Wander with purpose: 7 ways travellers can give back this holiday season

December 13, 2023

Eager to embrace the true spirit of the holidays this year? It could be time to edit travel itineraries to include more than just international Christmas markets and ugly holiday sweater parties with fellow backpackers. This is traditionally the season for generosity and kindness. If you’re travelling during the winter holidays, there are ample opportunities to embrace the seasonal spirit and give back to the communities which make for wonderful travel experiences.

Many like-minded travellers would agree: embarking on a journey isn’t just about exploring new landscapes, it’s also an opportunity to learn, improve, and commit to ethical travel. Here are some ways to give back to those who host you on your forays away from home to both foster a sense of connection and say thanks.

1. Spend time volunteering

One of the most direct ways to contribute to the places you visit is by dedicating a day or more to volunteer work. This kind of work fosters a deep connection with the destination and its people. Plus, the holiday season always brings extra opportunities to give back to the local community.

Stuck for ideas? Think about what you and your travel buddy’s interests are. Love animals? Perhaps look into a local wildlife conservation program or shelter that needs all hands on deck. Into hiking and the environment? Check out the town’s clean-up initiatives, reforesting programs or hiking groups that organize trail or beach clean-ups. (Or just make a point to clean up trash on your own as you venture into nature.) These are fantastic ways to make new friends, see something few visitors get to enjoy, and make sure you’re leaving a destination cleaner than you found it. If you prefer to spend time indoors, local soup kitchens, women’s groups, and universities are often eager for volunteers who can help out with both their day-to-day operations and bigger projects.

While there are many international groups which organize volunteer opportunities, connecting with local associations means the focus will be on what residents need and want. Locals know their own communities and needs best.

2. Eat, shop, and stay locally

Travellers can significantly impact the local economy by choosing to support small, locally-owned businesses. Rather than opting for international chains, consider staying in locally-run guesthouses and hostels, dining in family-owned restaurants, and purchasing souvenirs from local artisans. This not only injects funds directly into the community but also helps preserve the destination's unique cultural identity.

If you’re not sure if something is actually benefiting those in the community, go the extra mile to verify when possible. For instance, many farmers' markets in Canada now display clear signage indicating where food was harvested, giving visitors extra assurance that their money is indeed supporting locals. Plus, this values-focused way of spending money often leads to quality interactions with vendors who may give you a stronger sense of the place you’re visiting with recommendations, a short chat, or advice for your travel journey.

3. Learn about a local issue

Context is so important. One of the loveliest things about travel is that the more you do it, the more you learn. But on the flip side, the more you travel, the more you realize how little you really do know about the entire world. Do you feel as though you seldom learn the full context about complex social and economic problems in countries other than your own?

Learn the history, explore the destination’s news coverage, watch the documentaries, read writers from that region.

Prior to departure, you could make a point of researching that as much as possible. Learn the history, explore the destination’s news coverage, watch the documentaries, read writers from that region.

For instance, you may be visiting a place that’s dealing with issues surrounding limited access to resources like water, food, or electricity. Or, there may be problems surrounding femicide, economic insecurity, natural disasters thanks to climate change, or organized crime groups. Is there an election coming up? What are the problems that those who live in your destination of choice are currently experiencing? These important issues rarely hit our radars unless we are actively seeking them out. Thankfully, one of the best ways to give back to a destination is to learn about it and become an informed traveller.

4. Observe culture by listening and engaging

Want to make a lasting travel memory? Forget about getting the perfect Instagram photo or finding the best souvenir. Focus on connecting with people through their culture instead. Engaging in conversations with locals (and actively listening!), taking in cultural events, and attending community gatherings (that you’re invited to) are excellent ways to gain insight into a destination's traditions and way of life.

Consider exploring beyond major venues like national galleries, top tourist attractions, and prestigious museums. Perhaps you can take in a dance performance in a rural town, pause to watch street performers who lack a major stage, or visit a chef running a tiny diner that lacks flashy signage. You’ll be rewarded with authentic performances, flavours, and some incredible travel memories. Listening and really engaging is one way to give back because you’re holding space to learn all that you can and honour someone else’s experience. Places where you can do that could include community organizations, libraries, book clubs, language lessons, cooking classes or activism activities,

5. Leave no trace

With the rise of eco-conscious travel, there’s a growing awareness of the environmental impact of tourism. Travellers can contribute to the preservation of natural wonders by practicing responsible tourism. This includes adhering to Leave No Trace principles and supporting eco-friendly initiatives. Being mindful of our ecological footprint while travelling ensures that breathtaking landscapes are preserved for future generations… and for those who actually live in these destinations today.

This is about more than relying on refillable water bottles, reusable bags, and proactively declining take-out cutlery in favour of your own “spork.” While these small steps do add up, there are other, less obvious ways to be environmentally conscious on the road.

And remember that your presence—no matter how well intended—can cause a strain on local resources

Consider taking a day to explore the local environment and fully appreciate all that it offers. Or, take a tour of a local greenhouse to learn about which plant species are endemic and the impacts of those which are imported.

And remember that your presence—no matter how well intended—can cause a strain on local resources. Educating yourself on which natural resources are limited and learning how to respect them can bring a new perspective to travel. Are you open to limiting electricity use or showering with cold water? What are local residents doing to limit their consumption of resources and can you emulate them? Perhaps it’s time to take a leisurely afternoon nap to beat the heat instead of relying on air conditioning?

6. Share your talents and expertise

Similar to the point about volunteering your time, you could bump it up a notch by sharing your talents or expertise if you’re asked or see a need. You and your group may be indulging in some downtime from hostel-hopping your way through far-flung places when you notice a request for English tutoring or conversation practice. Or, you may be a social media-savvy traveller who happens across an organization looking to improve their online presence. The local school library may need extra tutors or the small business you’ve been frequenting may need help with a website launch. For travellers staying in one place for a long time, you could keep your eyes peeled for ongoing positions. Of course, make sure there’s a need or request before offering help. Don’t underestimate your talents!

7. Finally, don’t forget to donate

We can sometimes lose sight of how significant financial donations are to the causes we love. One of the most meaningful ways to show your gratitude to a destination which has touched your heart is to give to the people and causes that are in need of more resources.

Sometimes we can get caught up in all the things travel gives us that we forget to look at what we could do in return. This holiday season, travels may become more meaningful when we’re more mindful about doing what we can for all those people and places who have meant so much to us.

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