The other day I had an online discussion with some friends and the topic of voluntourism came up. I was told how meaningful an experience it is, how important and so on. But for the most part they only highlighted the advantages to the participant and not the actual people they were supposed to be helping. That started me down a rabbit hole, and I began to seriously think about the concept of meaningful travel and upon a whole lot of reflection, and coffee, I’m not so sure it’s a stand-alone travel experience.
What people usually mean by meaningful travel
Before sitting down to write this post I searched around the interwebs to see what other folks had to say about this somewhat trendy subject. For the most part, everyone wrote similar content, which is that meaningful travel can be one of two things: travel that somehow enriches the participant or travel that somehow enriches people in the destination where the participant is traveling.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Happy travelers going around doing good, reading to the blind, or taking language emersion classes and being a generally good citizen of the world. Grandiose, and mostly unattainable, examples were given of epic trips around the planet in which the poor and needy were aided by these kind-hearted travelers. If I sound a little sarcastic, that’s purposeful and I can barely wait to get into the next and much longer section of this post to explain why that is.
Why I think there’s a problem with that
Naturally that’s all crap. One of my earliest posts was about the importance of travel and how any trip, no matter where we go and what we see or do is beneficial to us on very real and personal levels. You don’t have to volunteer with the lepers in order to have personal growth, it can happen anywhere in the world, wherever you decide to go. Moreover, the idea that only a trip that focuses on volunteering is beneficial to locals is also complete bunk. So, let’s tackle each of these issues.
The idea that a travel experience has to be challenging in order to be enriching is pompous and arrogant. It comes from people who have decided to live a life of travel, just as I have, and for them the experience has become so humdrum that it’s only the epic adventures, the hard to attain experiences that have transformative effects on them and their daily lives. What they forget is that the average person travels once a year. That’s it. For that person every travel experience has the potential to be extremely meaningful, no matter where they go. Let’s take an unlikely example – a trip I once took to the Yucatan Peninsula.
By all accounts, the Riviera Maya is not exactly the “real” Mexico. It’s full of overblown and overly segregated resorts that in general seek to separate tourists from locals as much as possible. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that and millions visit every year to get some much needed time in the warm sun. I found myself doing just that several years ago, but one evening a friend and I stumbled onto the town of Playa del Carmen. Instantly I knew that this was not your normal town along the Yucatan, and I soon met expats from all around the world. It was while chatting with one of these folks that I found myself inspired by their personal story, how they gave up their “normal” lives in order to find a more relaxing and peaceful way to live. It’s not something that I wanted to do necessarily, but it was a definite growth moment for me as I considered their actions and how I could make changes in my own life that would allow me to be happier. That happened in what is arguably one of the most touristy spots on the planet. I didn’t have to go to the far reaches of Bhutan to seek enlightenment, it happened at a bar with a blinking neon sign and beers sold by the yard.
The second point of the meaningful travel experience is a little trickier to dissect. Namely, that meaningful travel can also be when you travel specifically to help other people. That’s fine and that’s true – charitable travel is increasingly popular and it is indeed meaningful. But it’s not an either-or proposition; that is not to say that other travel experiences are not meaningful to the local people you meet.
A few years ago I traveled to Alberta in the middle of winter for some fun in the snowy outdoors. One of the many activities I participated in was dog sledding through the white powder surrounding perennially beautiful Lake Louise. Afterwards I spoke with the owner of the company about her background and her business. I was surprised to hear that times were tough not only for her but her competitors. The economic downturn was still in full swing and people just weren’t traveling. She was so thankful I was there not just to participate in the activity, but to share her business on my web site as well. (Which I did.) I’d like to think that in a small way I helped her and even without a web site, my mere presence and money spent as a tourist would have been more than enough to help. One billion people travel every year, that’s a huge number and it’s also a lot of money that’s being constantly shifted from one place to the next. Wherever we go we help out the local communities and people, especially if we’re mindful about how we spend our money. So that’s why I say that meaningful travel doesn’t have to be charitable to be meaningful, it’s almost every trip we take.
Nothing annoys me more in the online realm than travel elitists who insist that there’s only one way to travel, or only one way to have a meaningful travel experience. I realize that I may be running the risk of doing the same thing here, but I want people to feel good about their travel experiences and not guilty. Travel is supposed to be fun for us, the travelers. The experience ALWAYS helps us grow as people and we almost always invariably help others when we do so. So don’t feel bad about spending a week at the beach instead of building houses, believe it or not you’re doing your part just as much as those do-gooders are.