COVID-19 Travel Resource Page: Travel Safety + Where Can You Travel Right Now? Get the latest.

Travel As a Form of Social Activism


This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure and privacy policy for more information.

As we witness the evolution and integration of social purpose in travel, we find more travel experiences charged with a kind of social activism. In this way, otherwise marginalized groups like homeless children, human trafficking survivors, and victims of acid attacks have new opportunities to tell their story and find employment in tourism. As innovation and access to these types of experiences grows, the tourism industry may increasingly become a force for social change. Here’s how and why.

Anny guided us through a narrow alleyway in old Delhi, drawing our attention to tiles decorated with religious symbols affixed to a clean yet otherwise nondescript wall.

“Do you know why they put these tiles here?” she asked our group.

Social Activism in Travel, city walk in Delhi, India
Anny provides an unusual perspective on Delhi during our city walking tour.

Prior to this, Anny’s script departed from that of your typical guide. She threaded the story of street children in India into her tour — how they end up on the street, their survival tactics, the ways they spend the money they make and steal, and their dreams.

Not the stuff of your average light-hearted city walking tour. The story she told was hers, delivered through the lens of her firsthand experience of 18 years. She’d been orphaned at five years old and lived for the last ten years in a shelter run by Salaam Baalak Trust, a local organization providing support, education and training to children who once lived on the street.

“To discourage public urination on the wall,” Anny said, returning to her unsolved riddle. Recognition of a special brand of local wit passed over our group.

During a recent trip (sponsored) to India and Nepal with G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation, Anny served as one example of the once marginalized now gaining a foothold. We would also meet human trafficking survivors in Kathmandu, survivors of acid attacks in Agra, and stereotype-breaking women driving taxis in Delhi.

We emerged from each travel encounter engaged, our view widened by a humanizing and respectful exchange. It occurred to us that we were also taking part in something much greater: an emerging model of travel-powered social activism where all participants play a role in feeding an undercurrent of social change.

What follows are a few more stories, how it all works, and — if this sounds engaging — what you should look for as a traveler.

Travel and Social Activism: Inclusion of the Marginalized

How did Anny, an orphan living in an NGO homeless shelter, become our Delhi city guide? And how can everyone be positively impacted by this transformation?

Salaam Baalak Trust, in conjunction with project partners Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures, offers the disadvantaged youth it shelters the opportunity to take English language courses and training in guiding and tourism. The goal: to build confidence, practical skills and experience in preparation for when they must leave the shelters at 18 years old and seek employment to support themselves.

G Adventures sends most of its travelers whose trips include Delhi on a city walk as part of their tour, resulting in tour fee contributions from 4,000 travelers each year. This gives guides like Anny, one of nine who’ve been trained so far, an opportunity to hone their skills through real world experience. The revenues from city walks also help to provide a sustainable source of funding, currently around 5% of the total budget, to support Salaam Baalak Trust’s programs.

Social Activism in Travel
Anny shares her story, with the streets of Delhi as a backdrop.

That the majority of Salaam Baalak Trust guides are currently female also helps break gender stereotypes. Given the forces against women in Delhi, the impact of this cannot be overstated.

As we explore the depth of our curiosity about the world, we are often called to challenge and question the way things are and why.

In the beginning, while leading their tours, many of the young female guides had been hassled and ridiculed by male taxi and rickshaw drivers. However, after seeing them with foreign visitors day after day, the drivers developed a respect for the young women. With so few opportunities for poor and marginalized young women, it’s crucial for society to see them in public spaces and in dignified positions to help reinforce their strength and value.

The city walk is constructed with respect and curiosity and embraces a “there are no bad questions” mindset. Travelers see multiple benefits: a unique experience, deeper knowledge of Delhi, and social context for what they’ll witness throughout India – along with the knowledge that proceeds from their tour fees will in some small way fund much needed social disruption.

Travel and Social Activism: A Personal Story Supplements the Sights

Days later, after visiting the Taj Mahal, a symbol of eternal love, our group piled into tiny little Sheroes Hangout Café – home to survivors of acid attacks — in the city of Agra. A group of women ranging in ages wore “My Beauty is My Smile” t-shirts, greeted us as we entered and shook our hands.

At first, I found it awkward being so happily greeted by a group of women disfigured by acid attacks. This discomfort, I would discover, was mine alone.

After milk chai at this pay-what-you-like café, we were given an introduction to the founding organization, one which provides medical and emotional support, shelter, job training and employment for women survivors of acid attacks. A brief video played featuring the backstory of the women who’d just welcomed us into the café — who had attacked them, why they had done it, and life since the attack.

 

Sure, travelers want to see the sights…but they also crave illumination of the deeper and underlying nature of the places they visit.

One woman was attacked by her husband for not bearing a son in her second pregnancy; he also poured acid on her two year-old daughter. Another was attacked near an ice cream parlor where she worked by a young male client for not returning his feelings when he expressed interest. Another was attacked by her mother-in-law who conspired with seventeen other people.

To worsen matters, if the physical and emotional pain of an acid attack wasn’t terrible enough, victims suffered further by being shunned and cast out of society.

Profound silence and sadness hung close in our group. Everyone cried – many wept openly, others visibly choked somewhere deep inside — for a grief and sympathy and bewilderment in one of the world’s darkest behavioral corners.

As we organized ourselves to leave, however, our primary lesson snapped into view.

Social Activism in Travel
“My Beauty is My Smile” — Sheroes Hangout, Agra.

The women took selfies with members of our group, intending to upload them to their Instagram accounts. They posed for our cameras. They were excited, smiling straight into our camera lenses. While so many of us were hesitant out of a sense of respect to photograph them when we first entered, we would later understand that they wanted to be seen as much as anyone else. They didn’t want to be hidden. They did not want to hide. Instead, they hoped to exhibit their newfound strength, pride and beauty.

Not only as survivors, but as women.

Exposing Societal Issues, Funding Activism

Sheroes Hangout Café enables the slow but sure exposure of a societal dysfunction. Members of Sheroes (She + Heroes, get it?) — acid attack survivors once ostracized from society who now work dignified jobs — show themselves proudly in public. They support their families. They’ve also gained respect in the community for it all.

Their work and mission doesn’t end there, however.

They’re also out on the streets across the nation leading protests, helping to change laws, slowly wrenching societal norms toward decency — so that acid attacks may no longer be a thing in Indian society. The #StopAcidAttacks campaign chips away at the prejudices and societal structures which had metastisized around them.

While the experience offers travelers a lens or a magnifying glass on the community being visited – in this case the city of Agra and India itself — it can also offer a mirror, since the deeper issues at work often find resonance back home. While acid attacks are thankfully not a societal phenomenon in our home country, the United States, misogyny and violence towards women both are.

Social and Economic Opportunity As a Statement

“I love to drive. I know how empowering it can be,” Meenu Vadera, Executive Director of Azad Foundation and pioneer of Women on Wheels, said.

The empowerment she refers to — it’s economic, social, and personal.

From a traveler perspective, Women on Wheels is a social enterprise taxi service in Delhi and other major cities in India. Their drivers are all female. Many are single mothers, survivors of domestic abuse living in slums or resettlement communities, or both. Azad Foundation, the local NGO behind Women on Wheels, provides jobs and women’s rights training to disadvantaged women so they can become professional drivers.

In India, and Delhi especially, a focus on gender opportunity is noteworthy. For example, when we arrived at the airport in Delhi all of the drivers waiting to collect passengers and holding signs were men – except Reena, the young woman scheduled to pick us up.

Social Activism in Travel
Reena, a steady hand in Delhi's morning rush hour.

This airport transfer is now included in all G Adventures tours which depart from Delhi. It provides safe and reassuring transport, particularly for solo female travelers taking their first trip to India.

Women trained by Women on Wheels, once poor and socially marginalized, would traditionally not have had access to training, dignified employment, and the possibility of financial self-sufficiency. In this way, economic opportunity provided by Women on Wheels serves as a sort of societal disrupter.

 

We may not be able to boil the ocean of social injustice the world knows by simply traveling, but we can certainly apply some heat based on the travel choices we make.

The impact also extends beyond the driver herself. Empirically, money earned by women is typically invested in education, health, food and shelter for their children. Furthermore, a shift in mindset carries to the next generation. Children grow up knowing their mothers as confident and professionally able. This alters both perception and trajectory, especially for girls, and helps break the cycle of poverty and the oppression due to gender stereotyping.

And to the traveler, the whole experience feels like something is being set right.

The Scale of Change

As I get my hands dirty folding momos (Nepalese dumplings), I learn the story of human trafficking – not only in Nepal where it has increased since the 2015 earthquake, but also around the world. The statistics about human trafficking fast become personal and humanized when a survivor stands next to me and helps me fumble my way through tucking momo dough so my dumplings maintain their structural integrity in boiling water.

At Sasane, a local organization in Kathmandu, Nepal “run by survivors for survivors” of human trafficking, women share their personal journey of what it means to go from the terror of being trafficked to the hope of holding dreams of professional and personal success.

One of the ways Sasane does this is by training survivors with high school degrees to be paralegals. Having experienced something similar themselves, they then use their background and skills to help trafficking victims make reports at local police stations, all in an effort to bring traffickers to justice. Until now, 270 certified paralegals have advised over 9,000 people. Most importantly, police now take them seriously and help with investigations.

For those survivors who are not high school graduates, Sasane partnered with Planeterra Foundation to create the Sisterhood of Survivors program to provide training in hospitality, English and guiding. Participants are able to apply what they’ve learned, including the practical experience of giving momo cooking classes to G Adventures passengers visiting Kathmandu. Proceeds from the classes also help fund Sasane’s ongoing operations, including their programs to combat human trafficking.

Social Activism in Travel
Momo dumpling-making workshop, led by a survivor of human trafficking.

This also teaches participants to value themselves and consider their backstory – the fabric of the challenges they’ve encountered and overcome – as a possible source of strength. The consistent and uplifting lesson to these young women: your challenges will always be a part of you, but how can you use them as a force for good?

Traveler Benefit: Participation in the Solution

Social activism-charged tourism enables awareness and understanding of the world and its complexities in context. It goes beyond the single story. Sure, travelers want to see the sights, but increasingly they also crave illumination of the deeper and underlying nature of the places they visit. They want to see the Taj Mahal or the Kathmandu Valley, but they also wish to pair their visits to conventional landmarks with unexpected experiences that move or change them.

This desire motivates tour companies to partner with local organizations to offer layered experiences which expose societal challenges and enable travelers to participate in the solution. Social purpose is built-in, integrated into itineraries and stitched into the travel supply chain through tours, accommodation, eating, transport, or shopping.

As travelers, we can vote with our feet, make purchasing decisions in line with our values and watch our travel dollars not only deliver meaning to us, but meaning and value to the organizations and individuals we meet. We can witness affected organizations and communities reap long-lasting socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental benefits.

It’s important to note that the examples we cite here illustrate a specific kind of travel experience. They are not volunteer experiences which often present conflicting savior dynamics, nor are they one-off corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. What sets these examples apart is their genesis inside existing hard-working community organizations who seek, not by way of intermediaries or outside organizations, to dislodge deep, systemic societal injustices.

The Future of Travel As Social Activism

As we explore the depth of our curiosity about the world and the places we visit, we find paths of discovery, of community engagement, and of transcendence through experience. And we are often called to challenge and question the way things are and why.

Social activism in our travels – interacting with organizations helping to shift the norms of societies – can be instrumental to this unfolding. If we know what type of experiences and organizations to look for as travelers, we can intersect transforming ourselves with our tiny yet important role in helping to transform the communities we interact with.

We may not be able to boil the ocean of social injustice the world knows by simply traveling, but we can certainly apply some heat based on the travel choices we make.

Disclosure: This article is conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers. The “G for Good” trip to India and Nepal to visit these social enterprises and local organizations was provided to us. We were compensated for this article, including our expertise and time to research and write about this topic. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

2 thoughts on “Travel As a Form of Social Activism”

  1. This is now my favorite post of any you’ve made! <3 Thank you for sharing stories of hope and of real and lasting change led by locals and survivors. This is how the world changes for the better, thank you for being part of the story and sharing the story!

    I especially resonate in this moment after 3 months (so far) on tour across the US (and into Calgary) facilitating healing from trauma workshops for my newest project, Steer Your Story: which shares specific tools for survivors to reclaim their internal narrative post trauma.

    Thank you again for being a force for good and in sharing so others may participate too!
    Hugs from my heart to yours,
    Kristin

    Reply
    • Thanks, Kristin! The experiences we had and the model that is used to provide opportunity, empowerment and a voice to those that often are left behind was incredibly powerful. I can only imagine how impactful your Steer Your Story road trip across North America has been for the survivors and victims you’re working with in the workshops. We’re hoping that these stories become a model of how to elevate these important issues and begin to heal.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.