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Is My Travel Money Going to the Right Places?

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 26 places, 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.

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