Laura Fairbourn AKA the Grassroots Nomad is living the dream. An avid traveller, she has combined her passions for volunteering and slow travel and is currently gallivanting the globe, spending time immersing herself in local culture while volunteering with grassroots, community organisations. Aimée recently interrupted her Spanish studies in Xela, Guatemala to talk all things ethical travel.
When did you first catch the travel bug? Can you pinpoint a moment or a place?
Travel has always been in my life – as kids living in England we went on family trips to France and then we immigrated to Australia when I was 5. When I was about 14, Mum sent me to England on my own to visit family. I think that while it was hard to get on the plane on my own, it also showed me that I am tougher than I think and that I’m capable of traveling on my own. I then went overseas on my own for the first time at 18 to work as an au pair (which I failed at miserably)!
What does ethical travel mean to you and why is it so important?
To me ethical travel is all about making a positive difference when you travel. It is about valuing the place you are visiting and making sure that your tourism isn’t negatively impacting on the environment, culture, economy or communities that you are visiting. I think it is incredibly important, and only getting more important, as more and more people are travelling each year. If we don’t travel responsibly we might end up destroying the things we were trying to see or experience in the first place!
Do you think ethical travel should be a universal travel concept? Should we all be ethical travellers?
Definitely! It is relatively easy and achievable for us all to be responsible travellers – no matter how big your budget is, or which country you are visiting. Even in big cities like London you can choose to buy coffee from a coffee shop that trains local homeless people and sources their coffee from sustainable farms. All it takes is a bit of research!
What are some of the most simple ways that travellers can start to think ethically about travel? What changes can we make?
The first thing we need to do is start researching and questioning. If something doesn’t seem right to you then it probably isn’t. For example, if it doesn’t really seem right that elephants are playing soccer, painting pictures or being used as tourist attractions in Asia…. Well, that is because it isn’t right! Instead, visit an elephant rescue sanctuary, or try to join a safari in Africa where you can see elephants in the wild (or the wilderness of the sanctuary), living their lives as normal elephants!
What are you favourite "ethical" travel destinations?
I think everywhere has the potential to be an ethical or an unethical travel destination. Some of my favourite experiences so far have been watching elephants play in Chobe National Park, Botswana; and swimming with wild whale sharks in the Philippines. Even swimming with whale sharks has ethical/unethical options. In Donsol, the whale sharks are wild and it is pure luck as to whether or not you will see them. In other areas they have been fed by local fishermen so they are trained to come to the boats for the tourists. Seeing animals in the wild is always incredible and you will never regret it.
What are some of the ways that travellers can get it really wrong and have a negative impact on a place or a culture?
A recent example that upset me was the treatment of the animals in Petra. It was incredibly hot and dusty when we visited and you could see how horrible it was for the horses and donkeys. They were in the hot sun with no shade or access to water. Some were lying in the dust they were so exhausted. But that didn’t stop tourists from climbing on their backs to be carried up to see the Monastery. Sometimes two tourists on one tiny donkey! After that, I researched some organisations that were working to improve the conditions of these animals and made sure I included this advice and information in my articles about Petra.
Where are you currently travelling and where are you off to next?
At the moment, Guatemala is my home. I have already been here for about 6 weeks and have another 4 weeks here in Xela studying Spanish. After that I am moving to Guatemala City for 5 months where I will be volunteering at a rescue shelter for female victims of trafficking.
Grassroots Nomad's global highlights....
I climbed Tajulmuco last weekend, the highest point in Central America. While the hike (and altitude sickness) was incredible tough, the sunset above the clouds was spectacular.
BEST GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCE
I love it when random food surprises you. I had the best homemade pasta I’ve ever eaten in a shack in Myanmar!
BEST CULTURAL EXPERIENCE
Anytime where you integrate with the local community. I am loving my host family here in Guatemala and will be incredibly sad to leave them.
BEST ZEN-OUT DESTINATION
I really zoned out on the Trans-Mongolian. With no phone reception or internet it was easy to disconnect and just watch the Russian countryside go by.
BEST ADRENALINE DESTINATION
Devil’s Rockpool at the top of Victoria Falls. There is nothing like knowing you could be swept over the top of a waterfall to get the adrenaline pumping!
HARDEST PLACE TO TRAVEL
Romania. Especially after the friendliness of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I found Romania particularly difficult. I couldn’t wait to leave!
MOST REWARDING TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
My internship with the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok in their counter trafficking unit. I learned so much and was so inspired by the work that they do that it shaped my studies and plans for the future.
BEST COCKTAIL SPOT
Boracay in the Phillippines. Beautiful sunsets, wonderful friends and unlimited cocktails.
Thanks to Laura for sharing your travel philosophy with us!