Tourism doesn’t simply have to benefit the person soaking in the sun; it can also do good for the people and places you visit. Malia Everette has spent her career blending the two together, designing pleasurable, socially responsible travel experiences to Cuba, Nicaragua, Myanmar and other destinations. She founded the San Francisco-based organization Altruvistas, which, in additional to providing tours, also works to educate others in the travel industry about the benefits of socially responsible travel, funds fellowships, and provides grants and loans to communities looking to improve lives through tourism.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you choose this career?
Malia Everette: In the late 1980s, I had two journeys that changed my life’s path. The first was to Guatemala and Belize during times of civil war and human rights atrocities in indigenous communities. The second was to North Africa, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. The experiences altered my understanding of the world.
IT: Why should travelers pay attention to being socially responsible?
ME: Frankly, if one cares about people and the planet, purchasing a tourism product based on values is absolutely an ethical mandate. Sustainable tourism helps sustain livelihoods, support local communities, and conserve the world’s natural and cultural heritage. I know that responsible tourism is a powerful tool in poverty reduction.
IT: What are some of the key attributes that a traveler should look for in a destination?
ME: Regardless of the what and where and how, you can finesse your impact by being engaged and informed as a consumer. Call a hotel, a tour operator, a transport company, and ask questions. Ask who owns the hotel. Is it locally owned? If so, more of your tourism dollars can benefit the local economy. If it’s, say, a foreign-owned ecolodge, ask about stewardship practices. Do they give back or profit share to the local community? Do they employ the locals?
When you eat out, choose a locally owned place, not an international chain. If you want to buy gifts to bring home, consider visiting local cooperatives, artist studios and fair trade organizations. This way your gift buying is also supporting the local economy.
IT: You encourage people to choose socially responsible travel instead of “sun and fun” vacations. If someone does take a more typical vacation, are there things can they do to be socially responsible during that trip?
ME: I think all of us need holidays, and having some “fun in the sun” is a good thing. We can be travelers and also tourists. Even going to a place with tons of coastal and resort tourism, one can again try to find a locally owned beach property. Don’t be afraid to go into town and find out where the locals eat and shop. Little acts go a long way.
IT: Which global destinations strike the best balance between contributing to the betterment of the community and being desirable to a traveler?
ME: I am constantly pleased to see new community-based tourism initiatives in Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Peru. I see all the amazing restoration happening in Havana every month when I visit and know that tourism receipts are doing good. Many visitors don’t know where the tourism dollars go, yet large amounts are reinvested back into restoration and local social services. I was also impressed by Rwanda’s management of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
IT: You’ve traveled extensively with your two sons. Where did you first introduce them to the idea of responsible tourism?
ME: My sons are now 15 and 16. I started traveling with them when they were babies and as a single mom. I think my sons “got it” when they were about 8 and 9, when we were visiting a fair trade coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. They played with the local kids and stayed at the farms. The contrast of life, the joy of community and the contrast of material wealth they got.
IT: Was it hard to travel as a single mom?
ME: I have found that traveling as a mother has been incredible. People in the service sectors are so accommodating and generous, though it might have been strange to see me with a backpack with one baby in front and one toddler on the back!
IT: What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
ME: I love so many places, but I find myself in three places frequently. First, I am in Cuba about nine or 10 times a year. I love it, the cultural resilience and the vitality of the people are ever compelling and connective. Second, I relish my annual visits back home to Hawaii, to be in nature, on the beach, eating poi, and just being home. I also feel called to the Amazon every few years. I usually go to the Sarayaku nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The community and the jungle are inspiring, connective and restorative. Plus, I so respect their struggle to maintain their land and way of life [in the face of] petroleum exploitation.
IT: Where haven’t you been that you’d really like to visit?
ME: I hope I have the longevity and health to enjoy many more adventures. On my short list: Bhutan, Borneo, Dominica and Papua New Guinea.
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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma