As responsible travelers, we like to think that most of what we spend goes directly to the communities we visit. Turns out that’s a bit of a myth. Last fall, a report by the World Tourism Organization estimated that just $5 of $100 spent by tourists from developed countries stays in a developing destination’s economy. Most of that money goes to airlines, hotels, and multinational companies headquartered a long way from the intended destination. However, travel dollars can support local economies and communities—if we make careful decisions.
As Holly Tuppen, author of Sustainable Travel: The Essential Guide to Positive-Impact Adventures (White Lion Publishing, 2021), notes, “This can take quite a bit of research, but the reward will be threefold: Not only will you know where your money ends up, but you will be supporting a business that is probably more mindful of its impact on local people and place, and you will benefit from a much more authentic and rewarding experience.”
Start with the right tour operator
Many outfitters support the economies in which they operate, and they let their guests know. AFAR Travel Vanguard honoree G Adventures publishes a Ripple Score showing how much money from each trip goes to area businesses. Modern Adventure, a Portland, Oregon–based B Corp company, says that 67 cents of every dollar made from its trips is spent in the region, benefiting restaurateurs, hoteliers, guides, and Indigenous communities. The organization scouts community partners, “auditing their practices” and checking that “they’re paying fair wages and practicing responsible tourism,” says the company’s CEO and founder, Luis Vargas.
Travelers can adopt some of this methodology themselves, Vargas insists. “It takes less effort than it ever has before,” he says, recommending two booking sites focused on sustainable stays and community support: Holiable and Responsible Travel. Another similar option is Kind Traveler, which offers discounted hotel rates once travelers have made a minimum $10 donation to a local charity each time they book.
Think about hotel ownership
One way to keep your money in the destination is to stay at a locally owned or independent hotel. Around 80 percent of the 400-plus properties listed by the Leading Hotels of the World group are family-owned businesses.
However, you also want to ensure that your accommodation employs locals and pays them fairly—not necessarily a given, even when the property is locally owned. “There are cases where foreign-owned businesses employ locals in a sustainable way and contribute positively to the local economy,” says Wes Espinosa, interim executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel.
It’s not always easy to suss out this information, but you might find something on a hotel’s website. You could also send an email to the general manager and ask whether the hotel employs locals. “That’s a compelling question to ask,” Vargas says.
Once you’re on a trip, seek out independent businesses over McChains. It has an impact. Florencio Moreno, who leads trips across Mexico for Modern Adventure, says that tourism dollars help artisan weavers continue their craft rather than leave to find work elsewhere. “This income helps protect our cultural traditions,” he says. “It allows our local makers to pass down their skills.”
Espinosa adds that tourism boards can also be a resource. “They’ll tell you what businesses are locally owned, where you can find authentic local food from X culture or Y community.”
Don’t forget out-of-sight workers when leaving gratuities. I recently returned from a stay at Nanuku resort in Fiji, where guests were encouraged to make a contribution to a team fund. That means that the overnight security staff can benefit as much as, say, the masseuses.
We’ll never know exactly where every last travel dollar goes, but we can try our best. As Vargas says, it’s all about making great places to visit great places to live: a “virtuous circle of supporting the very identity and reason that we travel to these places.”
Tim Chester Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.