Here are two of our favorite things: Traveling and giving back. On their own, both endeavors expand our minds, open our hearts and send positive energy out into the universe, but together they are even more impactful. Which is why we try to combine them whenever we can, but let’s be honest: It’s not that easy to figure out how to give back when you’re in foreign lands, so we asked Erica Gragg, owner of Escape to Shape, a travel company focusing on wellness, to give us some tips on how to ensure our journeys have even more lasting meaning. Read on to get educated.
Part of my personal philosophy, which I try to expose my clients to when they are traveling with us on Escape To Shape, is that the simplest acts can have a profound impact on another person’s life. The ability to travel & the appreciation of travel is a gift denied to many, so how can we who are fortunate enough to make travel a priority in our lives, give something back to the country we are visiting? Giving back does not have to be overwhelming, complicated or even a grand gesture. Here are 7 simple, yet effective ways to give back, all while enjoying your holiday.— Erica Gragg
1. Hire Locally
When we choose our staff at the villa or hotel that becomes our home during each Escape To Shape or Destination Detox program, we always ensure the majority of our staff is from the country we are visiting. Hiring locals helps the local economy at the most impactful level. It creates jobs and ensures incomes. Hire local drivers, cultural guides or chefs; support hotels that not only hire locals but also promote locals to management positions. (if you need an example of a travel company doing this well, check out Wilderness Safaris in Africa — their lodge managers all come from whichever country the lodge they’re working in is located).
2. Turn Giving Back into a Fun Cultural Experience.
There is no better way to truly experience a culture than through its people or natural wildlife. Programs such as HUSK Cambodia, which offers A Day In The Life program in a village outside of Siem Reap and MandaLao Elephant Conservation in Luang Prabang, Laos are two accessible examples of ways to connect with the locals and the wildlife, explore a culture all while giving back.
When in Cambodia, we arrange private tumbling and juggling lessons for our guests with the performers of Phare: The Cambodia Circus, a non-profit that transforms the lives of Cambodian youth. It’s a memorable and fun way for our guests to try something new and support a wonderful cause!
3. Create Opportunity
If traveling to an area where the above opportunities do not exist, create your own. Schools and monasteries are a great place to start. For example, in Bhutan we hike to a remote monastery full of young, orphaned monks. We bring them school supplies and toys each time we visit and have set up our own monk sponsorship program to help the monks practice their English and provide them with supplies needed to survive each year. In Marrakech and Sri Lanka we visit local village schools, bringing school supplies, learning materials and toys to children that do not receive any type of support or aid. You can also hop into a local game of dodge ball or soccer — share moments of fun with the locals. Bridging the gap between cultures is an easy way to give a bit of yourself while traveling. We, along with our guests, realize that these singular types of donations are not permanently changing people’s lives, but they do provide a few hours of fun and compassion and are incredibly rewarding for our guests, thus reiterating that even a little can go a long way in bringing a smile to someone’s face.
4. Buy Local
If possible, purchase products locally that you can then distribute to a local charity, school or village. This pumps money back into the country. It’s even better if you can find a store (stationary, book or drugstore, for example) owned and operated by a local. This way you not only support the local community but the local shop owner as well. Toothbrushes, toiletries and school supplies can often be purchased locally, as well as fruit and other food items that may not be as affordable or easy to get in some of the remote places you visit.
5. Pack For A Purpose
Research products that are at a shortage in the country you are traveling to and bring a suitcase filled with them. As noted above, I’m a fan of purchasing items locally, but that is not always possible. Bring a suitcase filled with travel sized shampoos, soaps, toothbrushes, toothpaste, protein bars, etc. Distribute in the country you are visiting, particularly if you are able to distribute to people who may never have the opportunity to receive these types of things otherwise. For example, when we travel by car throughout Namibia we often distribute items to some of the remote villages along the way. Organizations like Pack For A Purpose make it easy to bring things from home and donate locally. They will even have a representative meet you at the airport to collect your items.
For all you shoppers out there (myself included), here’s a treat for you! Fill that same suitcase you brought full of items to donate, with items you purchase locally, thus filtering more money back into the local economy. Pay special attention to how you shop and what you shop for to ensure that the items you purchase are actually made locally and that the money helps support local artisans, craftsmen, women’s cooperatives or perhaps incorporates sustainable designs or uses recycled materials. Dutzi Designs from Valladolid, Mexico combines both sustainable designs with providing skills that train and empower the indigenous people of the area; Maison ARTC is a couture designer in Marrakech who uses vintage materials for all of his one-of-a-kind designs; HUSK Cambodia sells softies — handmade stuffed designs made by village women; local markets throughout Rajasthan, India are full of well-priced treasures — there is a wide range of ways to shop and give back. Plus, your friends and family back at home will love the treasures you bring them from your travels!
7. Spread the Word
Spread the word about the beauty of the country and its people. Tourism equals jobs; jobs equal money; money puts an end to poverty. You get the picture.
Erica Gragg is best known as the co-creator of the acclaimed travel, fitness, and lifestyle program, Escape to Shape, which curates experience-based vacations that combine travel and exploration around the world with nutrition, wellness, fitness, and local flavor for a uniquely balanced experience. As a travel and wellness expert with over 15 years of experience and insider-access knowledge of over 75 countries and counting, Erica is also a Luxury Travel Advisor, who curates vacations for individuals, families, couples, corporations and groups.
In November, Erica will launch her e-commerce brand, Escape To Shop, in partnership with Laurier Blanc. Escape To Shop is an online boutique featuring one-of-a-kind accessories and apparel and stylish market finds inspired by Erica’s extensive travels around the globe.
Additionally, Erica has found a permanent home for her results-driven wellness program, Destination Detox, in Hudson Valley, NY. The week-long wellness program is a combination of hiking, nutrition and fitness counseling, fitness training, yoga, meditation and relaxation — bringing west coast fitness and wellness to the east coast, offering a new, luxury alternative for Ashram & The Ranch fans. Destination Detox: Hudson Valley, NY will be offered for 6 consecutive months each year at a beautiful restored farmhouse in Hudson Valley, NY beginning in June 2019.
Erica is considered a pioneer in “wellness tourism,” as noted in Fast Company and a “wellness expert to watch” per Condé Nast Traveler. When Erica is not getting her passport stamped in faraway places or exploring vintage stores and exotic marketplaces, you can find her entertaining in Hudson, NY with great friends, good food, and lively conversations. Erica is passionate about yoga, meditation, Pilates, hiking, cooking, art, giving back to the communities that she visits – and of course, travel.