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Go Off the Beaten Path: How to Make Local Tourism a Win-Win Situation

By 3p Contributor

By Raj Gyawali

For me, travel isn’t about ticking off boxes or putting pins on a map. Its true value comes from experiences that change our way of thinking and enhance our understanding of different ways of life. In turn, we as travelers also impact the people and places we visit by spreading wealth within the local economy and sharing the ideas we bring with us. In short: Travel delivers many wins, on many levels.

I have two stories, from my own experience, that show just how special a local connection can be.

A hostel in the mountains and free cataract surgeries

Back in 1998, I was working in trade and manufacturing selling wooly sweaters to H&M from Nepal. Tim — my business partner and good friend — had just managed to arrange for a group of English students to come to Nepal to have a great time and also contribute toward building a hostel in a school in the mountains. The group had paid for the fun, plus an added amount for charity work. Because they had opted to do the charity, we ensured that they ended up in a village where the charity was going to be put to good use. They helped dig the foundation for the hostel, and then took some of the students from the school with them on the fun part of their trip — a trek in the mountains, a rafting trip, and a generally great time exploring Nepal.

The positive outcomes of this experience were amazing: the spread of money, the enrichment of meeting students from a different country and traveling with them, the building of a hostel, plus the overall enjoyment of being in a new place. Guaranteed, if we go back to the students and ask them what they remembered the most, it will be the school, the children that they befriended, the work they did and the immense sense of fulfillment that came with it. Ask the locals, and the answer will also revolve around what the students from the U.K. came and achieved.

Two years later, Tim brought another group who had fundraised to support their travel to come and conduct a free cataract eye camp in a rural setting in the mountains. Fast forward to 225 successful free operations later (most of the patients might still be blessing the students for the operation), the sense of fulfillment was so high, it resulted in wins on all sides. It also resulted in me pursuing a career in building a demonstrable model in social travel the moment the manufacturing business capitulated in Nepal. That was the birth of socialtours in 2002.

Seeking out ways to spend locally

In my own travels, I have also witnessed the value of seeking out local connections. Once, while trekking in the mountains of Nepal, we tried to benefit not only the local lodges but the local people, so we went around asking for a homestay. At one particular house, the lady told us: “Sure, I have an empty room and I am happy for you to stay there, but I cannot cook for you unless you take care of my daughter.” So we spent the next couple of hours playing with her infant child while she cooked us the most sumptuous meal, which we all enjoyed amidst stories, laughter, and an amazing human connection.

The money we paid for the homestay and the meal went directly to the family, which was greatly appreciated. I happened to meet the lady and her daughter several years later while trekking in the same area, and we had an instant connection upon recounting our experience together, despite not being able to recognize each other’s faces!

A mantra to remember

Much later, while researching how wealth brought in by tourism could further penetrate into the local economy in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, I discovered that the key tourism value chains are food, manpower and handicrafts. The mantra then becomes quite simple to remember and follow: Eat local food, use local manpower and buy local handicrafts. We can then ensure that our money is spent locally and benefits the local destination.

To make our actions even more responsible, we can consider paying fairly, ensuring our carbon footprint is low and that the suppliers are not exploited.

Go off the beaten path

Traveling off the beaten trails not only lets us stray away from crowded hotspots, it also opens the door to a whole new world of discovery. Take Nepal, for example. Who would think Nepal would be a place to discover Shamanistic cleansing, hunting for rare giant cliff bee honey or participating in an age-old inter-country trade practice using yak caravans. The potential is endless, and this is true for every country in the world.

All it takes is some research, talking to the right people, and figuring out how to navigate the non-negotiables in travel (and determining their level of priority): lodging, food, language, safety and access. Once those are figured out, a new world opens up.

A word of caution: Balance is key. traveling off the beaten trail does not necessarily mean avoiding all popular hotspots. It is a way to enrich the experience that we would normally have in a country through a different mechanism, which generally leaves us (and everyone with whom we come in contact) with a warm fuzzy feeling.

See you down the trail!

Image credit: Jeff Hopper via Unsplash 

Raj Gyawali is a local travel expert for Kimkim who lives in Nepal and runs his own agency, Social Tours, with a focus on sustainable tourism. When he’s not busy putting trips together or discussing responsible tourism policies, you’ll find him cycling the trails around Kathmandu. Follow him @KingGyawali

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