“Lead your travels with curiosity” — an interview with Shannon O’Donnell

We’re currently running a series of interviews with travel and tourism experts and asking the question: can travel be a force for good?

This week we’re talking to travel blogger Shannon O’Donnell

Shannon O’Donnell has been travelling the world since 2008. Her website, alittleadrift.com, features resources for travellers and focuses on slow, local level travel and service, advice for long-term travelling and tools for living and working abroad. Shannon is the author of the Volunteer Traveller’s Handbook.

WTTC: What do you feel are the most positive aspects of travel?

Shannon O’Donnell: Tourism’s ability to redistribute money from the developed world into developing countries is one of the largest positive advancements in the tourism industry. Through local-level tourism, travellers themselves have the potential to greatly impact development over the next several decades.

Travel also opens the minds of the travellers, reduces prejudice, and creates deep connections among people — these are huge benefits. But, largely, those benefits are ones we talk about in relation to travellers from developing countries visiting other places and gaining a wider world-view. In terms of actual positive effects that can transform the world and address issues such as poverty and development, a huge benefit is the redistribution of cold, hard cash. Tourism is massive global industry, and as travellers bring their income to these other countries, they are directly impacting local economies.

Visiting the Matibabu health centers in rural Kenya to learn about their maternal and child health projects. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnel.

What do you feel are the main potentially negative aspects?

Environmental damage can be a huge issue within the travel industry. Some of the greatest natural and man-made wonders of the world are located in developing regions that haven’t yet solved their poor sanitation and transportation infrastructures. Add a booming tourism industry to that equation, and we have massive destruction on a scale unknown before the influx of tourists.

This has been acutely noticeable in the development of Nepal, a country with a beautiful and precious landscape to protect, but as the tourism boomed, they did not have the systems in place to effectively limit the effects of mass trekking tourism in the region. Other areas have faced similar challenges, and the need to make a living takes over before the government or international organizations can step in to help create a sustainable solution. On the flip side, however, it’s that very influx of tourists that lead governments to put policies in place to protect these natural tourist attractions. As tourism becomes an industry, local governments have a reason to react with protective measures to ensure a long and profitable relationship with tourism.

There is no single answer, every aspect of travel is paired with these two sides at odds with each other. And because they exist, because even the benefits are fraught with issues, it’s our job as the travellers to ensure we are taking the steps we can to limit our negative effects on each place. And those steps are different from country to country, but through research and curiosity we begin to shape an industry that is led by respect for each aspect of travel.

“Monks I taught at a moastery in Pharping, Nepal” — Shannon O’Donnell

When you travel, how aware are you of the impact you have on the places you visit?

There is no way I could travel and have a completely net-zero effect on each place, but I always try to ride the line between being conscious of the issues, but also aware of the need for modern conveniences. One of the balances I try to strike in my writing is that it does no good to tell people all the ways their travel is hurting the places they visit, but to instead offer practical advice on how they can reduce their impact. Because people will travel, and they’re often going to prefer convenience, so our job as the tourism industry is to talk about where that middle-ground lies. For me, I advocate for the use of social enterprises and local businesses whenever you can on a trip. And also staying in a region for as long as possible. My own year-long round the world trip really focused on limiting the number of long-haul flights in favor of spending weeks and months in a single region, rather than days. It’s this additional time at each stage of my trip that allowed me to limit the negative environmental impacts of my transportation, while also digging into a culture and supporting local projects and businesses.

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Do you think you’re more or less conscious of the positive or negative impact travel has than most travellers?

I’ve become more aware of travel’s impact than many travellers because of my work in the volunteering industry these past six years. Positive and negative impact is a hot-button issue in the development and volunteering industries, so I quickly had a crash-course on some of the less positive elements of volunteering. My initial suggestion for all travellers is to lead your travels with curiosity. Dan and Audrey have a great phrase, “driven by curiosity, guided by respect” that they use in their work, and it encapsulates it perfectly. Let that curiosity allow you to research your upcoming travel plans, seek out information on some of the issues facing the region you’re visiting, and allow that information to help guide how you plan your trip.

As a travel writer, do you feel a responsibility to promote more positive or ‘responsible’ tourism?

My goal through my travel writing is to help people understand how they can integrate the positive tenets of the responsible tourism industry into their travel life. It’s more about illustrating everything from high-end, luxury tourism to budget backpacking can still channel the primary goals of responsible tourism. That it’s on all of us to work up to our ability to travel responsibly.

Ock Pop Tock Weaving in Laos. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Do you have any personal experiences of how travel and tourism is having a positive impact on the world?

Yes! I love the movement toward socially conscious businesses that are proudly proclaiming their efforts to create change. More rampant internet and computer access all over the world has democratized the travel industry to some extent. Though there are still massive multi-nationals cornering the bulk of the travel dollars, the local movement is gaining steam. Travellers have more tools in their arsenal (up-to date guidebooks, blogs, and apps) to find smaller businesses they can use on their trips. This means locally run guesthouses and restaurants, and they can vote with their money by using tour operators that ethically interact with their local communities. All of this information can be found through research. It’s an exciting time in travel. We as travellers have the ability to use our money and travel to directly support the dreams, businesses, and social causes that we believe in.

Planting a tree with a young girl at the Matibabu health project in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Are there any parts of the world that should be off-limits to travellers?

A tricky question, but I’d say there are only two scenarios really. While I would love to say that we should protect vulnerable ecosystems at all costs, there is a human factor in that equation that goes unstated too. There are tour guides making a living from tourism, and for an outside entity to declare that it’s off-limits for tourism is out of ethical bounds. Change and tourism should be led from with the country and culture affected. The only experiences I wholly avoid are ones where people are subjected to tourism without their consent. You see this happening from the ethnic villages of Asia to the slums of Africa. At the prompting of people I respect, I actually went on a slum tour in Africa to see another side of the industry. I left profoundly perturbed. There were massive flaws in the way these tours are run, they subject poorer people to the whims of tourism via a zoo-like experience. I found little to recommend within the experience.

Are there any downsides or potential negative outcomes to volunteering?

This is a complex issue with no single solution. I believe volunteering can have a positive impact, but much of the volunteering industry has been hijacked by profit-led voluntourism that aims to satisfy the whims of the volunteer over the local communities. The only way around this is by educating the volunteers and by having a frank conversation that not every single trip you take is an ideal time to volunteer. I am huge advocate of a research driven approach: read up on the volunteering industry, read up on the information related to the skill you want to use on your volunteer trip, and understand the issues facing this industry and type of volunteering. From there, with knowledge, you are better equipped to ask questions of your volunteer trip and critically evaluate if your volunteer organization is working in a positive relationship with the communities in which you hope to volunteer.

Learning about coffee farming at the Akha Ama social enterprise. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Do you think big business has a more positive or negative impact than small, community based operations when it comes to tourism?

I am cynical of big-business as most of these operate with profit as the bottom line. And even more alarming is that many companies are dozens of levels removed from the reality of what is happening on the ground. For that reason, my own travels look to put money directly into the hands of local businesses and community based operations. It’s not a fool-proof plan, many developing countries suffer from widespread corruption. But by and large, I prefer to allow my business and my money to directly empower and support the local entrepreneurs and businesses who are working to support, change, and lift up their own economies.

Are there are any countries, destinations or travel businesses doing things that particularly inspire you?

I find inspiration on a daily basis on the road. One of the reasons my writing so encourages people to travel with curiosity is because of the huge range of people doing amazing things with their lives. I find inspiration from the Maasai chief at Maji Moto who is redefining how his culture interacts with the Western world. Or the coffee shop in Thailand supporting an Akha village 200 miles away. These are the local stories that show to me that despite the negatives that abound, there is much good we can work toward as well.

Akha Ama coffee, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are the writer’s opinions and do not represent the views of WTTC as an organisation.

Next in the series, we’ll talk to travel writer and author of “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day”, the man behind NomadicMatt.com, Matt Kepnes.

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