The transformative power of tourism: a paradigm shift towards a more responsible traveller

Recently, I co-authored an article in the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Affiliate Members Global Report titled: The transformative power of tourism: a paradigm shift towards a more responsible traveller (see page 97 of the report available at: The report which was jointly published in February, 2016 by UNWTO and the Institute for Tourism in Zagreb, Croatia illustrates with real-life initiatives the great potential of transformative tourism in contributing to development. Tourism has exhibited continued growth and deepening diversification over the recent years to become one of the fastest growing sectors in the world (Over one billion international tourists travelled the world in 2014, supporting jobs, generating income and boosting development. International tourism currently accounts for 10% of global GDP, 30% of services exports and 1 in every 11 jobs).

Global Report

In the call for articles, the UNWTO recognised that substantial academic and industry based research points to a trend of ‘new tourism’ in which socially and environmentally conscious hosts and travelers employ tourism as a transformative medium to re-invent themselves and promote sustainable practices that have a positive impact on local communities and our planet and/or humanity in general. The trend of transformative tourism goes hand in hand with the notion of responsible tourism that has been widely promoted by a UNWTO campaign initiated in 2012: ‘One Billion Tourists: One Billion Opportunities’, where tourists are called upon to make their actions count in terms of caring for places and communities they visit. Over time, we have seen how conscious consumers/transformative travelers make proactive initiatives themselves by using travel to re-invent themselves and the world. The new breed of tourists travel in order to volunteer and make a difference; they value what is slow, small and simple and aim for self-reliance; they are connected and communicative; they seek meaningful experiences that help them to develop personally and collectively and they genuinely care about the planet as our only home. Consequently, they use travel to reflect upon their lives and to gain the courage to make crucial life changes upon their return back home, not only in terms of their lifestyle but also the type of work they engage in. Often, they turn into innovative and social entrepreneurs of transformative and conscious hosting/businesses themselves (UNWTO, 2016).

Some of the topics covered include: current market trends for transformative travel; successful case studies; key characteristics of conscious hosting and businesses; the benefits of transformative travel and tourism; value generation for travel destinations; and transformative leadership of ‘new’ destination management. The following key findings and conclusions are outlined in the report:

  1. Global climate change seriously questions our dominant socio-economic model of limitless growth and the continuous mindless consumption that has characterised ´the 20th century era of indulgence´.
  2. The 2008 Wall Street crash has triggered further crises which have resulted in a Great Reset of fundamental changes in our economy and society, giving rise to what is now called ´the 21st century era of consequences and responsibility´.
  3. The paradigm shift is carried by the growing population of so-called transformative ´cultural creatives´ acquiring new ways of looking at, and new ways of being in the world — ways that are consistent with a sustainable global future and in doing so forming and shaping new cultures of conscious consumption and production.
  4. New conscious consumers demand products and services that are based on their new worldviews and values of social and environmental justice.
  5. Travel appears to be a powerful medium through which transformative travellers re-invent themselves and the world they live in.
  6. A study of conscious consumers/transformative tourists in Auroville confirms the trend, tourists in this destination demostrated high commitment to environmental and social justice as well as cherishing selfdirection, benevolence and universalism.
  7. Transormative tourists are mostly young (50%) to middle age (42%), most of them single (59%) or married/in partnership (35%), and highly educated: 47% university graduates; 27% with master degree; 3% with PhD degree.
  8. Transformative tourists are a well-travelled population and like to travel independently (82%).
  9. Their travel motivation is compatible with the meaning of transformative tourism – travelling to re-invent themselves and the world. Hence, motives related to personal enhancements are the most important for vast majority – pursuing life-dreams (79%), stimulation of personal growth (78%) and exploring life’s purpose (75%).
  10. They are generally long-term stayers as the average number of visitor overnights in Auroville was 35.
  11. The learning aspect of travel is extremely important for many – learning new skills (62%), get knowledgeable about various aspects of sustainability (60%), deepening knowledge of body awareness (57%) and pursuing hobby or special interest (50%). For majority (54%) a desire to connect with local people is important as well as the engagement in volunteering (39%).

In our specific article titled: Travellers’ philanthropy: a new transformative trend in Mazatlán, México, Dr. Mónica Velarde Valdez and I use empirical insights from Mazatlan, Mexico to demonstrate the above phenomenon while showcasing a wide range of ways in which companies in the travel industry, as well as individual travellers are increasingly making concrete contributions of time, talent, and treasure to support local projects, beyond what is generated through the normal tourism business. Travellers’ philanthropy arose out of a general recognition that tourism will not happen until local welfare needs are satisfied; when members of the local community are happy, they will be more willing to welcome tourists and support tourism activities. In reference to the guidelines developed by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST, 2011), travellers’ philanthropy is not about collecting handouts in form of loose change for charities; rather, it is about integrating tourism company and visitor support for local communities into the core definition of responsible travel. If carried out well (avoiding common pitfalls like overdependence on donations), the approach brings benefits to individual travellers, tourism businesses and the entire destination; successful execution of travellers’ philanthropy helps tourism businesses become actively involved as ‘good citizens’ in their travel destinations, supports local projects to promote social empowerment, education, and entrepreneurship leading to sustainable, long-term development and natural resource use. At the level of an individual tourist, the approach may enrich travel experiences through meaningful, culturally sensitive, and productive interactions with people in host communities (CREST, 2011).

The ideology behind travellers’ philanthropy is consistent with theoretical underpinnings of the Social Exchange Theory – SET Skidmore (1975) and the ‘Irridex’ model developed by Doxey (1975) that there is a positive relationship between the perceived benefits and costs of tourism and the local community’s support, attitudes and reactions towards the industry. The Social Exchange Theory (SET) for example posits a matrix system of measuring outcomes, taking into account the actions of others, rewards and costs, comparing results, dependence and control (Skidmore, 1975). In essence, it suggests that an individual is most probably willing to select exchanges if the outcome is rewarding and valuable and the negative results do not outweigh the benefits (Skidmore, 1975). In the present context, local community’s attitudes and practices towards tourism are seen as a trade-off between the perceived benefits and costs of tourism. In rejecting tourism, the communities may engage in practices that are not compromise the well-being of natural resource for example poaching.

The case of travellers’ philanthropy in Mazatlan, Mexico

Examples of travellers’ philanthropy initiatives in Mazatlan cover tourism establishments (specifically hotel operators) and individual tourists. Support comes in form of donations – both financial and material contributions provided by tourism operators and travellers to local propoor initiatives. A good example of local level travellers’ philanthropy initiative is a foundation owned by El Cid Resorts in Mazatlán. It is a non-profit initiative aiming at strengthening and improving the well-being and quality of life for all those working at the resort as well as their families and the local community in general; areas addressed include health, education and housing. The foundation offers financial support to non-profit institutions and non-governmental organisations that are committed to social wellbeing; it promotes, advises and supports the development of small family businesses among the local community. Specific activities include: Payment of school fees and supplies (books, uniforms, pens etc.) for a selected number of employees’ children, these scholarships are not related in any way to the salaries earned by the employees and are purely based on merit. The foundation offers a 50% discount on medical analysis for employees’ families and relatives, in 2001, the resort donated approximately USD 2,000 to cover medical charges incurred by a former employee who had his leg amputated. Additionally, the resort sells old equipment (furniture and utensils) at affordable prices to the local community. Through their housing program, the foundation identifies locals whose houses are in bad conditions and repairs them for free.

Another individual business philanthropy initiative is the Letty Coppel Foundation by Pueblo Bonito Resorts. The establishment has a philanthropic policy focused on the welfare of its employees and the community in general. It seeks to improve the living standards of marginalised communities, the community support actions cover ecology, welfare, community development, job growth and cultural exchange with tourists. For example, the foundation facilitates training of five women groups (majority of them are single mothers) to acquire basic skills in hairdressing, handcraft making and beauty therapy. Over 1,200 people with disabilities have benefited from monetary donations and equipment, the foundation maintains about 700 scholarships for children with disabilities. While responding to the challenges of health services especially among the women, the foundation conducts campaigns to sensitise women on breast cancer, more than 200 women participate in funded public lectures where issues like, self-care, self-breast examination and prevention are discussed by accomplished medical specialists invited and paid by the organisation.

The Vineyard feeding initiative is probably one of the best examples of how tourists can be involved in charitable endeavors at destinations, collaborating with a local Christian church in Mazatlán, tourists offer their time and money to support the well-being of the poor families who spend all day scrounging/ working at a nearby dumping site. The church organises weekly tours to the dump site mainly during the high season (approximately November to April); the tour begins with a meeting at the church premises where tourists congregate to prepare sandwiches and package water for consumption by the families at the dumping site. Any tourist is invited to participate and donate whatever is considered necessary for the said families. To enhance interaction between tourists and locals, the sandwiches, fruits and water are handed personally by them (tourists). The visitors are then taken to other feeding centers in the local neighborhood giving out more sandwiches. Additionally, the church gives the tourists a platform to donate not just food, but any other items to support outreach activities. Through monetary donations from tourists, the church has managed to build community centres providing the much needed medical and dental services for the locals. Other initiatives of the Vineyard church supported by tourists include: shoe purchase and distribution program to over 3,000 children, feeding and learning programs for school going children.

There are several other service organisations in Mazatlán whose aim is to involve individual tourists in travellers’ philanthropy: Hands Across the Borders (HAB) is one of such organisations: it is a group of tourists, mainly of American and Canadian origin, meeting on the second Friday of every month at a local hotel for breakfast. There is always an invited speaker to talk about life in Mexico. The breakfast which costs USD 8 aims to raise funds for charitable activities. The group organises a special dinner every year where participants, as well as business operators are encouraged to make generous donations which are auctioned off during the dinner. All the money generated from the meetings every month and the special annual dinner is used to support poverty eradication programs in Mazatlán, there is no specific project supported by the group, however, the organisers hold a meeting involving all participants to propose needy causes around the city and decide on a suitable one for support.

Friends of Mexico is another service organisation that brings together tourists from different countries to support charitable initiatives in Mazatlán. The group raises funds through donations, bingo, seminars, classes and raffles during their social meetings every month. The group purchased school uniforms to 64 school children, a necessity that would not otherwise be available to them. They also identify talented art students and pay bus fare to attend art classes. Another similar initiative involving individual tourists is the Pro Mexico group; a private non-profitable volunteer organisation that focuses exclusively on health and education programs. They organise free medical camps where locals can undergo medical checkup and advise at no cost.

Important considerations in achieving long sustainability of travellers’ philanthropy

While we agree that travellers’ philanthropy is good for the local communities, good outcomes are never guaranteed, there are common pitfalls that may actually lead to failure. CREST in their handbook believes that travellers’ philanthropy programs should emphasise the quality not the quantity of partnerships between tourism businesses, travelers, and local community projects. They agree that people contribute more if they actually see a project and meet with local people (rather than simply reading about a project on a website). However, they suggest that these interactions need to be carefully planned. Travellers’ philanthropy, if not done correctly, may terribly fail and lead to negative outcomes like overdependence, corruption, unfulfilled promises, conflict among members of the local community and failed projects. Crucial questions arise from the execution of travellers’ philanthropy, for example: how does business or individual tourists select beneficiaries for charitable giving? Is there a strategic plan or policy to guide their giving or they proactively seek out worthy community projects? How is the impact of donations measured? Overall, strategic planning is critical to achievement of the objectives of travellers’ philanthropy, especially for single business contributors, an organisation’s policy on philanthropy should, therefore, take the community’s needs and interests into consideration as necessary steps that need to be taken in order to ensure the long-term sustainability. Additionally, steps should be put in place to measure the longitudinal impact of donations and compare this impact across projects and organisations.


  1. CREST (2011), Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook, Available at:’_ Philanthropy_Handbook_by_CREST.pdf. Accessed on 18 March 2015.
  2. Vineyard (2014), Dump Feeding Tour, Available at:, Accessed on 16 March 2015.
  3. World Tourism Organization (2016), Affiliate Members Global Reports, Volume fourteen –The Transformative Power of Tourism: a paradigm shift towards a more responsible traveller, UNWTO, Madrid.

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