What is Impact Travel?

This post was originally published by Unearth the World, an organization that matches travelers with responsible and meaningful volunteer opportunities abroad. If you are interested in volunteer travel, I encourage you to check out their amazing projects

Those of us who spend our time drooling over travel blogs and keeping up with the social impact space have likely noticed the emergence of a buzzword in the sector: “impact travel.” The phrase is tossed around quite freely but it remains unclear as to what the term actually means—or at least what it should mean.


As discussed in my recent blog post—The Difference between Travel and Vacation— travelers experience boosts in creativity, in happiness, in perspective, and in self-awareness. Yet impact travel sometimes poses more questions than answers: How can we ensure that our travels are responsible, ethical, and reciprocally beneficial? How do we promote positive impact on ourselves and the people and places we visit? And are we acknowledging our privileged position being able to even take these trips to begin with?


While we do not claim to have all the answers, we have compiled a short list of things to consider that can help us all contribute towards positive impact when we travel. Hint: it starts by understanding how our very existence affects the people and places we visit.

First, think carefully about how you spend your money. Choosing locally owned hotels or guesthouses, restaurants, and experiences ensures that the local economy benefits from your visit. Maybe you decide to spend $5 more to purchase that bag hand-woven by a local woman. Or visit the local market for fruits and veggies instead of that international supermarket.


Be mindful of your actions. Though you may travel somewhere for a short time, what you do and say can have long-lasting implications for others. Think about how each action will affect those you visit. Bring reusable water bottles and bags instead of using plastic. Avoid being wasteful of anything. Ask your taxi drivers for their favorite places to grab lunch. Engage with others in a respectful way and educate yourself about how they live.


Understand that impact is reciprocal. While travel will impact the locations and people you visit, the experience will also impact you. And the travel experiences that are most impactful for me are the small things: the coffee enjoyed at a cafe down the street, the night out that ends with sitting and talking to a new friend till the wee hours, the local who reaches out to help when lost, the surreal feeling of being in a completely foreign place.


Travel is always impactful. Taking steps to maximize the positive and minimize the negative impacts for ourselves and for others—their cities and towns, their economies, and their environments—is not only the right thing to do, it is our responsibility. And when you get home, don’t forget how the experience impacted you and how you can carry that feeling into the future. Small steps by many people can create meaningful, sustainable change.


Inspired? Looking to get involved in this type of travel? Our friends at Unearth the World have teamed up with Wanderful to create an amazing, ethical trip focused on sustainable travel that will positively impact both you and the communities you visit. The trip takes you to Zambia and Botswana in the fall to support small business growth there, to assist with a sustainable housing project in a remote fishing village, and to see some of Africa’s most famous sights and animals. This trip is also supported by UTW’s pre- and post-trip programming that will help you prepare for the experience and unpack it upon return. We believe that impact goes beyond a 10-day trip.


For more information on the Wanderful + UTW impact travel trip to Zambia and Botswana, check out the itinerary!