bottled water costs and environmental impact. Plus, it’s cheap, which is always a plus!

$9.98 usd

9. Laundry soap sheets

These take up almost no space and can save you quite a few bucks on detergent. These are eco friendly, plastic-free, and smell amazing. This is one of those little items we never even take out of our bags when we get home. They some with us everywhere. Imagine popping up to an Airbnb with a bag full of dirty clothes and having no detergent to wash them. These guys are the greatest for all laundry days, especially when a surprise washing machine becomes available. 

$9.29 usd

10. Ear Plugs

We don’t understand the need to assign a gender to earplugs (although there is no pink tax, we checked), but the fact is, we have tried every type and brand out there, and these are by far the most comfortable. Whether you stay at a party hostel or a nice Airbnb, sometimes construction, noisy neighbors, or a loud AC can keep you up. Plus nothing beats the airplane quiet combo than a pair of noise cancelling headphones along with earplugs. 

$8.99 usd

Bonus
11. Little locks

For hostel lockers, keeping your suitcase safe when the hotel desk is holding it, or at airport lockers, having at least one little lock could mean all your stuff stays safe. We like this one because of the flexible ring and how tiny it is – it makes it extra versatile for all situations. 

$4.99 usd

An American Expat’s Experience of Albania

Despite warnings from well-meaning friends about the country’s notorious crime rate, she decided to travel to Albania. Jordan shares her personal experiences and lists all the reasons why you need to visit this beautiful underrated country.

“I don’t want to scare you, but – kidnapping, corruption and drugs rule that country. Whatever you do, just be careful.”

This was a text message I received from a friend the night before I boarded my one-way flight to Tirana, Albania. As a solo female expat, receiving warnings from friends and family becomes an innate part of the lifestyle. However, this particular message left me feeling doubtful. Was leaving America and traveling to Albania a terrible idea?

Fast forward 3 weeks since arriving  in Albania’s cosmopolitan capital city, Tirana, and I can happily report I will be extending my stay in this underrated country.

exploring tirana

Despite the country’s dark Communist past and poor reputation from their European neighbors, Albanians wear their history with perseverance.  This desire to progress trickles into everyday life here in Tirana, where the atmosphere is vibrant and youthful. This walkable city showcases primary-colored buildings, produce stands scattered throughout the streets filled to the brim with fresh figs, and coffee bars everywhere.

Literally, did you know Tirana is the second city in the world with the highest number of coffee bars per capita? AKA expat heaven.

Adventuring beyond the city walls is where you really experience the day-to-day life of Albanians. The difference between rich and poor protrudes from the streets as you witness the Mercedes being quickly replaced with donkeys pulling carts of local people. Here, the Skanderbeg mountain range provides a backdrop to the partially constructed homes and  farmers walk with sticks, guiding their cows down the sidewalks; but nothing quite catches your eyes and ears like the people who inhabit these streets. Shiqp, or Albanian, is spoken loudly and passionately. While you have no idea what is being said, the body language of two locals exchanging laughs over a coffee speaks volumes.  As they share that smile with me, sitting in a passing car with my windows down,  I can’t help but think for one to truly know Albania, they must experience it themselves.

Berat: The city of a thousand windows

an aerial view of the city of Berat showing a river, a bridge and houses along the hillside

My desire to develop a well-rounded perspective of this country meant experiencing  as much of it as I possibly could. With this in mind, my first weekend in Tirana I rented a car and drove down south to Berat, an UNESCO protected destination, also known as the city of a thousand windows. Just before arriving in Berat, I took a mini detour to a local vineyard called Cobo Winery. I was immediately welcomed into the care of a young woman who walked me through the vineyard and gave me a tour of her great grandfather’s legacy. Once learning about the wine, it was time to give it a taste!

Over the course of 3 hours I relaxed in their yard, playing with the kittens who roamed freely, talking with the family, and sipping the incredible array of wine. While the €20 tasting could have been completed in an hour,     it added to the experience to genuinely connect with this beautiful family while enjoying the fruits of their historical, hard labor. Eventually, I arrived in Berat and checked into Berat Backpackers Hostel. The hostel sits on the right side of the Gorat Bridge with a view of the Osum river and a complete panorama of the Ottoman architectural city. From the garden you also have a straight shot of the famous Berat Castle. 

After a night’s rest,  I made my way towards the fortress. Just before arriving though, I noticed an older woman sitting under an umbrella with a bucket of green bulbs. We made eye contact and she lured me in by offering her hand out, in which sat a sun-kissed fig. I cautiously bit into the delicate fruit and immediately shared a giggle with her.  No words were exchanged, but I’m sure she could tell I had never tasted anything so delicious before. Figs in hand, I made it up the 30 minute hike to the castle. Within the walls resides a small village at which you can sip coffee, peer at the embroidered table cloths for sale and eventually make your way to the very top where the Church of Holy Trinity sits. From this 15th century Albanian orthodox church, you have made it to the highest point in Berat.

a memorable road trip

A quick 24-hours in Berat and then I was on the road again to Vlorë. It’s important to note that driving through Albania is an experience in it’s own. A lesson I quickly learned is that driving and parking rules are merely suggestions. While the car rental is affordable (€35/day), there are parts of the country where you can’t rely on Google maps. All part of the adventure, right?

Only a few false right turns later, I reached the picturesque beach and city holiday location of Vlorë. At first, driving the boardwalk felt like I was in California, passing the strip of Santa Monica, but you know –            Albanian style. Tall, pastel painted apartment buildings and local restaurants advertising the “catch of the day” dress the left side of the street and to the right, pedestrians stride along the ocean as it expands beyond the eye. One day spent at Kalaja Restaurant, swimming and sipping on Peroni with locals, was enough for me to confirm what I had heard since arriving in Albania: The rocky terrains and crystal blue waters of the south hold some of the best beaches in Europe. 

In one weekend I hit just shy of 400 km and a more conscious view of this country. While the sites were incredible on their own, the most memorable experiences were in the small, unexpected moments. Driving along the jaw-dropping Tomorri Mountains passing the petit village towns, the on-the-house Brauhaus and reki from my friendly waiter at Tradicional Zgara in Vlorë – each exchange with local Albanians, either young or old, showed me how proud they are to show me something of their culture. 

Since I arrived in Albania, a reoccuring moment stayed with me – the shared smiles and overall welcoming spirit from the people. I always gauge my likability on the road with the people, and while many would argue that Albanians are cold and corrupt, they are the exact reason why I extended my stay in Albania.

About the author

Image of the author Jordan Jeppe wearing a hat and smiling into the camera

Jordan Jeppe

Jordan believes her purpose in life is to be of service to others. Jordan runs a social media marketing business and has successfully built a lifestyle around traveling and remote working. She mentors individuals towards adopting a similar “ultimate freedom lifestyle,” and has a deep love for yoga, mindfulness and meditation. 

The Most Colorful Destinations on Earth

1. Chefchaouen, Morocco

Painted almost entirely in blue, you won’t want to leave the “blue pearl” of Morocco. With spaces of bright colored handwoven rugs and plenty of terra cotta pots, this is a blue wonderland you won’t mind getting a little lost in.

Solo Female Travel Network Morocco

Visit The Blue City and all of Morocco’s best on

 The Morocco Meetup Tour!

2. Kawachi Fuji Garden, Japan

Tunnels of deep purple wisteria bloom in springtime making this a fairytale destination ideal for April and May. You may even get to catch the cherry blossoms as well in one trip!

wisteria in bloom in Japan

3. Cinque Terre, Italy

Vibrant colored buildings on dramatic hillsides with a backdrop of the ocean make this little town in Italy picture perfect. 

colorful buildings of Cinque Terre, Italy

4. Lake Hillier, Australia

This pepto bismol colored lake is made pink by the high salt content and algae that grows in spades. While it is not the only pink lake in the world, it is one of the most beautiful and is best seen when the sun is bright, which is most days in Australia. 

pink lake at Lake Hillier, Australia

5. Tulip Fields, The Netherlands

April in The Netherlands brings bright blooms of tulips in satisfyingly neat rows of vibrant color! There are plenty of regions to visit, but we recommend to hear to the largest and most impressive display in Keukenhof.

6. Caño Cristales, Colombia

Often called “The Liquid Rainbow,” this river features bright reds, yellows, greens, blues, and even black. You can swim, raft, or hike nearby in July through December to catch the best of this natural wonder.

colorful river Caño Cristales, Colombia

7. Havana, Cuba

Full of brightly colored buildings, vintage cars, and a vibrant flair unique to Cuba, Havana is alive with art, music, dancing, and old world glam. 

streets of Havana, Cuba

Experience the magic of Havana and the rest of Cuba on

 The Cuba Meetup Tour!

8. Larung Gar, Tibet

This mountain of brightly colored log cabins houses mostly monks and nuns and is one the largest religious institutions in the world. 

cabins in Larung Gar, Tibet

9. Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

This short strip of colorful houses comes with a rich history and comes as a pleasant surprise in an otherwise normal area of the city. 

Cape Town Tour for solo female travel

Choose our Garden Route Itinerary and even get invited inside one of these homes for a home-cooked meal with a local woman!

 The South Africa Meetup Tour!

10. Lavender Fields, Provence, France

These purple fields go as far as the eye can see and smell like heaven. In July, the best time to go, are full of festivals and celebrations centered around fresh lavender. 

Lavender Fields, Provence, France

11. Panjin Red Beach, China

Fall is the only time of year this marsh and reed marsh turns from green to crimson making it a breathtaking vision of red. 

12. Rotorua Hot Springs, New Zealand

Almost a rainbow of vibrant natural colors, these hot springs are not only completely photogenic but also a relaxing way to spend the day. Enjoy one of the other nearby hot springs and hike in the area for some more jaw dropping scenery.

Rotorua Hot Springs, New Zealand

13. Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Depending on the season you visit, you may also see shades of blue and green among the red and gold. These sandstone walls were created by erosion and flash flooding and are only accessible with a tour guide. One of the most other-worldly places on this list, it’s a must see when in Arizona.

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

14. Santorini, Greece

The whitewashed buildings with bright blue roofs have an even more stunning backdrop of the sea and a magnificent sunset of pink and orange.

Santorini, Greece sunset

15. Fly Geyser, Nevada

This wonder isn’t completely natural. Created by a drilling mistake in the 1960’s, the red and green algae is certainly a sight to be seen.

Fly Geyser, Nevada

16. Hitachi Seaside Park, Japan

Nemophila flowers in shades of indigo, blue, and even a little lavender cover Miharashi Hill in spring and the rest of the year they’re dotted in deep red from the kokia bushes. 

Nemophila flowers in Japan

Begpacking. Passion or Entitlement?

You’re young, you’re feeling adventurous, you want to travel the world, but as most young people, you might not have a lot of money to fulfill your dream. Some people have found a way: in the last few years, a peculiar trend has been spotted, mostly in South East Asia and to some extent in South America: begpackers.

The term begpacker comes from the terms “to beg” and “backpacker”. A begpacker is usually a young, white, Western tourist, begging for money in the streets in order to fund their travel.

Some of them are performing in the streets or in the subway, others are selling photographs or jewelry. But most of them are simply begging for money in order to continue their travel or to pay for a ticket home.

If most locals just find it strange, some are increasingly irritated by this trend. The problem with begpackers is both economic and legal, but it is also a moral issue.

The economy:

tourism is a livelihood

a local guide in an asian country

The point of tourism, especially in developing countries, is to improve the life of the local population by bringing money into their economy. This industry is vital to many families in order to put food on the table. 

In the areas where begpackers are most often spotted, tourism is at the heart of the local economy. For example, according to a New York Times article, “More than half of Bali’s economy depends directly on tourism, and a quarter is engaged in tourism-related activities, such as transporting visitors and supplying food to hotels and restaurants.” Travelling is supposed to be a win-win for both the tourists and the locals: tourists can enjoy the country (in which they can usually easily enter thanks to their Western passport), as long as they are willing to support the local economy by spending at least some cash.

Which is one of the reasons begpackers are so vehemently criticized : instead of fueling the local economy, those tourists are taking from it. When people from rich countries are begging people from developing countries for money in order to pay for something that is commonly considered a luxury, they have clearly crossed a line in terms of decency. 

The law:

is it even legal to begpack?

Begging in the streets is illegal in most countries, and busking or selling usually requires a specific permit. In any case, working and making money on a tourist visa is always illegal. So, in addition to not playing the game by not participating in the local economy, begpackers are breaking the laws of their host country.

In Thailand for example, it is not allowed to beg for money in the streets. According to a Bangkok Post article : “Under the law, those proven to be foreign beggars will be deported and beggars who are Thai nationals will be forced to undergo a rehabilitation programme that includes occupational training”, Social Development and Human Security Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said. 

In order to avoid seeing more begpackers, several countries have taken measures to put a stop to this trend. Now, whenever you enter Thailand, you might have to prove that you have enough money to support yourself during your trip. In Bali, the government has taken other measures. According to immigration officer Setyo Budiwardoyo in an article in the newspaper Detik, “Foreign tourists who run out of money or are pretending to be beggars, we will send them to their respective embassies”.

But it is not just about whether or not it is legal. If begpackers are so heavily criticized, it is mostly about ethics.

The values:

travelling means being culturally sensitive

busy city in Asia

The main issue people are taking with this phenomenon is not the question of the economy or the law, it’s the question of decency.

Begpackers are often from countries which are richer than the ones they are begpacking in. They purposely ignore the fact that locals who are begging are doing so in order to survive, while they are doing so to fund a holiday. So let’s state the obvious: travelling is great, but it is not a basic necessity and you do not need to do it in order to survive.

Perhaps it is best said by Maisarah Abu Samah, a young Singaporean woman in an Observers article: “We find it extremely strange to ask other people for money to help you travel. Selling things in the street or begging isn’t considered respectable. People who do so are really in need: they beg in order to buy food, pay their children’s school fees or pay off debts. But not in order to do something seen as a luxury!

Begpackers should know that the money they receive should instead be going to people who need it far more.

Indeed, as Majda Saidi says in an Medium article : “Choosing to beg to travel (reminder: here, travel is a luxury, not a necessity) in countries where the cost of living can be lower than the one of your home country, next to locals who beg to survive, regardless of the laws of those countries, racial problems or even the often difficult history of these countries with colonialism, is to choose to live a utopia in a total lack of respect for the host country and its inhabitants. It’s just insulting!

White privilege:

the underlying issue

genuine beggar on the street

Yes, it all comes down to that: white privilege. According to Luisa, a Malaysian woman cited in an Observers article, “Unfortunately, there is still discrimination and racism directed at people who aren’t white, while white people are worshipped. It’s a colonial legacy. These begging tourists would have been treated completely differently if they weren’t white — proof lies in the way we treat non-white migrants here.”

When you have a passport which allows you to travel easily to many countries, you might not realize how much of a luxury travelling actually is.

Which is why some travellers might not understand that in order to be fair, they need to spend their money in their host country. They might not realize that because of their origin and most likely the color of their skin, they might be above a few laws ( tourists are not being deported from Thailand for begging for example). And they might not even see that they are in an extremely privileged situation, which is why they think it’s ok to beg for money in a country where beggars are actually in need..

So, if you are thinking about travelling without any money, take Majda Saidi’s words into account : “To live as the poorest in a given country, to experience their suffering by choice and to know that you can stop the “experience” when you want, is the very definition of a privilege. There is nothing honorable about pretending to be poor to make yourself interesting. Honourability is to recognise and understand one’s privileges.”

Queer Travel: Tips for your First Solo Trip

Traveling solo always comes with its own joys and its own obstacles. That fact is no less true for a queer person. Within the LGBTQ+ community, there are dozens of different intersections and experiences that can factor into how your experience traveling solo might pan out. If you’re about to embark on your first solo trip as a queer person, there are a few key things you should bear in mind to make sure your first foray into traveling alone is as safe and as much fun as possible. Here are some tips and tricks I picked up traveling solo as a queer woman.

Safety First

queer travel billboard graffiti

I would love to tell you that, no matter where you go, your identity will be accepted and you will be safe to travel authentically as you please, and hopefully one day, I will be able to. For now though, there are unfortunately some areas in the world that are not always safe for LGBTQ+ people. Whether there is a lack of laws in place to protect queer people or whether it’s based more on cultural attitudes, there are some ways to work out where is safe and what sort of measures you might need to consider in advance.

Equaldex.com and 76crimes.com are two free online resources that can give you some expectations in advance of which countries are safe and ones where you need to be more careful. Remember that different regions can have different attitudes too. For example, major cities can often be more accepting than rural regions. Another great way to scope this out is to ask on LGBTQ+ networks that you might be a part of, like a Facebook group for travelers. Getting someone else’s recent, relevant experience there is often really helpful, especially if it’s for a more remote locale.

Once you have the information, it’s up to you what you do with it. Many queer travelers choose not to travel to areas where LGBTQ+ lifestyles are not supported, reasoning that they don’t want to spend their travel budget somewhere that doesn’t respect their human rights. Others believe that laws don’t always represent the people. I have had many wonderful trips in places where my sexuality is technically forbidden. The important thing to remember is to only do what you feel comfortable, and be aware that you may need to hide certain aspects of your identity if you want to go to places where being LGBTQ+ is still illegal.

Find Community

pride event with flag

One way to make solo queer travel easier, even if you are in a country where attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are less than friendly, is to find a safe space and a community before you even arrive. Look for LGBTQ+ friendly hostels or see if there’s a cluster of queer-friendly bars and restaurants which might make a good spot to book an Airbnb. Although I am a big fan or supporting local businesses, sometimes chains can be safer. A US- or European-owned chain, even in a country that might otherwise be unaccommodating for LGBTQ+ people, will likely be a more friendly place to call home while you’re there,

No matter where you are, remember that not all LGBT+ experiences are treated equally. LGBTQ+ friendly might apply to gay men and lesbians, but you might need to take different considerations into account if you are trans, as one example. Try searching specifically for what you need: type ‘trans woman friendly accommodation [INSERT CITY HERE]’ and see what comes up. This is another time where community-driven advice is great; see what others in your community have to recommend if you’re heading to a new place.

Learn Key Phrases

traveler in park with queer rights sign

If you have any accommodation that might need to be met on your travels, such as explaining gendered documentation at airports, knowing a few key phrases in the target language in advance might save you time and potential stress in airport queues. In countries where less progress has been made at having gender-neutral options on forms or where officials have less experience in processing passport photos where you might look different in real life, try and have some words or phrases ready to go. These could be:

  • I am transgender.
  • I am gender non-conforming.
  • I need to speak to an official.

I’ve also had non-binary and trans friends of mine create little cards in the target language explaining their identity. It might seem like overkill, but it can save you an exhausting and potentially triggering debate at airport security – vital if you’re as bad at timekeeping as I am!

Know when (and when not) to educate others

If you’re traveling somewhere that doesn’t have a particularly open LGBTQ+ community, it’s likely you’re going to get a few probing questions, often entirely well-meaning. No matter how kind the intention, remember that it’s never your job to educate other people. Your identity is your own and being queer is not synonymous with being the world’s friendly LGBTQ+ teacher. Always feel within your rights to politely say you don’t want to answer a question if it’s too personal, you’re too tired, or you just plain don’t want to. You’re on vacation, after all!

If you do decide to chat or explain certain things while traveling, be sure to take care of yourself at the same time. It can be exhausting to have to explain your sexuality or identity over and over again. Sometimes people don’t realize how probing or intrusive their questions can get. Set some boundaries for yourself and don’t be afraid to make other people respect them.

Be an Ally

pride flag with heart hands

Whether you’re a cis, straight person reading this or a member of the LGBTQ+ community yourself, allyship is one of our biggest assets as queer travelers. Even a solo traveler doesn’t need to walk alone all the time. If you travel with any level of privilege, try and be in tune with ways you can use this to help other people to feel more comfortable and safe while traveling.

Give as much as you get to queer communities you find while traveling. Be ready to lend a helping hand, step in to help another queer traveler if they’re struggling, and treat those you meet along the way as you would like someone to help you out if you needed it. Solo travel is one of the most rewarding things we can do in life – but it doesn’t mean we can’t find friends and community along the way.

Step Off the Beaten Path in Africa

Sub Saharan Africa is often overlooked when it comes to its global cultural influence. For example, did you know that Timbuktu was the world’s educational hub at one point? In the 14th century, scholars from all over the world would travel to modern day Mali to be educated in the kingdoms’ university. Though those days may be forgotten about, there are hundreds of historical monuments scattered across Africa that still highlight the past. Each West African country has its own beautiful tale of cultures. But here are my top 5, from the countries I’ve been to, which are a must visit for cultural and historical lovers.

5. Cape Verde

cape verde africa.jpg
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Cape Verde, is a very diverse country from the people to the county’s landscape, it’s perfect blend of Portuguese and other West cultures makes it an interesting country to see.

 

Cidade Velha, or ‘old city’ is located on Santiago Island. This UNESECO World heritage site was the first city founded in modern day Cape Verde. With ruins, monuments and museums, this town feels like walking back in time. It is eerily peaceful compared to its horrendous past but really helps visitors understand Cape Verdean history.

Carnival/ parties: Now many people think that carnival is just a good fun time, which it is, but it’s also so much more. Cape Verdean carnival is unlike any other, celebrating the country’s people and cultures.

Traditional ethnic groups such as the Mandinga (west African ethnic group) parade the streets in traditional attrie, dancing traditional dances. Carnival is celebrated between February and March (the exact dates change each year) on all the islands but Mindelo carnival is said to be the best (Sao Vincente Island). Even if you don’t make it to carnival, do make sure you experience the nightlife in the country as traditional dances such as kizomba (Originating from Angola) are commonly seen being danced.

So how will you get to these spots? Taxis are often your best bet around the islands as they are cheap and have meters in them so no need to haggle! However, if you are in the capital – Praia on Santiago island you can save even more money by hopping on busses costing 150 escudos (1.5$) per ride. Accommodation also is cheap depending on the season you are going, if you go during carnival season (February – March) you will be looking at paying around $100 per night for a budget single room. Rooms sell out fast so book them well in advance! During the off-peak seasons, you can find accommodation ranging from $15 – $100 upwards per night.

4. Sierra Leone

sierra leone africa.jpg

Sierra Leone has a very interesting history, as it was originally seen as a country for ‘free slaves’ to return to. It was very interesting meeting Sierra Leoneans with Nigerian names and seeing the influence of other black cultures like reggae (Jamaican) within the country. Some must see areas are:

National museum. This museum located in the capital, Freetown, is an amazing start to understanding Sierra Leonean history. It is always better to get a guide as there aren’t many descriptions about the artifacts.

National market (located by the national railway museum): This market was the most organised market I’ve ever been to. With so many pan African designs. From wood carvings to jewellery and accessories. This market perfectly represents West African cultures and designs with traditional Nigerian (Ankara) and Ghanaian (Kente) print used on the clothing.

Bunce Island and Banana Island; though, these islands are filled with beautiful beaches, they have an extremely dark past as they were used as slave trading and shipping stations. These islands have their own history told through the ruins and monuments. I highly recommend going with a guide.

The best ways of getting around the Freetown are Tuk tuks and taxis. Tuk tuks are very convenient and cheap. Though there are not any meters there are set prices per destination which all the locals know about. You’ll soon pick these up after a few rides, night-time rates are higher. Tuk Tuks are often shared, but you can pay extra to not share or take a taxi, taxis are more expensive. Accommodation is quite pricey in Freetown (the capital) with an average hotel night costing around $70 per night. Privately owned accommodation such as Airbnb is available and cheaper but can be very basic.

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3. Gambia

Though a tiny African country, Gambia is vast in its attractions offering something for everyone. Here are some must see areas for all those cultural lovers out there:
 
Stones of Senegambia, located in both Senegal and Gambia, this is a historical landmark. Whilst some speculate these stones to be a burial ground, others believe the stones were placed there by Gods and have spiritual meaning. Either way, this archaeological wonder dates back 1,500 years.
 
The National Museum Gambia, this museum displays so many cultural and historic African pieces. With rooms for art and music and weapons, this is the place to explore more about Gambian history.
 
Kunta Kinteh Island, popularized by the film roots, a lot of people do not know that this island is a very real place. This UNESECO World heritage site marks the story of slavery in Gambia.
 
Taxis are the best mode of transport around the country as they are shared and cheaper. Although they are not metered, there are fixed prices per destination points which locals know about so make sure to ask them. Buses are also available and a good option for travelling around as they are not often crammed full and the conductors inside will let you know the price of your journey. But they are a little harder to navigate as bus stop are hard to spot and do not stop right in front of tourist attractions so there is still a lot of walking to do afterwards. Accommodation in Gambia varies from $20 – $100 per night per person. A lot of cheaper accommodations are usually owned by private hosts as hotels are often more expensive.

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2. Senegal

senegal africa.jpg
Senegal is home of the staple west African dish; Wolof rice, commonly known as jollof rice. This country has a mixture of Arabic, French and African influences making its capital, Dakar a cultural hub that offers tourists so much. Some must see areas are:
 
Goree Island. This island is a chilling reminder of the scar of slavery many African countries still carry. With so many museums, buildings, and historical monuments to explore. This island is a must see in Senegal. I advise going with a tour guide, you can hire them before you get at the port where you buy tickets to the island or on the island. (Senegalese and Africans get a discounted rate onto the island)
 
IFAN Museum and Museum of Black Civilizations. These museums are great places to go to explore more of West African culture. With a hundred of artefacts, from African clothing styles to traditional armour dating back hundreds of years. A must visit if you’re in Dakar.
 
African Renaissance Monument. This monument celebrates not only Senegalese but African liberation from colonialism. This magnificent statue was created in hopes of becoming an international tourist attraction like the statue of liberty. I hope you like stairs because just like the road to freedom, it is a long climb up.
 
Transport may be your biggest expense here as taxi drivers are often opportunists inflating the prices for tourists. Especially at the airports so I recommend getting the coach to downtown Dakar. In Dakar haggling with taxi drivers is a must, even for locals. Busses are cheaper but often confusing to navigate for a non-local as bus stops are not clearly marked. With the rise of tourism to the country’s capital, Dakar has a lot of cheaper accommodations are now available. An average night in a hostel will cost around $5 per person per night with 5-star hotels costing around $150 a night.

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1. Ghana

ghana africa

Ghana, also known as the gold coast, offers a lot more riches than just gold. Ghana has heavily influenced the continent as it was the first sub-Saharan African country to declare its independence from European colonisation which led to the other African countries following suit. Ghana today, has become a great tourism destination and here are a few attractions that’ll make you understand why:

The Mosque of Larabanga also known as the ‘Mecca of west Africa’ is the oldest mosque in West Africa dating back to the 14th century. Built by Sudanese architects, this magnificent functioning mosque is an example of precolonial African architecture.

Asante traditional buildings. This UNESECO World heritage site shows the traditional homes the Asante civilisation. Why not take a walk through these homes to better understand traditional Ghanaian homes, cultures and customs.

Centre of National Culture. Here you’ll be able to experience Ghanaian heritage and culture through different art forms.

Cape Coast Castle also known as the slave castles is a fortress built in the early 17th century for the purpose of trading slaves. Why not tour the town and experience the dungeons also known as the ‘slave holes’, chapel and museum.

Motorbikes or ‘okadas’ are a common form of transport used here. Usually you would get on the back with the driver. Buses and taxis are also common forms of transport used. Accommodation isn’t too expensive with hostels costing around $15 per person per night and double rooms costing around $40 a night.

 

With a continent so rich, it is no surprise that there are so many more unmentioned attractions in both these countries and other West African countries. But I hope these 5 countries help you understand just how rich and diverse African cultures are. Which country will you be heading to?

About the author

Adeola Adeshina

Adeola is a world traveller and influencer focusing her area of travel in the continent of Africa, being her passion at her core. The aspiring writer wants to use her story to educate those about what different African countries are really like through the gaze of a first generation British Nigerian. Her solo travels through the continent aim to inspire others giving not only her stories but useful facts about each country. Adeola aims to establish business partnerships across the continent with local craftsmen through her scheme called AdeAfricaSupport.

 

Voluntourism: A Good Deed or a Harmful Fantasy?

Going on a holiday and spending some time helping out an NGO seems like a good way to use your vacation time to both enjoy yourself and give back to the less fortunate. You could experience another culture, help local communities, add a line on your resume and enjoy an authentic experience during your stay. What could be wrong? As it turns out, a lot!

 

Voluntourism has come under fire over the last few years. This kind of travel which combines volunteering and tourism, can actually have a very negative impact on local communities. Let’s explore the main reasons why this kind of travel is heavily criticized, and the ways you can actually help while still getting the adventure you crave.

Can you offer more than good intentions?

woman volunteering serving food

Volunteers are very often young people, who are taking either a gap year or using their vacation time to do meaningful work. However, humanitarian and development work are actually highly professionalized. To work in this field, you need very specific degrees and/or experience, and an expertise that requires training.

According to Daniela Papi, founder of Learning Service, who wrote in a National Geographic article: “[voluntourism is] about selling an image of poverty to Westerners and saying that—just by being them, without any responsibility to learn, shift, or qualify—they can ‘help.’”

But without any specific skills, can you really help? Are good intentions really enough to make a long lasting impact on local communities?

In a Huffington Post article, Pippa Biddle recalls one of her first voluntourist experience: “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

If your work is not very useful, that’s one thing. But you might unknowingly disrupt the local economy by depriving a local laborer the opportunity to get this job and get paid for it.

If you have a specific skill that you think might be helpful, then coordinate with an organization which works with local communities: you think you can improve their website? Maybe you can fundraise using your own network? Would you be able to teach a specific skill to the local workers? If so, then you might manage to make an impact.

In any case, the most important thing that you need to remember is: Do no harm.

Do no harm

You especially need to keep this in mind if you are thinking of taking a voluntourist trip working with children.

Orphanages barely exist anymore in wealthy countries, and there is a good reason for that: decades of research have proven that children can’t develop well when they grow up in institutions, even if they are well run. Instead, governments all around the world prefer to give support to families so they can keep their children with them. And if it is impossible, then, they look for foster or adoptive families. It is even a cheaper option compared to keeping children in institutions!

So why are there still orphanages? Because tourists are willing to pay to visit them, or to work in them, and it has become a very profitable business. Voluntourism actually creates the institutionalization of children. According to the NGO Lumos, 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. But families tend to send their children to these institutions because the only support system funded (by tourists), are orphanages, when this money could go to better child care solutions. 

Not only are institutions bad for children, but the constant coming and going of volunteers is detrimental to children. According to the NGO World Vision, short term visits to orphanages by international volunteers will create separation anxiety and unhealthy short-lived attachment. Volunteers will give love and support to the children, and then quickly break the bond until another comes, and the cycle repeats.

If you are thinking about a volunteer trip involving children, you need to thoroughly research the organization and refrain from working directly with the children.

The bigger issue at play: the white savior complex

The question of voluntourism seems to be a symptom of a much larger issue: the white savior complex.

You might have heard of white saviorism in many different conversations: this term has been most recently used to criticize the portrayal of minorities in the media (for example, in the movie The Help). But it is also used internationally to criticize international relations. When it comes to voluntourism, white saviorism is especially blatant.

Historically, white saviorism comes from colonization and the idea that Europeans were invading foreign countries in order to “conduct civilizing missions”. Today, white saviorism has more to do with power dynamics: someone privileged, without any real understanding of the cultural, political or economic background, “saves” (or thinks they save) the underprivileged and thus, becomes a hero.

This narrative is an oversimplification of the very complex issue of poverty. Indeed, the story really should be about the root causes of poverty: global economics, geopolitics, history, etc. as well as about the local communities. You can provide support to them, but if you are at the center of the narrative, then you are probably missing the point. White saviors are often accused of using the less fortunate as props for their own self gratification.

Actually, voluntourist companies appeal to the white savior in you by having you believe that you can become a hero, without any specific skills! While, as Andrea Freidus says in an article in The Conversation, “If volunteers can understand the people they work with as citizens with rights rather than objects of charity, they can begin to think about long-term partnership, justice and structural change.”

If you have trouble grasping the concept of white saviorism, try to think about it the other way around: would you feel comfortable with inexperienced tourists coming to work in group homes or foster families for a few weeks in your own country? Would it be ok for you to see tourists taking photos of the underprivileged communities in your hometown?

Should I pay to volunteer?

woman bathing elephant

On the surface, you may think that if you are getting on a plane and giving your time that at the maximum you should pay would be for room and board, but paying a profit? No way. 

Hopefully after reading more about white savior complex, it won’t come as a surprise when we say that paying for an experience shouldn’t be an outrageous idea. If you can’t bring a valuable, unique and needed skill and especially if you can’t commit to a long stay, then you will be taking up employee’s time and resources that could otherwise go into their organization.

Money you pay to volunteer is not always going to scams. There are legitimate for-profit and non-profit businesses that can help you get the experience you want, help boost your resume and gain some skills, and do all the leg-work to be sure that your presence boosts the local community rather than endanger it. They make your experience easy, ethical and that money you pay goes back to the community to actually  help. In fact, some organizations rely on this type of voluntourism.

How can I help?

If good intentions are all you have, then you probably need to rethink your project. If you really want to get involved, there are many ways to do so in an ethical way. But to make sure your project will really help, you need to ask yourself:

          Why am I going? I am going to help or to feel good about myself or to travel cheaply?

          Who is in charge of the project: is it led by local communities? Are they the ones asking for support?

          What does the community or organization actually need? Do I have the skills and experience to provide it? Would I be able to do this work at home? Can a local laborer do this job? If not, can I teach a member of this community the necessary skills?

          Are you sure the organization is doing no harm? Are there any protection measures for vulnerable people (children for example)?

Keep asking yourself these questions and you will end up finding a project of which you can be proud!

 

Resources
https://www.worldvision.ca/stories/voluntourism-the-good-and-the-bad
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/-voluntourism-harms-not-h_b_11653292
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2015/02/04/unpacking-voluntourism-five-myths/
https://theconversation.com/volunteer-tourism-whats-wrong-with-it-and-how-it-can-be-changed-86701
https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-reality-of-voluntourism-and-the-conversations-were-not-having
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/little-white-girls-voluntourism_b_4834574