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How to Holiday with a Heart

Heading south this winter? Here are a few ideas to make it your best trip ever.

Straddled and squished on a moped built for one, my husband and I putt-putted across a little corner of Cuba. The resort world far behind, we knew it was one of our smartest/dumbest moments. Getting outside the gated walls of our all-you-can-drink-margarita-style hotel and interacting with the locals was the absolute highlight of the trip. We weren't naïve enough to think that our brief journey into the nearest city would show us the "real" Cuba, but it got us a lot closer than anywhere else we'd been so far.

Hundreds of millions of tourists travel the world each year, and more and more of them are committing to a new kind of travel that has as many names as some hotels have stars: volunteer tourism; community-based tourism; pro-poor tourism; and fair-trade tourism. Regardless of the moniker, these emerging types of travel put the well-being of local communities first and help visitors learn all they can about the people and the land they're visiting.

A handful of highly specialized agencies focus on ethical travel, and they are easily found with a quick online Google search. But even if you don't go the officially "responsible" route, you can do simple things to transform ordinary trips into holidays with a heart.

Know your destination

Even a cursory understanding of a country's history, economics, and culture will broaden your mind beyond daydreams of sand and surf. Knowing about some of the issues faced by your hosts won't take away from your enjoyment of the beach, but it will probably enrich your overall experience. encourages tourists to learn a few basic phrases.

"It's astonishing how far a little language goes toward creating a feeling of goodwill," the site says.

Make friends

Dave Foraie is a Calgary-based World Vision child sponsor who travels widely each year. He's not a four-star kind of guy. "Get out of the resort," Dave says. "Walk, ride a bicycle, and actually get lost. You haven't seen the country until you get lost." Dave has had amazing interactions with local culture and people by delivering the universal greeting: a smile. During a recent two-week trek through Mexico, Dave rode buses to get from town to town with just "enough bad Spanish to get a meal and a room." The rest of the time he relied on his smile and the warmth of a culture that welcomes friendly visitors.

Nikki Bond, who helps run a UK-based ethical travel company called GoDifferently, also believes in the smile. "Make friends with local staff, not just the receptionist, but the chambermaid, the porter, the gardener … . Talk to them and find out how they feel. Ask them about good places to eat, visit, or shop. You may well find out about their auntie's great little café that serves the best noodles in town."

Buy from local businesses

Dave could win a prize from One of its top tips is to travel globally but spend locally. That message is also part of the United Nations' Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. Dave loves to buy handcrafted products directly from the people who make them. Most vendors in the developing world expect to barter for goods, but Dave advises tourists against offering too little. "You want to bargain because that's the culture, but you don't want to brutalize people. I'm a big believer in buying everything. I've got a dresser full of stuff I haven't given away yet. It's the best thing you can do."

Visit a World Vision project

World Vision has projects in almost 100 countries around the globe. Many child sponsors make arrangements to visit their sponsored children or a World Vision project near their vacation spot (see "Visit a World Vision Project," this page). For Susan and Marty Harder of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, visiting their sponsored child in the Dominican Republic (twice now) has made a huge impression. "You know that line: Change a life, change your own?" Susan asks. "It is truly what happens."

Marlene Boelke is a child sponsor from Clifford, Ontario, who drove her family down to Mexico this year and visited their sponsored child. "You really get to know how they live," she says. "You find out how [child sponsorship] supports them in such a communal way."

A confession

When I began to research this article, a teeny-weeny string-bikini part of me thought that "responsible tourism" sounded kind of, well … responsible. Not quite the carefree trip pictured in the glossy magazines that hit our frozen Canadian mailboxes come mid-December. Not so, says Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom. "On the contrary, it adds to the experience. You get closer to the local community and their environment. It's a more exciting and stimulating way of travel and it offers a guilt-free indulgence."

A guilt-free trip, eh? Now that sounds just about perfect.

To find out about World Vision's work around the globe, visit

Karen Stiller is a writer based in Port Perry, Ontario.

Originally published in Child View, Winter 2006.




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