01 February 2016

What We Mean When We Say "Change Travel, Change Lives"

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Change travel, change lives – that’s what the Buffalo Tours team is all about this year. But what is responsible tourism, and what do we mean when we say “changing lives through travel”? Our Managing Director Matt Masson digs into how little changes in our travel decisions make a big impact on local communities – and how we’re showcasing your stories of changing lives through travel this year!

This is Ms. Moo. She is a 27-year-old Black Hmong woman living in a small ethnic village of Lao Chai in rural Sapa. She has two children – one boy and one girl – and she is married to a man she met in her hometown as a teenager. Though Ms. Moo cannot read or write, she taught herself to speak English and a little bit of French while speaking to the handful of foreign visitors who came to her home village.

Meet Ms. Moo - a shining example of Sapa's entrepreneurial spirit and responsible tourism at its best
Meet Ms. Moo – a shining example of Sapa’s entrepreneurial spirit and responsible tourism at its best

Over the past few decades, Sapa has gone from being a rural and impoverished highland territory with scattered ethnic minority communities, to one of the most popular travel destinations in Vietnam. This was partly because of the area’s beautiful scenery, but also because of its colorful minority people like Ms. Moo. Many of the local communities benefited enormously from the growing tourism in Sapa – by offering tours, homestays and beautiful textile souvenirs inspired by local garments.

But as tourism grew, some of the economic and social benefits of more tourism didn’t reach more remote communities like Ms. Moo’s. The locals in these areas were at a clear disadvantage, after all – lack of education, lack of resources and lack of connection made it difficult for them to be a part of this rapid and promising growth.

responsible travel sapa homestay 4
Inside a typical Hmong home – a world away from the luxurious interiors of many Sapa hotels

Among other reasons, this partly came down to how travel companies and operators chose to include these communities in the tours they created. While developing experiences hand-in-hand with local communities would have promised mutually-beneficial growth, many of these wonderful locals were not given the opportunity they deserved to enjoy the benefits of improving tourism.

When we talk about changing travel, we aren’t talking about changing travel at its core. We are talking about changing the way we go about creating unforgettable experiences. Every great journey is made up of many elements, after all – the accommodation, the attractions, the restaurants and of course the people. Change the way you approach these smaller elements, and you can create a journey that is transformational not just for the visitor, but for the local communities they visit along the way.

What is Responsible Tourism? A Few Caring People

Now rewind to 2006, when I was first involved with Interplast, a volunteer organization which changes futures by performing reconstructive surgery. They give both adults and children the chance to live healthy lives free from physical difficulty and social exclusion. My brother was one of the Interplast surgeons operating at the Cho Ray emergency hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” – Margaret Mead

I remember just how incredible it was to see the impact a team of five people including 2 surgeons, 2 nurses and an anesthesiologist could make during a one-week visit. Incredibly, they completed over 30 operations on locals that otherwise had no access to quality healthcare – and experienced a profound sense of accomplishment in the process. This was a definitive moment for me. I realized that people travel for many different reasons – but more than anything, I recognised how just a few caring people could make such an enormous impact when they chose to give back. And by doing so, they experienced something life changing themselves.

So when we met Ms. Moo, we realized we had a special opportunity to make a small but important change in the lives of Sapa locals. This warm, wonderful and fascinating woman had so much to offer a visitor who wanted to experience all that made Sapa special. But rather than simply making her a stop along our journey, Buffalo Tours (in partnership with our friends at Victoria Sapa Hotel) invested in putting her homestay a cut above the rest, and committed to making her a key element of our tours in Sapa.

Inside Ms. Moo's renovated homestay - made possible by Buffalo Tours and Victoria Hotel Sapa
Inside Ms. Moo’s renovated homestay – made possible by Buffalo Tours and Victoria Hotel Sapa

What the partnership with Ms. Moo became was a way to help her become an entrepreneur in her own right. With fair and stable income, she was able to guarantee her children a proper education and a comfortable, healthier home to live. More than anything, we wanted to instill in Ms. Moo a sense of empowerment and connection with growing tourism in Sapa – a goal we were proud to accomplish.

This might seem like just a drop in the bucket, but helping Ms. Moo become a successful local entrepreneur would have a big effect on her family and her community. The team behind this project was relatively small – just a handful of dedicated and caring employees.

A Group Effort Makes the Difference

This kind of thinking has always been a part of what we do at Buffalo Tours since the company’s founder, Tran Trong Kien, led medical missions to remote regions of Vietnam in the 1990s. In 2016 it will take centre stage for our travellers too.  We are committed to showing you all of the small ways you can change lives through travel.

All of these little changes will one day add up to something very important – but only if we work together to inspire more people to make smarter, kinder decisions about how they travel. We are ready to spend this year talking not just about how we are making small but important changes in how we travel. We want to hear about how you are too!

“We are committed to showing you all of the small ways you can change lives through travel.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how and why to change the way we experience travel – and that’s how we are here to help. To find out how we are doing things differently this year – and how you can be a part of it – stay tuned on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and our blog for the hashtag #ChangeTravelChangeLives. We’ll be exploring some of the ways travel can change the lives of locals and of our travellers alike.

Don’t be afraid to show us how you are travelling differently this year, too. There are lots of opportunities coming up to share your stories and inspiration with us and with our community.

But for now, ask yourself this question about your travels this year: How can you change the way you travel for the better?

Share your stories about how you are changing the way you travel for the better on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Use the hashtag #ChangeTravelChangeLives, and stay tuned for special photo competitions in 2016 inviting you to share your story with Buffalo Tours!

Download our Responsible Travel Handbook Today