Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

4 ways to make sure your travel buck gives back to Mekong communities

Is your tourism dollar really supporting the communities you visit around the Mekong Region? You can never be sure: “greenwashing”, or the exaggeration of a company’s environmental credentials, is an unfortunate reality among hotels, destination management companies and other tourism providers worldwide.

Image courtesy of Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

If you don’t conscientiously follow certain commonsense practices, your tourism budget may actually be going far from the local communities and into some distant CEO’s pocket instead! To make sure that isn’t happening, choose experiences that give back to the communities they visit by following these tips:

Research and plan ahead. Before embarking on a trip, research the hotels and tourism businesses in your destination of choice, and choose businesses that specifically support sustainable tourism and community outreach.

This could include community-based tourism organizations, social enterprises, or non-profit organizations working to promote sustainable development. For hotels, look for certification from reputable third-party certifying bodies like Green Destinations, Travelife and Green Globe.

Participate in community-based tourism initiatives: Community-based tourism initiatives provide opportunities for travelers to experience local culture and traditions while supporting the local community. This can include homestays, village tours, or cultural activities led by local guides or community members.

Around the Mekong, there are many examples of successful CBT initiatives that have empowered local communities and contributed to their economic and social development. For example, in Viet Nam, the Sapa O’Chau social enterprise is a CBT initiative that provides educational opportunities for ethnic minority youth in the Sapa region.

The initiative offers homestays and trekking tours that are led by local guides, many of whom are students in the program. By providing these opportunities, Sapa O’Chau is helping to break the cycle of poverty in the area and empower local communities to take control of their own economic and social development.

Volunteer teacher in Thailand. Image courtesy of Project Trust (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Volunteer your time, money or effort: Travelers can support social and environmental initiatives by donating to local non-profit organizations, or volunteering their time and skills to support sustainable development projects. This could include working on community-based conservation projects, supporting local schools or healthcare clinics, or participating in local environmental cleanup efforts.

Companies like Volunteer Teacher Thailand (VTT) provide a wealth of opportunities to volunteer for a good cause around the Mekong: VTT coordinates with the Phang-Nga education authority and several dozen schools along the Andaman coast, connecting them with teacher volunteers from all around the world.

Buy from locally-owned businesses: When choosing accommodations, restaurants, and activities, opt for locally-owned businesses rather than multinational chains. This can accomplish a wide variety of sustainability goals in a single stroke: it supports the local economy; it promotes cultural exchange between tourists and locals; and provides a more locally authentic experience for the traveler.

Less-touristy destinations like Inle Lake in Myanmar offer plenty of opportunities for tourists to buy from local producers. The shore-based markets throughout Inle Lake’s towns sell inexpensive local goods like cheroots (Burmese cigars), silver jewelry, and lotus silk scarves, among others – offering authentic pieces of Shan culture you can easily take home.

By following these tips, travelers can choose experiences that not only provide an enjoyable and authentic travel experience, but also support sustainable development and give back to the communities they visit.

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