Photo: Promise Tangeman

Whenever I glance at travel blogs, I’m surprised by how often travelers sanctimoniously speak about their travels in “developing countries” (I’ve written before about the issues with this term, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll use that term here). Travelers assume that just by contributing to the tourism sector of a country with their visit, spending a few weeks volunteering, and blogging about the experiences afterwards, they have automatically helped the country’s poorest citizens.

They’re not entirely wrong. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization recently found that tourism accounts for one in 12 jobs worldwide and is one of the top two export earnings for 20 of the 48 least developed countries.

But these numbers can be deceiving. Just because tourism creates jobs and economic growth doesn’t mean that the country’s least economically empowered locals receive most of the benefits. When I first started traveling, I was not aware of the many ways my tourism also exploited and harmed locals, sometimes far more than it helped. Here’s how:

1. Much of the profit from tourism never ends up in the hands of locals.

“Tourist Leakage” is a worldwide phenomenon where tourism revenue ends up mostly in the hands of foreign corporations, instead of local business. Often, the owners of the biggest hotels, vacation resorts, and tour companies are generally from western, economically developed countries. When they gain a profit from tourist expenditures, they take that money back home with them. Not much is necessarily invested back into the local economy.

A study by Sustainable Living found that over two-thirds of tourism revenue in Thailand ends up in the pockets of foreign-owned tour operators, airlines, hotels, etc. Only a third actually goes towards the local economy. In Mexico, according to research by the activist group Tourism Concern, about 80% of traveler expenditure at all-inclusive resorts go to international investors, instead of local businesses and workers. Other reports from the United Nations found that in the Caribbean, St. Lucia had a leakage rate of 56% from its gross tourism receipts, Aruba had a rate of 41%, Antigua and Barbuda 25%, and Jamaica 40%.

Before traveling, we should research whether the places we’re financially supporting have actually committed to keeping profits within the local economy. To ensure your travel dollars actually help, travelers need to sign-up with local tour companies, stay in hostels and hotels run by locals, and avoid big-name resorts as much as possible.

2. Much of tourism profits also end up being re-invested in the tourists themselves.

Another problem is the products tourist demand while on their trip. While traveling, many tourists request certain products that a local country doesn’t have: For example, western tourists in India often demand toilet paper, even though locals don’t generally use it. In many countries, western tourists request western dishes or ingredients-like burgers, spaghetti, or peanut butter-on restaurant menus or at local stores, even though locals don’t eat them. This forces tourist companies to use a large portion of their tourist revenue on importing these products, just to ensure that tourists stay content.

According to UNCTAD, this import-related “leakage” for most developing countries today on average is between 40% and 50% of gross tourism earnings from small economies and 10% and 20% for advanced economies. That means tourism companies have to use basically half of the profit they earn on importing products they don’t need, but that tourists demand.

If we’re traveling to a developing country and requesting these kinds of products, then we become part of the problem. Instead, whenever possible, we should be willing to accommodate our standards and preferences based on what locals already have.

3. Our blogs and photos documenting our “revelations” from our trip aren’t helping either.

We also have to acknowledge the long history of western travelers reporting back on their travels through a “white savior” narrative. This kind of narrative places western travelers as the “courageous” and “generous” people willing to “save” others less fortunate. There’s also a well-established precedent of using racially insensitive and ignorant language while doing so. The photos we take to document our trip can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and historically unequal power dynamics.

This travel writer’s memoir about her trip to Zambia was perhaps this year’s worst example of all these things. As I’ve written before, in our attempt to “bring to light” the issues people experience in a country, these kinds of blogs and photos can end up disempowering the people we’re trying to help. When we blog about our travels or take photographs, we have to keep this history in mind and make sure we’re presenting our experiences in the most accurate and respectful way.

4. Those “social justice trips”? They can also be a sham.

When Carnival announced a new initiative promoting “social justice tourism,” there was reason to be skeptical: for years cruise lines have been called called outfor their labor abuses, environmental abuses, lack of social responsibility and more. With that kind of corporate history, it’s hard to believe that their new trips truly cared about social justice and weren’t just a ploy to gain more profit.

But it’s not just cruise lines that deserve our skepticism. Many volunteer trips claiming to be working towards social justice have been called out instead for their “sticky ethics“. As travelers, we must realize that the global voluntourism sector is now an almost $3 billion industry. It has become crowded with companies taking advantage of gullible, well-meaning travelers. To make sure we don’t fall for it, we have to reflect and critically question any program before participating. We can’t simply assume every trip will create something positive.

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I’ve argued before that as millennials travelers, though we may want to change the world, that doesn’t mean we have any clue how to do it. So before we travel to a developing country, we shouldn’t self-righteously assume that our travel dollars are an automatic act of generosity. We need to instead put in the time to research carefully and ensure our decisions about tours, accommodation and activities will actually benefit locals as much as we’d hoped.

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