When I first started backpacking in my early 20’s, I thought young travelers were the best. I saw young millennials making travel work on a next-to-nothing budget, viewing travel as more about experiences and insight than luxury and relaxation, and I felt like I had found the people I was searching for. Coming from resort-town Florida, I had finally found my crowd.
I loved hanging around the hostel bar and sharing stories, trading ideas of what we really wanted out of life, all proudly agreeing that life is easier when you carry everything you own on your back. Finally, I thought, here was a group of free-thinking young people who were seeking something more than the status quo.
A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article for The Atlantic praising these millennial travelers I met along the way. I wrote about surveys that had suggested that unlike previous generations, millennials rejected sand-and sea vacations for trips that involved personal growth. We spent less time in “major gateway cities” and instead explored more remote destinations, stayed in hostels instead of hotels, and choose long-term backpacking trips instead of two-week jaunts.
The article went viral and I instantly received emails from people around the world agreeing with my point of view: millennials were changing travel for the better by searching for real experiences and traveling with purpose. In many ways, I thought travel could be our easy ticket to self-actualization, and changing the world.
Then, reality set in.
Since writing that article, this optimistic view of travel has begun wearing off. Instead of seeing travel changing people and communities for the better, I’ve read about backpackers destroying culture in towns like Vang Vieng, disrespecting historical monuments in Cambodia, promoting drunken tourism, and causing tourist attractions to slowly die. I’ve read about backpacker-created gringo trails throughout developing countries that leave environmental and economic havoc behind. I’ve watched Humanitarians of Tinder show young people disturbingly using their international experiences for a profile picture. I’ve read articles exposing the “sticky ethics of voluntourism” and presenting solid arguments that even well-intentioned travel can do incredible damage. Lately, I’ve written less about travel’s romantic hopes and more about its uncomfortable truths.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve all missed a crucial point about millennial travelers: though we may want to change the world, that doesn’t mean we have any clue how to do it. Instead, many of us lack both the self-awareness and research necessary to travel in a way that actually benefits the countries we visit. For example, in the popular backpacker hotspot of Southeast Asia, a study by Sustainable Living found that over two-thirds of Thailand’s tourism revenue ends up not in the hands of local Thai population, but instead in the pockets of foreign-owned tour operators, airlines, hotels, etc. Often, even the income gained by locals from tourist spending is primarily used to import products that tourists “need”, like American toilet paper or other brands/products you can’t find in the local country. According to UNCTA, this import-related “leakage” for most developing countries today on average is between 40% and 50% of gross tourism earnings.
Though we may want our travel experiences perhaps more noble than the past doesn’t mean it’s turning out that way. Regardless of our original intentions, young travelers can be quick to strap on a backpack completely ignorant of what their daily decisions traveling may inadvertently cause.
I don’t exclude myself from this. I can’t say that in my history as a traveler, I’ve maintained a perfect track record on sustainability and ethics. I took tours with companies without always checking first to see if they employed locals or gave fair wages. I bartended at a party hostel and went to a Full Moon Party. I bargained way too much, not necessarily considering how the dollar saved impacted families who survived on the price I’d agree to pay. I volunteered without much thought about the bigger picture. I clapped along at hokey restaurants hosting “cultural performances”, and didn’t consider at the time how the show may have been inauthentic and actually humiliating for the performers involved. As I look back on my years of traveling, I’m disappointed to realize the time I spent abroad unaware and uninformed of the true impact I was having.
Which isn’t to say that this impact is entirely detrimental. Our do-gooder spirit and our thirst for exploration, when channelled correctly, can be a positive force around the world: An article in the Guardian highlighted a new report arguing that international travelers volunteering were often “effective means of reaching poor and vulnerable communities while also giving them access to valuable public services.” They mentioned the example of Mozambique where the number of AIDS patients receiving home-based care rose between 2004 and 2008 with the help of an influx of volunteers.
And yet, the report still acknowledged that not all international experiences are created equal. Volunteers had the most effect when they were “embedded in the local community”, “engaging in meaningful projects to share their skills with local workers and helping alleviate their workload”. They acknowledged that when relationships don’t practice reciprocity, problems occur.
“Reciprocity” is often the missing piece. Instead, travelers often enter new places with a privileged expectation: this place has to provide me great experiences, this place has to teach me things, this place has to give me what I want. This is obviously harmful when what travelers want are drunken escapades in “exotic” locales. But it can be just as harmful when travelers claim they want something “meaningful.” Just because we want to “find purpose” doesn’t mean we should expect any country to provide us that experience. That makes the entire exchange unequal: we are the privileged travelers expecting a community to give us what we’re looking for, regardless of how it may affect them. Instead, we should be thinking of how travel can benefit both parties involved.
Perhaps the best resource I’ve found addressing this issue is a totally millennial-y website called End Humanitarian Douchery. They believe in a model — adopted from the organization Amizade Global Service Learning — called “Fair-Trade Learning” which applies similar economic “fair-trade” principles to travel experiences and cultural exchange. Their website defines fair-trade learning as:
“Creating RECIPROCAL relationships that are community driven and that offer long-term sustainable betterment for all involved. It’s about creating a global community that values equality and shifting the power structures of development from a perspective of privilege that takes a top-down approach to one that looks at service from eye level.”
This is exactly the kind of travel experiences millennials should be seeking: one where everyone wins, one where the benefits of traveling to a community literally makes you experience a “fair trade”.
The website provides a full “toolkit” for finding volunteer experiences. They spread the word of their campaign with #endhumanitariandouchery on Twitter and through on-point satirical videos about the hypocrisy of international exchange. Their model has already been adopted by academic institutions like Providence College. They are a resource I wish I had when I first decided to travel, without knowing nearly enough about what travel should actually mean.
As I see my Facebook feed get more and more crowded with statuses of people quitting their corporate job to take time traveling, some days I still believe that’s a good sign: young people are trying to figure out what’s most meaningful, and breaking free from what isn’t. And we are prioritizing learning more about the world around us, so that we can better change it. But other days, I fear that travel will become yet another well-intentioned, beneficial-on-the-surface activity that we ultimately mess up.
With millennials traveling as often as we do, we have a responsibility to do travel right. The World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation estimated young travelers will take 320 million international trips by 2020, an almost 50% increase from 2013. With such an impact, we have a responsibility to ensure we positively influence the communities we have the privilege of visiting. And, we have a responsibility to make these trips as meaningful as we claim we want them to be.
When I first wrote about travel, I missed something crucial: the actual act of traveling has little to do with whether or not we’ll change the world. The reality is that it takes far deeper introspection to accomplish that.