Written by Valerie Lopez
I’ve had the amazing fortune of being able to jump from one beach to another in Thailand’s beautiful southern islands. Towering, craggy limestone cliffs signal a dramatic ascent from beneath the sea in epochs past, with powdery white sand blanketing the ocean floor and clear turquoise water lapping at the shore—at that moment, while ensconced underneath the open sky, life couldn’t seem to get any better. Thailand’s uninhibited geophysical gems truly humble the spectator into believing he or she is encountering the sublime.
But then, Euro-techno music, empty bottles and discarded plastic bags littering the beach mar this immaculate work of art by nature. Having paid expensive plane tickets from across the world, hordes of foreign travelers assume entitlement to do whatever they wished: toss their garbage freely, parade about half-nakedly in a Muslim community, withhold sensitivity towards native workers, engage in environmentally damaging packaged enterprises… the list goes on. For the sole pursuit of pleasure, they forget that the place they are visiting is a real place with real communities, and that the damaging consequences of their actions are real.
Being a WorldTeach volunteer in Thailand gave me a unique perspective on the nuances of traveling. Because I was staying in the country for more than a few days or weeks, I had a personal investment in the country, so I understood that my actions had a lasting impact. While Thailand is blessed with the best of Nature’s graces, it is also very rich in culture, history, and people known for the never-ending smiles. It can be easy to forget this, when your primary occupation is only having fun. I’ve come to realize that “vacation getaways” in exotic locations around the world can have such degrading and corrosive impacts on local cultures, and the flora and fauna of their ecosystems. While we “get away” from the stresses of daily life, we often leave behind our social and environmental consciousness and sensitivities, becoming short-sighted hedonists in the process.
This way of traveling, or vacationing, is unsustainable. Traveling should be a learning experience, a way to expand our worldviews, and not as a license to forego our responsibilities as global citizens. While there are many schools of thought in conversation about ecotourism, sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, and volun-tourism, there are sweeping similarities underlying these philosophies. They all dictate that as worldly travelers, we have a responsibility to minimize the negative environmental and social impact of our choices, to contribute to the overall progress of local communities, to build mutual respect and sensitivity towards different cultures and traditions, and to support sustainable business practices.
Now here’s the brazen plug, with much pride of course, for the work of Global Visionaries. Fondly attenuated as “GV,” Global Visionaries seeks to create globally aware citizens by engaging students in local and international community projects. GV provides opportunities for students to foster a global awareness expressed in local actions, while instilling an appreciation for diverse cultures and perspectives. With a ruling philosophy of social justice and environmental conservation, high school students and young adults can embark on local projects such as working with Earthcorps, as well as international projects based in Guatemala.
The Guatemala trip, an integral component of GV’s “curriculum,” serves as an excellent example of the spirit of volunteer-tourism or volun-tourism. Students are able to amass the fruits of traveling, such as learning and engaging with different cultures and environments, while also partnering with local communities for development projects, such as volunteering with a construction team, working in a local hospital, or laboring in a coffee plantation to learn about fair trade and organic practices. GV strives to instill collaboration, mutual trust, and leadership. In essence, voluntourism seeks to create symbiotic and transformative relationships, and GV encourages its participants to create such ties.
Students emerge from GV’s programs with lasting impressions, imprinted by their eye-opening experiences. They have been given the tools to become worldly citizens with a life-long pursuit to create a just and sustainable world, which is a far cry from the party-driven vacationers of southern Thailand, who gamble away the world’s treasures in the sole pursuit of immediate gratification.
Learn more about GV’s programs here.