Guiltless Getaways: Giving back while vacationing

Featured, Travel Philosophy, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on March 17, 2010 at 9:45 am

Photo courtesy of Slumdog Millionaire

By Shadia Garrison
Philanthropy Editor


Unless you’re traveling to Qatar or Liechtenstein, there’s a good chance your trip is taking you somewhere where you might be considered wealthy.  No, not next to your fellow tourists but in comparison to the local people who work, live, and play at your destination of choice.  If you earn the average U.S. salary of around $46,000, you greatly out-earn workers in the majority of other countries around the world.  To give you a sense of others’ average annual salaries, here are some examples:

  • Turkey: $14,000
  • Costa Rica: $11,000
  • Jamaica: $8,000
  • Egypt: $5,000
  • Laos: $2,000
  • Malawi: $800

To know these inequities exist is important, not so that you’ll avoid these locations out of potential guilt but so you’ll understand the realities of this new place and be able to help (if you want) in appropriate and responsible ways.

Many tourists have experienced feelings of guilt or impotence when approached by locals asking for spare change.  Indeed, many tourist destinations are rife with children running around asking visitors for money.  And it’s difficult to say no, sometimes.  Different communities deal with this problem in different ways.  Some discourage tourists from giving anything to children and others who ask.  And some suggest you bring brightly colored pencils or pens with you to give to children, encouraging them to stay in school instead of dropping out to spend their time asking tourists for money.  I’ve seen tourists give children gum or candy also – something that may not be a great idea for these children who are unlikely to see dentists on a regular basis.  In high-tourist areas, you’ll see more begging as a business – children who are working for adults and hand over their “earnings” at the end of the day.  As tourists, of course we don’t want to encourage this abuse.

So, what can you do if you want to help in some small way?

There are better and more sustainable ways to make a difference to communities in need.  If you’re interested in giving back to the community you’re visiting, make an appointment ahead of your trip to speak with local government officials or a local non-profit organization.  Having a meeting like this will be a rich addition to your trip; you’ll have a meaningful conversation with people you wouldn’t have even met before and you’ll find out more about the town or country that you ever hoped to know through guidebooks and tours.  These officials should be able to steer you in the right direction if you’d like to make a donation to a local cause.  Maybe they’ll ask you to buy a day’s worth of bread for a school or make a monetary donation to a clinic.  If you have a particular area of interest that you care about (like women’s rights or vaccinations, etc.) let them know that and maybe they can find the right organization for your donation.  Also, be upfront about how much money you’re willing and able to spend.  Twenty dollars might not sound like a lot for you – but forgoing the second serving of cheese bread and beer while out on the town one night during your vacation might be enough to pay for a day’s worth of clean water for 10 families.

Finally, if the local officials approach doesn’t appeal or work for you, consider donating to larger nonprofits that works in that country or area.  Examples could include:

  • Heifer International
  • Grameen Foundation (microlending)
  • Amnesty International
  • American Friends Service Committee
  • Doctors Without Borders
  • Gates Foundation (vaccinations)
  • Conservation International
  • CARE

Giving back to a host community is more than handing over spare pesos; if you take a mindful approach, both you and that community will be enriched.

Shadia Garrison writes about socially conscious travel on her blog, The Mindful Tourist.

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  • TKGO says:

    I really appreciate this article, as I have always valued traveling and giving back in a way that’s more than just pumping money into the local economy. One of my favorite trips was a week I spent in New Orleans repairing houses in the Lower Ninth Ward with friends. And this coming weekend, I’m heading to Cuba for a week on a humanitarian aid trip to bring donated medical supplies we’ve been collecting for months, and to volunteer in community centers and experience the city. As travelers, we have an obligation and opportunity!

  • Shadia says:

    Karina – thanks for your note. I agree that as travelers we are unique in that we have the opportunity and yes, we might as well put it to use, as long as it’s in cooperation with local people.