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Finance & Innovation

Conscious traveling doesn't have to be granola

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

With more than 900 million international trips taken every year, the impact of tourism on the environment and the world economy is difficult to summarize. The tourism industry usually focuses on the fun that sightseers will have. You've seen the commercials- the happy family relaxing at a luxurious hotel at sunset, the young group of friends going on exciting adventures to scope out exotic wildlife. The travel platform Only Six Degrees, on the other hand, stresses the social responsibility of their tours. Recently Global Citizen sat down with Gilad Goren, the founder of Only Six Degrees, to discuss the importance of attempting to have a positive impact when traveling the world.

Jesse: Hey Gilad, thank you for speaking with us today. How are you doing?

Gilad: I'm quite well! More or less tying up loose ends and counting the days before the big flight out to Nepal for our upcoming trek.

Jesse: That's very exciting. What will you be doing in Nepal?

Gilad: A few months back we were able to connect two separate yet equally inspiring trekking teams planning to summit Mt. Everest while raising awareness and funds for their causes. We're about 22 trekkers strong! All meeting up in Katmandu this Wednesday.

Jesse: Do you think this upcoming trip is a good example of what Only Six Degrees is about?

Gilad: Well, yes and no. Only Six Degrees was founded on the principle that the travel industry falls woefully short on its potential for positive impact. Only Six Degrees was launched, to put it simply, make actual sustainability in travel 'sexy.' We want to offer the global traveler the type of trip or vacation he or she wants to go on, and at the same have the trip be socially responsible and environmentally sustainable. We will certainly be creating more trips like the one coming up soon, but the focus on fund-raising and the size of the campaign are certainly beyond the usual.

Jesse: What do you mean by a trip being “socially responsible”?

Gilad: Aha! This is a crucial question. The UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] reports that on average, for every 100 dollars a traveler spends abroad, only about $5 remains with the community visited. We built our trips in a way that empowers local communities and qualified operators to ensure that as much of the traveler's money remains within the communities.

Jesse: Your organization makes a point to highlight the importance of empowering impoverished community members. However critics of “voluntourism” have claimed it is more exploitive (of both those traveling and those in the local community) than constructive. As a person who has made a career out of combining travel and the greater good, what’s your opinion on this?

Gilad: Reality in the field does not always match the theories and rhetoric espoused back home. At the end of the day, there aren't any absolutes.  If a nonprofit organization or project finds a true need that foreign volunteers can truly fill, than volunteering is definitely the way to go. But this should certainly be seen on a case by case basis. When you hear stories of a priest in Kenya who gets his 'volunteers' to paint the same wall over and over, you know that there is something up. Long term volunteers, from programs such as the peace corps can make an incredible difference. Short term volunteers that provide years of their experiences or unique skill-sets, can be invaluable for a nascent entrepreneur in need of a mentor, or for a tutorial session that can mean the difference between efficiency and inability to compete.

Jesse: There are a few travel organizations that talk about conscious traveling. What makes OSD unique?

Gilad: As we develop our platform our intention is to not only tell you about conscious travel, but rather show you the positive impact you generate through travel with us. We provide a breakdown of the funds that remain with the communities visited, either through payment or donation. Your environmental footprint is also provided, along with the projects you benefit through carbon offsetting already included in your trip. That being set, our focus is on making each trip the experience of a lifetime. Whether you're into being a 'do-gooder' or not, traveling with Only Six Degrees will be an act of social good. Whether you're interested in all the social impact, well that's just up to you!

Jesse: It seems like a win-win. How many trips has OSD run so far?

Gilad: Nepal is our second trip. We have a couple more trips, to India and Costa Rica, coming up after, and possibly our first domestic trip with the Lakota Nation as well.

Jesse: Are these trips on specific dates with a group of other people, or how does it work?

Gilad: Every one of these trips will be the 'prototype' for a trip that will then be offered, either along fixed dates or simply year-round. This largely depends on seasonality and availability of the organizations involved

Jesse: So is it fair to say that you expect to continue to expand OSD?

Gilad: Haha, yes it is! We intend to be the authoritative resource for finding your next travel experience.

Jesse: I’m sure many Global Citizens are interested in traveling; perhaps in areas in which you don’t yet operate. What could they do to make sure that they are giving back to the surrounding communities on their travels?

Gilad: Do the research! Ask on peer-review sites and forums like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree. Also, don't be afraid to hit the ground with only some of your trip arranged. Getting a feeling for the destinations can provide for some spontaneous, impactful fun. And when on sites of hotels and travel providers, seek out any mention of certification from organizations alike the Rainforest Alliance, STI, or GSTC.

Jesse: And lastly, do you have any advice or encouraging words for other people looking to start a social enterprise?

Gilad: Don't start something just because you feel like you need to. BUT, if you are onto something truly innovative, and you have faith in it, then start walking forward! The obstacles and push-backs will undoubtedly arise, so build your momentum, hold onto your faith, and keep pushing.

So there you have it folks, travel can be sustainable AND exciting.

Sign the petition in the top-right of this screen if you support social enterprises like Only Six Degrees.

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Jesse Allen-Dicker