By definition, travelers arrive in a destination and then depart it. They are not members of a community, nor are they invested in the infrastructure and amenities that local people want and need, such as schools and health clinics. Travelers aren’t necessarily concerned about long-term municipal issues like property taxes or environmental challenges like waste management, and they aren’t directly impacted by how a specific place evolves over time.
Simply put, travelers tend to be disconnected from those foundational building blocks that drew them to a certain destination in the first place.
This isn’t travelers’ fault; this is just the way travel is. People come, and people go.
More people seem to be waking up to the consequences of this transient movement. The result has been a push toward “slow” travel, kicking the bucket list, making travelers aware of their particular impacts on destinations, and placing more intentionality behind the activities travelers participate in and the way these activities are communicated.
What It Means to “Give Back”
Among the many ways that the tourism industry is attempting to change course from its extractive and exploitative model is by offering ways for travelers to “give back” to the places they visit.
Of course, there’s no easy solution for any challenge. This is the case with “giving back” in the tourism context. “Giving back” is increasingly common terminology used in the tourism industry, but, like many concepts, it’s worth peeling back the layers of what that means and why that matters.
The lack of a clear and shared definition makes the concept of “giving back” challenging. That challenge is compounded when the definition differs among every tour company and the travelers they serve.
Like authenticity, “giving back” can be defined in a lot of different ways. It might include aspects of voluntourism, which can be deeply problematic. It might encompass economic, environmental, and/or social benefits for the local community. It might look like a hands-on activity or it might mean that a tour company makes a monetary donation on behalf of each traveler.
Lack of clarity about what it means to “give back” means that no one is held accountable for it. There is no way to measure that which is not clearly defined, whether that impact is positive or negative.
Specificity about who benefits and how provides far more clarity than simply noting that tourists can “give back” when traveling. It also forces service providers to do the hard work of holding themselves accountable for how they impact the places in which they operate.
“Giving back” implicitly makes people feel good. Who doesn’t like the idea that, when they travel, they can leave a trail of good deeds in their wake? But this kind of messaging centers travelers as saviors of the places they visit: A destination is better because they made it better.
Lack of a clear definition obscures whether local communities have been involved in defining what “giving back” in the tourism context looks like.
Integrating Community Benefits Into Travel Experiences
Certainly, the tourism industry can benefit local communities. Travelers can, in fact, have a positive impact on the places they visit. And, these benefits can look widely different depending on specific community needs and desires: Manual labor, financial investments in infrastructure, economic opportunities, support of local conservation initiatives.
I recently participated in the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit in North Lake Tahoe, where I had the opportunity to “give back” as a conference participant and visitor to the area. Tourism Cares events are known for their community involvement with a day of hands-on community service. The model the organization uses offers a helpful framework for any tourism entity wanting to integrate this kind of experience into their offerings.
Here are the three key features that made this experience stand out, and how your travel-related business can incorporate these lessons into client offerings:
A cohesive narrative:
This particular event has been focused on several critical issues specific to Lake Tahoe — the climate crisis (especially wildfires), environmental and conservation challenges, Indigenous rights and representation — with an honest, specific emphasis on tourism's impact on these issues. We were immersed in this content since the opening of the conference, so it naturally made sense that part of the experience would be seeing what some of those impacts actually looked like and meeting with community groups addressing those challenges.
Make it happen in your work: Building a cohesive storyline into a travel experience offers important and essential context for why travelers participate in an activity. It’s not just about what the activity is but how it fits in with the overall destination. Nothing exists in isolation; that should hold true for any service activities travelers participate in as well.
Service with context:
Before going out for the day, representatives from each organization with which people volunteered sat on a panel and talked about how their organizations fit in with the larger Lake Tahoe ecosystem. We weren't just given shovels and told to get to work; instead, we had context for what the organization we volunteered with does and what local challenges it addresses.
Make it happen in your work: It is not a service provider’s job to decide what a community needs or how to provide those perceived needs to it. Develop partnerships and work with local organizations that are already addressing an identified issue. Follow the partner organization’s lead and instructions about what is needed and how that work should be done.
Create time and space so that this organization can provide “big picture” context for any volunteer activities travelers participate in. This provides a better understanding for why this form of service is important, and it also provides needed context for travelers so they can better share their story about participation with others.
Activity with intention:
Each of the service organizations learned about in Lake Tahoe has been doing community-focused work for a significant amount of time. None of these projects was created for us or our benefit. We were simply the volunteers stepping in for the day to lend a helping hand with what needed to be completed next.
I spent the day digging out the rocky bits of a greenhouse, then laying down metal wiring, gravel, and sand in its interior for Slow Food Lake Tahoe. It was great to hear that the volunteer group I spent the day with (about 15 people) helped knock off about three weeks worth of work during five hard hours of work. This enables the organization to make strides on other projects so that it can plant, grow, and deliver food to the local food bank as needed during its short growing period.
Make it happen in your work: “Giving back” is not always glamorous. It can be dirty, sweaty, physically challenging, boring, or monotonous work. That doesn’t matter, because if this is what a community needs and wants, and the tourism industry wants to be a trusted partner in supporting that community, then this is what is required.
Remember, this is not a traveler-centric endeavor. If the activities are not a good fit for your travelers, then don’t participate. But don’t make something up just so you — and they — can feel good about “giving back.”