Conservation and Tourism in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is perhaps the most iconic national park in the United States. From childhood memories of watching Yogi Bear tiptoe through ‘Jellystone Park’ looking for pic-a-nic basket, to hearing about the phenomenon that is Old Faithful, Yellowstone is ingrained in American culture and history.

Adding to its weight as a national and international icon, Yellowstone was actually established as the USA’s first national park and the first national park in the world. It’s often near the top of US itineraries and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t on most American’s bucket lists to visit at some stage in their life. And it’s not just travelers from the US that enjoy Yellowstone, with tens of thousands of foreign tourists visiting the park year after year.



Environmental Conservation in Yellowstone National Park

But besides being a crowd favorite of national parks, Yellowstone also has a rich history in environmental conservation. When the park was first created, it was complimented by the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, protecting the land from settlement.

To ensure this protection the US Army was brought in to safeguard the park from poachers, woodcutters and vandals. That’s right, they brought in the actual army to protect the park. That’s how seriously they took conserving this beautiful piece of land. Eventually the park was handed over to the National Park Service in 1916, but you can still see the army barracks just inside the park.



Yellowstone also has a reputation for protecting endangered wildlife. In fact, the park is the only place in the US where bison (aka. buffalo, yep they’re the same thing!) have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Within the US, somewhere between 20 and 30 million bison once existed. By 1889 about 1,091 were left and in Yellowstone only 2 dozen were still alive by 1902. Thankfully the protection of the army and National Park Services helped increase the park’s bison population to between 2,300 to 5,500 depending on the year.


Wolf Repopulation in Yellowstone

Another animal species that has been protected thanks to the officials at Yellowstone National Park are wolves. When the park was first established, wolves were not protected from hunting like other animal populations. They were seen as a threat to a variety of prey and by the 1970’s there were no wolves left in the park.

Now with more education available, it’s apparent what an important part wolves play in the park’s delicate ecosystem. In the 1990’s, the National Park Service began their wolf reintroduction program to bring wolves from Montana and Canada. While the wolf population is still on the endangered species list for Wyoming, there are now roughly 104 wolves living in the park, a far cry on the diminished population just a couple decades ago.



Nonprofits and Corporate Partners Supporting Yellowstone

The incredible environmental protection and reintroduction of wildlife species back into healthy, thriving populations is a testament to how important Yellowstone is to the environment. It’s thanks to Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit that partners with the park to do fundraising and education. These organizations work tirelessly to keep Yellowstone protected for the 4 million+ annual visitors.

We’ve all heard over the past few years how much budgets have been cut for National Parks. Unfortunately Yellowstone is not immune to this terrible decrease in funding. That’s why the park, along with the help of nonprofits, relies on the continued support of important corporate partners.



That’s where Michelin comes in. Yep, that’s right, the tire company and purveyor of those travel guides that list the best restaurants around the world. (Didn’t you know they were one and the same?!) Michelin has been directing travelers to Yellowstone for decades through their maps and guide books. But for the past 9 years they’ve also stepped up as an integral part of Yellowstone’s sustainability.


Michelin and Yellowstone Forever Working on Sustainability

Since 2008, Michelin has worked directly with Yellowstone Forever contributing to the park by donating more than 1,400 tires for the park’s 800+ vehicles. Between tour groups, ranger transportation, trailers and snow plows, Yellowstone does a lot of driving- 3.75 million miles per year, to be exact. That’s why Michelin’s green technology and tire efficiency are so important to sustainability in Yellowstone. Michelin also sends their field engineers to assist in optimizing tire use for fuel efficiency and performance, as well as training in how to mount specialized tires.



While tire usage may not seem like it would have a huge impact, Michelin’s support has helped save the park approximately $275,000 to $300,000 per year! That means saving precious donations and federal funding can be used to protect wildlife and keep the environment pristine condition. This partnership has also helped Yellowstone reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent.


Michelin’s Sustainable Path Project in Yellowstone

In more recent years, in addition to tire donations, Michelin have been working on sustainability projects throughout the park. They’ve created eco-friendly walkways around the park’s iconic geysers and thermal features. With their support, Yellowstone has been able to dig up old concrete paths and replace them with sustainable materials including recycled tire material. This new walkway helps reduce water run-off and erosion to Yellowstone’s fragile ecology. It also prevents visitors from picking up pieces of concrete that have broken off the pathway and throwing them in the geyser (yep, apparently people actually do this!).



Not only are Michelin donating tires for this project, but every year they send employees to the park to work on the walkways. These employees are nominated by colleagues because they’ve taken the initiative to make their facility more eco-friendly in some way. They get to visit the park without having to take any vacation days, and help out with a cause they’re passionate about. This kind of initiative throughout the company, from the corporate level to manufacturing in the plants, shows just how committed Michelin is to sustainability. With corporate sponsorships like this, as well as the tireless work of Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Forever, generations to come will be able to enjoy the park’s beauty!


Tips for Exploring Yellowstone

Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 125 minutes. To make sure you’re not waiting around (like we did), check with the ranger office or download the Geyser app to check times. It’s 90% accurate within 10 minutes.

If you’re going to Grand Prismatic (which you should!) don’t miss the 20 minute uphill hike to the viewing platform. There are also ground level walkways that take you right by it, but you can get a much better view from above! The parking lot for the hike is across the way from Fairy Falls Trail.

Yellowstone has lots of beautiful places to picnic. We recommend Gull Point overlooking Yellowstone Lake.

If you’re staying in West Yellowstone and are looking for a filling breakfast before you head into the park, check out Running Bear Pancake House for a delicious stack of flapjacks.

Always carry bear spray, it’s no joke! When we were walking the Hellsroaring trail we saw bear paws in the snow going the direction of our hike!



Best Locations to Visit in Yellowstone

Lamar Valley for wildlife spotting. You’ll see herds of wild bison all over the plains, as well as moose, bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and other amazing animals if you’re lucky.

Hellsroaring Trail for a beautiful hike down to the extension bridge. You’ll get unique views of the river and it’s a pretty quiet spot.

Grand Prismatic and all the other colorful thermal pools. The colors are magical and the pools very alluring, but don’t be fooled. The temperatures are scalding and people have perished. Enjoy the pools from a safe viewing distance.

Specimen Ridge for a beautiful hike along Yellowstone River. It’s a pretty easy hike and gives you 

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, because it’s epic and has a great drive through loop to check out all the viewpoints.

If you’re visiting Yellowstone National Park remember to leave it just as you found it. Take all your trash, don’t disturb the wildlife, stick to the designated trails and help support the future of the park for all to enjoy. While big sustainability partners like Michelin and Yellowstone Forever are doing wonders to support the park, each and every person who visits can contribute in their own way.

A very special thanks to Michelin and Yellowstone Forever for inviting us to check out the sustainability projects in Yellowstone National Park. We were not paid to write this article, and as always all opinions and thoughts are our own. 

8 Reasons a Homestay is the Best Way to Travel

Learning another language is a life goal for many travelers. For me, studying Spanish has become a lifelong quest–the next level always feeling a bit out of reach. Aside from the challenge of not having people to practice Spanish conversation with, learning a language as an adult comes with a lot of frustrating moments. Like realizing that the only Spanish you remember from high school–“My shirt is blue.”–is decidedly not going to help you figure out where this bus is headed. Or like the time an exasperated 5-year-old proclaims, “You don’t know ANY Spanish!” To which the only reply you can think of is: “Well…you don’t know any ENGLISH.”

There are lots of programs and apps designed to help you study, but nothing beats real world practice by doing a homestay. I get it, though… the thought of living in someone else’s home in a foreign country can be intimidating.

A week before I left for my study abroad semester in Costa Rica, I totally panicked. Whenever I went to the store or watched TV, I thought about how everything would soon be in Spanish. Like restaurant menus. Announcements at the airport. Directions on laundry detergent. (Would I need directions on laundry detergent?)



Immersion in another language and culture became overwhelming when I thought about the number of words I was surrounded with on a daily basis. In the end, that semester abroad brought tears, laughter, great conversations, exhaustion, and deep relationships. Most of all, it taught me that language has the power to connect us in deep and meaningful ways when we travel.

Here are a few reasons why a homestay is the perfect option to help you learn a language, experience a new culture, and travel more responsibly.


Make friends who live there

Living with locals naturally brings about deeper relationships than you’d have just interacting with people on the street. You have the opportunity to genuinely become friends–family, even–with people who call this place home. Not only does this enrich your travel experience, but you’ll also have people you can keep in touch with and perhaps even visit on your next trip there.



Travel deeper and live like a local

While I was studying abroad in Costa Rica, my host mom carefully showed me how to navigate the bus system during my first week there. She reminded me every morning to take my umbrella, and she worried about me whenever I got home late, as any mom would.

My host dad took me to the market for groceries, to the voting booth on election day, and to a parade on Independence Day. In Cuba, I fought my way onto a guagua (bus), sat on the malecón at sunset, and had a rooftop salsa party with Cuban friends from my host community.

But although I know it would take more than a few months to really know what it’s like to live there, homestays have given me a glimpse into the daily lives, routines, family dynamics, and cultural values of people who call those places home. Taking the time to travel slowly helps us experience daily life in a way that we never would by staying cocooned in a hotel room.



Get the inside scoop on the best things to do

You know all those places in your hometown that you think are the best? Ever noticed that they’re not packed with tourists? Locals always know the best spots to visit and which places are just tourist traps. Doing a homestay with a local lets you in on those off-the-beaten-path spots.


Gain a new perspective

Sharing a meal and going about daily life are the best ways to get to know people and their culture. This kind of interaction invites conversation and allows you to dig deeper than surface-level topics. One of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Marcel Proust, sums up what getting to know locals has taught me: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The perspectives I’ve gained from living with people have transformed how I see the world.



Travel more responsibly

Two main tenets of responsible travel are engaging with culture in a respectful way and supporting the local economy. Living with a local helps you become more culturally sensitive, and you’ll also be supporting your host with additional income.


Learn a language better

Most of us have heard that immersion is the best way to learn a language. We look at kids who move to another country and get plopped down into a classroom with everyone speaking a different language. They learn so fast! And nobody teaches them about verbs and nouns!

Linguists and psychologists have found that two things are essential for language learning:

  1. You need to take action and USE the language in real life situations.
  2. You can’t learn a language without other people. There are a few examples that you might have heard about in a Psychology 101 class that show this in both heartbreaking and fascinating ways: from children who grew up in the wild and were never able to learn complex language, to the invention of an entirely new language when deaf children in Nicaragua were taken out of isolation and brought together in a school that was just for deaf children. Language learning happens in the context of relationships and human interaction.

So…immersion seems like the best way to learn, right? Sort of. Language immersion works well for children, but most adults don’t learn language best simply by being immersed without having any background in the language. Adults need a combination of real world practice and language instruction.


Learn regional slang and vocabulary

If you’ve tried to learn Spanish and have visited more than one Spanish-speaking country, it’s likely that you’ve run into some frustrations. You’re not alone–a few years ago, a couple of guys who had traveled all over Latin America wrote a whole song about how hard it is to learn Spanish. Some words are innocent in one country and offensive in another. Even within the United States, slang and vocabulary vary wildly from region to region. Having a local who can help you understand those everyday phrases (and hopefully prevent you from accidentally cursing someone out) helps you in ways that textbooks will never be able to.



Get corrected

When you’re traveling cross-culturally, people in the host culture may not always be willing to correct you when you make an error or they don’t understand you. It might be highly offensive in their culture to correct a stranger’s grammar. But by doing a homestay, you’ll have someone who is comfortable and patient enough to teach you.

There are plenty of reasons to choose a homestay when you travel abroad. While staying in a hostel or hotel might feel less intimidating or challenging, it’s the slow road to learning another language. Living with a local lets you save money, experience a culture more deeply, and learn along the way.

How to Find a Responsible Tour Operator: 7 Questions to Ask

This is a guest post contribution from our buddy Ellie Cleary at Soul Travel Blog, a blog full of helpful responsible travel tips. For a full bio and links to her social media page please refer to the bottom of the page. 

When I tell people I meet on the road that I write about ‘responsible travel’, I’m normally confronted with a baffled look. As if to say: What on earth is that??

** Cue conversation about how wonderful travel is, but how we risk slowly destroying our planet as more and more people travel, and we continue to put pressure on our environment, people and societies.**

And while responsible travel is a super important topic within the tourism industry, it seems to suffer from a bit of a branding problem.  It sounds decidedly… un-sexy. Even as responsible travel themes become more popular for tourists, it’s not always a good thing.

Ecotourism is a perfect example of this. Ecotourism—which is strongly related, but perhaps more specific than responsible travel—is clearly on the rise.  Throughout my travels I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen eco this or eco that advertised on hotels, tours and even restaurants.  

Which is great, right?

Sadly… not always, as eco-travel isn’t always what it seems. Many people within the tourism industry, especially those looking for an easy way to attract more customers, are becoming increasingly aware of the power of the word ‘eco’. Slap ‘eco’ in front of something, and then suddenly more people are interested in getting involved and ‘doing their bit’.

It’s referred to in the industry as “greenwashing”. Where some of the eco-experiences that we’re sold are not really so eco after all; as we board vessels spewing out filthy fuel into the oceans, or stay at hotels that claim to be eco, but are burying piles of plastic water bottles out back. It’s exactly the opposite of what’s intended.

As the number of eco or responsible travel experiences increase, the task unfortunately falls to us as consumers to make sure that what we are buying is actually legitimate. We must do our research and ask our questions, to ensure their businesses are actually doing as they say.

Asking questions up front might not be easy, but from my experience, those who are genuinely making an effort to offer responsible travel products/services, will be only too happy to talk about what they are doing and answer any questions you may have.

Personally, I’ve found that it is much better to invest a short amount of time asking questions up front about travel experiences, and I have certainly regretted it on a couple of occasions when I haven’t. So with that in mind, and to help you get the most out of your responsible travel experience, here are the best questions you can ask to find a responsible tour company.

1) What practices do you have in place to help minimize the environmental impact of this trip?

In some cases this information ight already be visible on the company’s website.  For instance, does the company offset carbon for their own flights or flights taken by customers? Do they issue re-usable water bottles to help cut down on the amount of plastic used? When booking a tour, does the company (only) use eco-friendly accommodations? Ones that recycle, have initiatives in place to save water and energy and use renewable energy (like solar power)?

Let’s be clear: it’s pretty hard to find a tour or travel experience that is perfect (just as it’s hard to be perfectly responsible ourselves all the time!), but if a company is at least trying to support some of these measures that tells you a lot about the travel operator themselves.  When someone tells me their hotel/resort is eco, my first response these days is “great, so tell me about your eco initiatives”.


2) Who benefits from my travel?

This is a great open ended question to ask, which should get those who are passionate about responsible travel talking easily. Beware of the answer ‘that it’s helping to create local jobs’. While it can be true, in this day and age most parts of the world already have established tourism and it becomes not just a question of creating jobs, but what is the impact of those jobs.

Do they employ locals or backpackers who volunteer for free? Are locals paid a fair wage?  In many places, tourism continues to create jobs, but the locals move out of the city because they’ve simply become swallowed up by tourism (think traveling to Venice or Lisbon). Look for travel companies that support small, ethical local organizations – such as handicrafts co-ops or small retailers that produce organic products.

3) How will I be traveling?

Traveling around in a bus for 1 or 2 weeks might be a good option for some, but for a lot of the time it alienates us from the culture of the country we are visiting.  One of the biggest joys for me when on the road is taking local transport of the country I’m in—particularly trains.  In countries where train journeys take days it can be a great way to actually experience local life and make connections with locals that will last beyond the end of your trip.

In Central America the famous chicken buses (painted school buses that cram as many people in as possible, often with chickens and other animals) is as much of an experience at the time as it is to recount at dinner parties months down the line. In general—the more local transport a trip contains, the more of a responsible travel experience it likely is. There are of course exceptions: sometimes it’s just not practical or safe to take public transport all the time, so private transfers or coach trips can have a place too.

4) How is the travel company structured?

In a nutshell: who owns the company and where is my money going?  There’s no denying this can be a tough one. It’s often challenging to find out who the owners or investors of a company are, but for the majority of cases it shouldn’t be a major cause for concern. If however you’re traveling to a country where corruption is prevalent, or there is a military dictatorship in power, then this is definitely a question to consider further.

In general, smaller companies are good to support because they tend to be locally owned. When we use global companies and pay in full up front, it can mean that a large proportion of our money may not be contributing to the local economy. This is true especially of large multinational travel wholesalers, tour operators and hotel chains.  

5) How do you give back to the communities in destinations that you offer trips to?

Does the travel operator have a foundation or charitable program where they help support (financially or otherwise) in the destinations that they offer trips to? Any companies that do give a clear signal that they take what they do seriously, and it should give us a good reason to feel confident in them and their promises.

6) Are any animal experiences / encounters included? If so, how are the animals treated?

Several years ago Intrepid Travel made the bold move to ban elephant rides from all of their trips. At the time it provoked outcry from those who did not understand why this was necessary, but over the years they have received a lot of respect and trust from their customers, not to mention scores of other operators following suit.

The new challenge is to question animal encounters that claim to be “ethical”, but in reality are not treating the animals any better. Patronizing these establishments is only financing the animals being captured and kept in captivity to meet tourist demand. In Southeast Asia, some riding camps are touting themselves as “sanctuaries” to attract good-hearted travelers. However, many of these are using the same cruel practices to keep the elephants in line. In this instance it applies for elephants, but it’s also the same for tigers, monkeys, and any array of wild animals.  

I try to bear the following advice when it comes to wild animal encounters: “if you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with it, then the chances are that it is cruel and the animal is suffering” ~ World Animal Protection

7) What does my gut tell me about this company and travel experience?

If in doubt, what does your gut tell you? If a company won’t answer your questions, or it’s difficult to find information, this could be a clear sign. It also shows they’re not as professional or dedicated to the responsible travel cause as we’d like them to be. In an ideal world companies would be the ones putting the effort into making travel responsible, but we have a way to go until we reach that point.  

It may seem like a bit of work, but it’s worth asking questions to find responsible travel operators who truly benefits countries and communities.  The more of us that ask, the more travel companies will realize that it’s important to their customers and, thus important to their paycheck! So with that said, happy responsible traveling!

Ellie Cleary is the founder of Soul Travel Blog, a blog that looks to help travelers create positive impact through mindful and responsible travel. A Londoner born and bred, Ellie lived in Amsterdam for the last 6 years, and is now living the nomadic lifestyle as she tries to blog and travel the world responsibly. You can connect with Ellie and Soul Travel Blog on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  

How to Be a Culturally Sensitive Traveler: 9 Helpful Tips

This is a guest post contribution from our buddy Naomi Liz at Roaming the Americas, a blog full of helpful responsible travel tips. For a full bio and links to her social media page please refer to the bottom of the page. 

Being culturally sensitive is an important part of being a responsible traveler and discovering the world in a meaningful way. But it doesn’t happen overnight and as you travel, you realize that there’s always more to learn and reflect on.

But hold up…that sounds like hard work! Isn’t traveling supposed to be fun?

Well, yes—there are definitely moments during travel that should be pure fun. Whether you’re sitting on a beach in the Philippines drinking cocktails or whitewater rafting through canyons, these are the moments that make you sit back and realize just how incredible life on the road is.

Now don’t worry, we’re not about to take all that away from you. Culturally sensitive travel isn’t about turning travel into a boring school field trip. It’s the opposite, really. Being culturally sensitive allows you to experience deep,  authentic moments with the people that you meet on the road.In the end, it enriches your travels and turns those moments into lifelong memories.

Here are a few tips to help you be a more culturally sensitive traveler…

Learn About the Destination You’re Traveling To

From the history to the basics about culture, being curious about things beyond the “top 10 places to visit” will give you a great foundation for being more culturally sensitive. And this curiosity isn’t limited to before your trip—being informed gives you interesting and relevant things to talk about with locals, and it shows them you care about more than just checking places off your bucket list.

Guidebooks often have basic information and are a good starting place. Beyond that, you can look for fictional TV shows or books set in the location you’re traveling to, read stories from the local newspaper, and check out informative podcasts or documentaries about its history or culture.

Learn Some of the Local Language

I’ll keep it real with you—I’m a self-proclaimed language nerd, and I know not everyone shares this passion. But this doesn’t mean you have to dust off your college grammar books and make flashcards (although you definitely can). Learning at least some of the local language provides opportunities to build relationships that you’d never have without it. It shows people that you care enough about their culture and getting to know them that you’ve put in some effort to speak to them in their own language. As Nelson Mandela said, ““If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Heading to Latin America? Check out our article on How to Choose a Spanish School That’s Right For You

Brush up on Hand Gestures

If learning a language can help you build relationships, hand gestures offer the wonderful opportunity of completely offending people. The way we speak with our hands is so second nature, and it’s hard to be mindful of the gestures we use. A simple “come here” signal that is used in the United States has—ahem—connotations in Latin America, and pointing with your index finger is rude.

Instead, people point with their lips and do a sort of wave towards the ground to motion for someone to “come here.” There are countless other examples from around the world of hand gestures that are harmless in one country and offensive in another. Take a few minutes to read up on what hand gestures are positive, neutral, or offensive in the places you’ll be traveling.

Dress Appropriately

While you might stand out as a foreigner based on your physical characteristics or language differences, the way you dress is something you have complete control over. People have different views on how far you should take this—especially for women traveling in religiously conservative cultures. The way I dress is one cultural barrier that I have the power to bridge by making some simple changes.

I don’t want my clothes to scream “American” or for that to be the first thing someone notices about me, and I also don’t want to offend my hosts. Take time to research how locals dress (from head to toe) in various situations—for meetings, work, the beach, and cultural or religious events. The more like a local you dress, the less you’ll stand out.

Observe Locals

I once heard a story about a guy who wanted to fit into Guatemalan culture better, so he sat on a street corner and just observed the local men for several days. He looked at how they were dressed, how they carried themselves, and how they interacted. While you don’t necessarily need to spend days sitting on a street corner, take time to people watch during your trip—maybe while you’re sitting at a park, eating at a restaurant, or enjoying a morning coffee at a neighborhood café.

How do people greet each other? How close do they stand when talking? What are their facial expressions and body language like? How loudly do they speak? Taking clues from the locals on how to behave is a fantastic start to understanding and respecting the culture.

Dig Below the Surface

Taking time to observe some outward expressions of cultural norms—food, language, dress, personal space—is a great way to help you become more culturally sensitive, but it’s those invisible elements of culture that can be really hard to grasp. What qualifies as rude? Or respectful? How is timeliness viewed?

These are things that aren’t always expressed outwardly, but they’re deeply embedded in our culture. They show up in our assumptions and are hidden within our everyday decisions. Learning about these invisible elements of culture definitely takes things beyond the basics, but it’s an important part of being a culturally-sensitive traveler.

For extra credit points, a good book for understanding culture is Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier.

People Before Pictures

I’m both an introvert and a photographer, so my natural inclination toward taking travel photos is to be discreet and not interact with anyone. You know—the drive-by sniper method (apologies for using photography jargon, but that’s the official term). But I’ve learned to push past my fear of photographing strangers, and I’ve discovered incredible richness in forming a personal connection with someone before just snapping away.

I think there’s a place for street life photography as well, and forming personal connections isn’t always possible, but travel photography should always be approached from a place of respect. My mantra is: People before pictures. Be willing to miss “the shot” if it feels intrusive or exploitative.

Getting a little more practical, another element of this is to learn about local customs and beliefs, and make sure you’re not taking a photograph when it would be disrespectful (such as at a religious site). When in doubt, ask a trusted friend or guide who is comfortable enough to tell you “no.”

Take Time to Reflect

Thoughtfully processing through your experiences—the good and the bad—is such an important part of growing in your cultural sensitivity. If you make a good friend from the place you’re visiting, ask them questions when you don’t understand something, and give them permission to correct you or share cultural insights.

Take time to write in a journal. I find that free writing about all my questions and assumptions helps me think more deeply and often leads to epiphanies about myself and where I’m traveling. Memories tend to morph and fade over time, but having a written record keeps those memories accurate. If you’re traveling with someone who shares your cultural background, take time to discuss the things you’re observing and questions you have.

And don’t neglect the continual process of reflection after you’ve returned home—it’s just as important. So often we return home and jump right back into our lives, putting a full stop at the end of our trip. Cross-cultural travel is a continual journey, and we should be open to learning from our past experiences throughout our lives.

Lastly, Cut Yourself Some Slack.

I can’t tell you how many face-palm worthy moments I’ve had while traveling. There have been so many times when I’ve fumbled over language or done something and later thought, “I’m such an American.” While it’s important to reflect on those things, remember that being culturally sensitive isn’t a checklist that you’ll be graded on.

You’re going to make mistakes, and people might misinterpret your words or actions, but the beauty and richness of putting yourself out there in order to form relationships far outweighs those crawl-into-a-hole moments.

So don’t stress yourself out and constantly worry about making a faux pas. Aim to be respectful, but don’t get hung up on the inevitable mistakes. Being a culturally sensitive traveler doesn’t mean you’re not going to make any cultural blunders—it just means you’re open to a process of continual learning and reflection.

Want more great articles on responsible travel?

Why ALL Tourism Should be Sustainable Tourism: Protecting the Future of Travel

The concept of sustainable tourism has become increasingly common in the travel industry over the past few years. It seems you can’t flip through an article of Travel + Leisure without finding a spread on a sustainable tour company or a new eco-hotel. And that should be a good thing right?

It’s no doubt that our planet is in pretty dire straights. Climate change, endangered and exploited animals and inequality across the world, just to name a few: now more than ever we need to prioritize sustainable tourism!

But just because the phrase has become trendier in the travel industry doesn’t mean we’re making real progress on the issue. Are brands and consumers taking these ideas from mere words and putting them into action? And if not, how can we, as collective travel-lovers, actually make a meaningful difference to ensure that future generations can enjoy this beautiful world as much as we do? It’s crucial now, more than ever, to ask ourselves these questions and examine our travel habits and their impact on the world.

That’s why we’ve partnered with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) on their Tourism for Tomorrow campaign to continue the conversation on how we can ensure a healthy and prosperous planet we can continue to travel.

Why Sustainable Tourism Matters

Although it may not seem like a negative activity, tourism does have a huge impact on the planet. Every year, humans take a total of 32 million flights, producing 781 million tons of carbon! Then, when we actually get to our destinations, travelers use double the amount of water we do at home.

In the vacation mindset we tend to indulge by overusing resources. Whether it’s that extra long bath in your hotel room or going back for seconds (or thirds) at the buffet. We love the feeling of treating ourselves when we travel. Unfortunately that often means we’re using much more natural resources than we normally would.

Since most people only travel once or twice a year, it seems okay to pamper ourselves. The only problem is that we’re not just one person. Collectively across the globe, 1.2 billion people traveled in 2015. That’s 1.2 billion people leaving a carbon footprint with planes, cruises and other types of travel.


Travel Impact on Local Communities and Animals

And it’s not just the environment we need to worry about. Travel has massive impacts on fragile communities all over the world. Local populations can really feel the impact of “un-responsible tourism.” Native communities can be exploited and made to feel like a human zoo with tourists flashing cameras in their faces.

Then there are animal populations. You’ve probably heard by now how abusive elephant riding attractions are, but many types of animals suffer a similar fate in exploitative tourist attractions. With all these negative impacts that travel has on the environment, local communities and animal populations, it can be pretty discouraging. It’s almost enough to make us shut the curtains and just stay home.

But travel has a lot of positive impacts as well. It allows us to connect with people of all walks of life, to understand and respect each other as human beings. It gives us a greater sense of what’s happening in the world and connects us so we can work together to solve global issues. That’s why it’s so important that ensure that we can continue to travel in the future.

“Responsible travel shouldn’t be reserved for tree hugging hippie travelers or science nerds obsessed with saving the endangered Bumblebee Bat.”


Why is Sustainable Tourism Our Responsibility?

You may be thinking, why do I have to take on this monumental burden? I’m just one insignificant person out of 1.2 billion that travels. That may be true, but it’s all the more reason to take it upon ourselves to have a positive impact when we travel. Collectively we have the choice to change our travel habits to make sure that this planet and all of its inhabitants are around for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to visit.

And when I say all, I mean ALL. Responsible travel shouldn’t be reserved for tree hugging hippie travelers or science nerds obsessed with saving the endangered Bumblebee Bat. And it should definitely not be reserved for the uber rich who can afford to always eat organic and stay in eco-luxury resorts.

Responsible and sustainable travel needs to include all types of travel and budgets. So we can continue traveling, not just for our future generations, but for ourselves as well. Even in our own lifetime we may not have access to the same places as we do now. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, for example, has suffered from irreparable damage to delicate coral colonies by snorkelers and divers. These fragile destinations may not be accessible in the near future, let alone the future of our children.

What We Can Do

Before we get too discouraged by the frustrations of tourism around the world, it is important to note that we’re not powerless in this fight. In fact, travelers have a lot of influence on the places they visit. By 2030 the number of travelers will rise to 2 billion and they will collectively spend $2 trillion on the tourism industry. Ever heard the phrase “vote with your dollar?” Well $2 trillion gives us a whole lot of voting power!

As consumers we have the choice to support sustainable travel. Whether that’s taking more sustainable modes of transportation like ride-sharing, or choosing responsible tour companies that respect the local populations instead of exploiting them. Here are some more simple steps we can take to make sure our travels are as responsible as possible.

Sustainable Tourism Tips

  • Research which destinations are working to be more sustainable. Check out the winners of the annual World Responsible Tourism Awards to get ideas for where you should plan your next vacation.
  • Seek out eco-hotels that minimize water usage and limit pollution.
  • Do your research ahead of time to ensure the activities you choose to do are environmentally friendly and respectful of local populations. It may be disappointing to tell your children that they can’t swim with dolphins at the marine park, but it’s a perfect opportunity to educate them on the importance of animal-friendly tourism.
  • Eat local food whenever possible. It usually tastes better anyway!
  • Ask questions. Even if you learn that a tour is unsustainable, the company will begin in to get the hint that sustainability is important to their customers.

Benefits of Sustainable Tourism

It may seem like a hassle to do extra research and forgo unsustainable activities, but responsible tourism often opens doors to new destinations and attractions you wouldn’t have thought to visit before. Sustainable tourism is a growing sector and there are really exciting new travel opportunities developing, including cultural exchanges and ethical volunteer opportunities. Most importantly, you’ll leave your trip feeling good about the positive impact you’ve had on the world and knowing that you’ve protected these destinations for future travelers.

For more information about Tourism for Tomorrow please watch WTTC’s video on sustainable travel. We’d love to hear what you think about sustainable tourism and how we can all travel while protecting our planet.

Choosing a Responsible Tour Company in Colombia

At Don’t Forget To Move we’re all about traveling responsibly and giving back along the way, but we understand not everyone has the time to take 6 months off and volunteer in Peru, or quit their job to go and work in an animal sanctuary. Luckily, volunteering abroad isn’t the only way to give back while traveling. Regardless of how much time you have on your travels, you can always create a positive impact on the communities you visit, while also having a really fun time.

One of the best ways to give back while traveling is to choose companies that prioritize supporting the local community, environment and animals over profits. By doing so you not only support local companies making their communities a better place, but also the business model of responsible tourism for all the other businesses out there.

And the options are endless when it comes to choosing where to spend your dollar. It might mean staying in an eco-hotel instead of your average run on the mill hotel. Visiting an animal sanctuary instead of watching a dolphin show. Or shopping at local businesses instead of hitting up 7-11 and Costco. For us, one of our favorite ways to give back while traveling is to find sustainable tour companies that support these responsible tourism principles.

But Aren’t Tours The Worst?

I know what you’re thinking: uhh.. tour company? I thought Don’t Forget To Move was all about ditching the tours and exploring on your own?!

Yep, you’re right! Those tours that cram 100 people in a bus and stop at landmarks to take photos for 5 minutes before carting everyone to the next spot… We avoid those like the plague!

But there’s something to be said for small, socially conscious tour operators. First off, they know their stuff. As dorky as you may feel walking around with a tour guide, you’ll learn way more about the area than exploring on your own. Having a local guide not only means getting tips on those sweet local spots, but also getting a deeper understanding of the history and culture of the area. They also know how you, as a visitor, can reduce your negative impact on the places you’re visiting.

Benefits of Choosing the Right Tour Companies

So while handing out sweets to indigenous children may seem like a good idea, a local guide can give you the insider scoop that this is actually damaging to their health and causes more harm than good. When searching for a sustainable tour operator the ideal situation is finding a company that ensures their tours are low impact, and also supports local social projects. It’s a win-win. You get a fantastic tour with a local guide, while your money goes back to the community.

Unfortunately these types of tour companies aren’t as common as they should be. So when we heard about Context, a small group tour company giving back to local communities, we jumped at the chance to join their tours. We liked it so much we attended 3 of their tours in Cartagena, Colombia alone! Here’s what we loved about our Context experience.

Deep Travel Foundation

Context is all about visiting destinations with small groups, minimizing the negative impacts of travel and maximizing positive impacts on the community. But they don’t just use phrases like social impact travel because it looks good in their brochure. They put their money where their mouth is. In conjunction with their tours, they’ve set up the Deep Travel foundation that works with social projects to give back to the communities they visit.

While in Cartagena we attended one of their tour/social project combinations: the San Francisco Barrio tour, which was lead by tour guide and local badass do-gooder Alex Rocha. He started the Alex Rocha Youth Center several years ago because he saw his community struggling in the midst of violence and poverty. He wanted to create a safe place for the local children and teens to develop new skills, receive homework help and have an alternative to getting involved with drugs and gangs.

Social Projects in Cartagena

A couple years ago Context developed a partnership with the center. Travelers who want to gain a better understanding of real life in Cartagena, beyond the walls of the tourist area, can visit San Francisco barrio and take a tour with Alex. When we visited we were lucky enough to come on a day when local youth were putting on a breakdancing performance for the barrio. Alex told us that breakdancing had been a huge influence on his life when he was younger and saved him from getting into trouble. Now he puts on shows and events around the city, trying to do the same for many troubled youths within the community.

We were completely blown away by the level of talent of the dancers. It was clear the groups were putting their heart and soul into their passion and it was touching to hear several of them speak about how breakdancing gave them a new direction in life. After the performance Alex came back with a piece of paper, with a list of younger boys names in the community that had requested to sign up for breakdancing classes. For us, that said it all. Alex is providing a safe space for kids of all ages that will continue to benefit younger generations.

In the evening, after checking out the barrio, tour guests get a special treat, dinner with the Rocha family. We learned more about Alex’s dreams for the center and met his children who were all incredibly intelligent, ambitious people, sure to follow in their father’s footsteps. Every tour ticket includes a donation to the center that Context matches, so you can leave knowing you’ve made a small, meaningful impact on a very deserving community.

Real Travel Sustainability

But supporting social projects isn’t the only way Context is giving back to the community. They are a sustainable tour company through and through. A lot of companies in the tourism industry tout themselves as sustainable because it’s trendy, but never actually take action to become more eco-friendly. Context not only focuses on lessening their impact on the community, but is actually proactive in mitigating those negative impacts.

As a corporation, they do their part by keeping sustainable practices at their offices and participating in a carbon-offset program. On their tours they keep impact to a minimum by only allowing 6 guests max. That means you’re not walking with a huge group trying to figure out which guide holding an umbrella in the air is yours. Small groups give you the opportunity to really know your guide and ask questions about being a local to the area.

By providing local expert tour guides you have a unique opportunity to get an insider view on the city. You know those amazing, hole-in-the-wall spots that only locals seem to know about? Those are the kind of spots you’ll be visiting and getting recommendations to visit after your tour.

Sustainable Tours in Cartagena

On our Cartagena At Twilight walk, the sunset tour of Cartagena, our guide Kristen took us to The Rum Box to do some rum tasting! It was a perfect compliment to the city’s Caribbean vibe and a completely unique experience that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. Another favorite on our sunset tour was a stop at a local coffee shop, Cafe Del Mural, where the owner stayed open late just to accommodate our small group. We were expecting to order off the menu, but instead the owner concocted custom drinks based on our personal preferences! I ended up with a delicious frozen coconut coffee with almond liqueur and whipped cream and Jules had a citrus flavored coffee over ice with orange slice. Yum!

Because the guides know the city so well they are able to customize your tour on the spot. Depending on what areas you may have already explored on your own they can take you on different routes or spend more time in other areas. Many Context guides are local historians, like our “Welcome to Cartagena” tour guide Luis, a local history PHD student. Luis knew the history of Colombia like the back of his hand. He was ready for all of our questions and told us everything we’d need to know about Cartagena, from the best pirate stories to the most delicious arepa stands.

We left each of our Context Cartagena tours with a greater knowledge and understanding of the history and daily life of the locals. We loved that having a small group tour meant one-on-one time with the guide, which also meant getting all of our questions answered. We can’t wait to check out more Context tours throughout Europe!

Thanks to Context for inviting us onto these trips. Even though Don’t Forget To Move received these tours for free, we fully support and promote Context, not only as a great option for socially conscious tours around the world, but for the work they’re doing to support social projects. 


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The Truth Behind Fathom Cruises Social Impact Travel

In April 2016 Fathom, Carnival Corporations’ newest initiative, launched its inaugural cruise to the Dominican Republic. But this time there’s a difference, as Fathom isn’t your average cruise line. Instead, the ship transports passengers from Miami to the Dominican Republic to participate in social impact activities, creating the opportunity for travelers to give back to the local community and understand the area on a deeper level.

Fathom does not call itself voluntourism. Which is smart given that voluntourism has gotten such a bad rap in the past few years, facing criticism left and right. Instead they’ve coined their own moniker: Social impact travel.

How Does Fathom Work?

The idea behind this unique venture is to harness the latent potential of cruise ship travelers and use that power to contribute to a greater good. The basic premise is to use this untapped labor force, if you will, and put it to work at certain impact activities that assist local social businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Sounds great, right? Taking travelers that would normally be sipping daiquiris by the pool into developing communities, pulling back the curtain on these destinations and getting people past the gates of the port and out of their comfort zone is definitely a good thing. Isn’t it?

Initial Hesitations

Initially we were hesitant. How much could we really contribute through half-day activities? Would we actually be having an impact? Or would this just be another example of Western pseudo do-gooding?

Coming from 5 years experience working in international nonprofits and currently getting our Masters in International Development, we knew first hand how incredibly complicated it is to make a truly positive impact. Developing communities are comprised of already marginalized, vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, no matter how good your intentions are, some projects and programs can have negative, sometimes disastrous effects on the local people.

Then there’s that whole Western savior complex that makes unskilled, inexperienced foreigners feel qualified to go into “third-world” countries and help, because, well, “we’re more developed than them so surely we must have something to offer.” However, the real tragedy is voluntourist corporations that use good-hearted travelers and charge them a pretty penny to feel like they’re giving back, but are really using the community as a prop for poverty without actually helping anyone. With all these issues at hand it’s not wonder voluntourism gets such a bad rap.

Is Fathom Making a Difference?

So when Fathom invited us on their inaugural trip to the Dominican Republic we had some hesitations. Nevertheless, we approached this opportunity as we do all of our travel, by deciding to see for ourselves before making a judgment. We went on this trip to ask the question, is Fathom voluntourism or true social impact?

Having now been on the week-long cruise, returned to dry land and had some time to digest our experience, we can now say that the Fathom team not only have the best intentions at heart, but are also making an impact in the lives of the Dominicans, as well as Fathom travelers. Like all new ventures, there is still some tweaking to be done to help things run smoother and maximize impact, but throughout our week with Fathom we became increasingly impressed with the level of care put into every detail.

The Impact of Fathom Travel

One aspect of the trip we were hyper aware of was exactly how much impact a group of travelers could have in such a short time. In our profession, we are used to slow, progressive development that traditionally requires a commitment of months or even years on the part of the volunteers. How could a group of foreigners, the majority of which had never been to the DR or knew anything about the local development context, make an impact? Not to mention the fact that the activities were generally only a few hours in length.

I think the biggest shift in mindset, for us and our fellow travelers, was accepting our limitations and understanding we could only offer so much given the circumstances. Could I teach more than a few phrases in English to a group of 3rd graders in a half hour period? Nope. But the whole idea behind Fathom is that you’re a small piece of a much, much larger puzzle.

Every time a group of volunteers visit the class these students will gather a few more phrases in their tool-belt and over time develop substantial language schools. Sure, teaching “hi, how are you” may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it’s nice to be a cog in a machine that’s actually doing some good in the world.

Criticisms of this model say the ever-changing nature of coming into classrooms for short amounts of time disrupts the capacity for people, particularly children, to learn effectively. The simple answer to that statement is that these classes are run more like an extra curricular activity to compensate for an already stretched and under-resources educational system. Volunteers are not under the impression that they’re saving lives, nor are they creating projects and then bailing, they’re simply joining a pre-existing system and seeing where they can lend some assistance.

Silencing the Haters

Naysayers will also argue that our presence at these social impact activities does more to distract and slow down progress than to assist it. I’ll even admit, during my first activity at one of the social businesses, I felt like I was getting in the way rather than helping. But the fact is, we were making an impact; the numbers back it up. During our day at a women’s paper recycling cooperative we helped produce 2.5x the amount of paper they usually make in a day. That means they’re now able to make a much greater profit, expand their operation and eventually hire new employees. Every time volunteers visit the project these results will continue.

When we visited a chocolate making social business we helped produce in one day the amount of chocolate they normally produce in a week. When I heard this from our impact guides I was shocked. None of us had paper-making experience, we weren’t secret chocolatiers, we were just a group of 30ish people, a labor force that was able to do some menial tasks (stripping paper, sorting cocoa beans). It didn’t feel like much at the time, but with a small contribution from every person we were able to accomplish a lot.

Sustainability of Projects

One of the biggest criticisms of voluntourism is the idea that an organization just comes into a community, assumes it understands their needs and begins working without considering the future or possibility that they may have to leave one day. And on face value one may think that Fathom has just chosen a random community in the DR and began projects that would fit with the interests of the travelers. Luckily this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Fathom is made up of a very experienced and capable team led by president Tara Russell, social business expert and serial do-gooder, supported by a talented team with experience in areas like the Peace Corps, high-level NGOs and grassroots organizations. They know their stuff. They also know their limitations when it comes to understanding the local context. That’s why Fathom has partnered with local organizations, IDDI and Entrena, that both have a rich, long-standing history of community development in the Dominican Republic. These organizations have been working directly with the local community for decades and have a track record of successful programs. By tapping into these preexisting projects, Fathom can be sure that their volunteer force will be put to good use.

Additionally, the funding providing by Fathom from its travelers has allowed these partners to hire new local staff (namely our impact guides for each activities) and expand their programs. In the case of the chocolate makers, the resources from Fathom has allowed the President to return to university to study finance, which in the future will allow her to make an even bigger impact in the business.

It’s true that Fathom’s funding for the projects means that if the trips do come to a close, the businesses will have to scale back. This would obviously be a shame, but partnering with local organizations that have supported these initiatives long before Fathom’s presence means that the community won’t be left in the dust should it come to that.

Criticisms of Fathom Cruises

We’re not saying Fathom is perfect. Like any new venture, there are bound to be some kinks to work out and there were a couple things that still made us hesitant about going into the community. For example, there wasn’t a clear policy on taking photos of community members during the impact activities.

We were told that our impact guides would have cameras and we were encouraged to live in the moment instead of viewing the experience from behind a lens. But there wasn’t a recommended etiquette to taking photos and personally we felt a bit uncomfortable walking through impoverished communities or local schools with travelers taking photos of people or houses without asking.

There was also a weird a feeling of heading into these developing communities for only a couple hours, being escorted in our air conditioned buses and then coming back to the luxury of the ship for a lovely dinner and drinks. With a social impact cruise there will always be a dichotomy between the standard of living of the local community and the privileges we’re afforded during our trip. Of course this speaks to a much, much larger global problem, and you could argue that Fathom is working to close that gap.

Then there’s the issue of the environmental impact of cruises in general. Carnival in particular has a terrible history of environmental offenses, often rating the lowest scores possible for sewage treatment and air pollution reduction. With this track record, one could ask whether Carnival is in a position to tell others how to have a global impact when they seem to have some internal work to be doing on the same issue.

Additionally, there will always be the argument that there are ways to have a greater impact. And that’s definitely true. Fathom is volunteering-lite. You would absolutely have more impact if you spent a month in one of these developing communities, volunteering full-time. But the reality is that most people don’t have the time or the desire to commit for that long. For those that want their volunteering with a side of pool-time and a margarita, or those that are unsure how to get started volunteering overseas, Fathom provides an easy way to give back while still having a holiday.

Is it Peace Corps level volunteering? Not by a long shot. But it’s bringing awareness of social issues to the otherwise excessive world of cruises.

The Larger Impact of Fathom on Travelers

Throughout the journey Fathom reinforced the idea that the trip would have just as much of an impact on ourselves as it would on the community. And no, that doesn’t mean that they prioritize the experience of the traveler over the needs of the community. It simply means that the trip looks to expose travelers to a much deeper understanding of the concept of giving back.

As a long-term traveler, it’s sometimes hard to remember that for some people this might their first time out of the US. For others it may be their first time going past the gates of a cruise port. The experience of going into a developing community for the first time and witnessing the realities of global poverty is life-changing. It stays with you. When you go back home, to your family and friends, to your comforts and life of endless choices and possibilities, you carry that memory with you. And you may not realize it right away but it changes you. Sometimes in small ways, by simply appreciating your privilege or in larger ones, becoming more involved in your community or contributing to causes on a global scale.

This is what Fathom means when they say you’ll become part of the family. They don’t mean they expect you to come back for all their future trips (although I’m sure they’d love seeing familiar faces), but that they’re building a wider community of those that want to be part of a greater purpose: a global community of different nationalities that have a greater understanding, connection and respect for each other.

And that’s what Fathom, and on a larger scale social impact, is all about. Connecting people around the world, remembering that despite our vast difference in lifestyles we’re all brothers and sisters on this planet, no one person better than the next, all here to support and assist each other in whatever capacity possible.

As mentioned in the beginning, Don’t Forget To Move was invited to visit this Fathom cruise as guests. As always, the views and opinions expressed in this article are our own and in no way influenced by the fact that we received a complimentary trip.

Book A Fathom Travel Cruise: Here Are 9 Reasons Why

Fathom social impact travel is paving the way for a new type of cruise experience, taking travelers on a quest of personal and community development in the Dominican Republic. Everything about this trip has been carefully designed to help enrich the experience of the traveler, create a positive impact in the communities of the Dominican Republic and ignite a passion for giving back in the world. We loved our trip with Fathom, and here are a few of the reasons why.

The Fathom Team

Everyone in the Fathom team is stellar. From the moment you walk on to the ship you’re greeted with a million smiles. With the enthusiasm of a camp counselor, each member of the team was more than willing to answer our questions and address any concerns. Hearing the background some team members had in development work made us feel more comfortable in Fathom’s ability to have a true impact. They were also super open to feedback and suggestions for how to make the trip even better.

The Beautiful Dominican Republic

While choosing the Dominican Republic as a destination country probably had more to do with the local need than anything else, it didn’t hurt that the country is so easy on the eyes. While our time there was limited, it’s definitely on our bucket list to come back to. The coastline is gorgeous and the lush, tropical interior feels like instant adventure. Some travelers took a half day and rented a car to explore more of the region. If you have some downtime between activities, this seems like a great option.

Test the Volunteering Waters

As nonprofit professionals we’re well aware of the pitfalls of voluntourism and have written about our take on the impact of Fathom. But one thing you can’t deny is that Fathom opens the door to travelers that have never volunteered before. If you’ve volunteered long-term you may be wondering what effect a few days can have on someone. During our trip we saw travelers moved to tears and even one inspired to make a spontaneous speech expressing her gratitude. Those few days moved people, and even if only a few take that spirit back home and do something good, there will be a positive ripple in the world.

Opportunity to Connect with Locals

One challenging aspect to traveling on a cruise is finding a way to connect with locals. If you stay within the port area, you’ll only be interacting with locals who work at the shops and nearby restaurants. Traveling with Fathom provides an opportunity to enter a developing community and see how the locals really live. Being able to witness the social issues of a country firsthand gives you a much better understand of a place than if you’d stayed in a resort. Getting to speak with locals firsthand, even if its just through body language and smiles, is one of the best parts of traveling abroad and guaranteed to leave you with lasting memories.

Meet Lifelong Friends

It’s no surprise that spending time with strangers while giving back will build a stronger bond than, say, kicking it by the pool. After all, Jules and I met and fell in love while working at a nonprofit. Feeling good about giving back is contagious and just puts people in a good mood. Couple that with the diverse background of the travelers on the ship and you’re guaranteed some pretty meaningful conversations and the development of some lifelong friends.

Perfect for Families

Fathom does a great job of appealing to travelers of all ages, but it seems like a perfect trip for families. Not only are there about a million kid-friendly activities on the ship to occupy the little ones while you kick back with a cocktail, but the on-shore impact activities are a great opportunity for kids to learn and grow. These activities expose children not only to impoverished communities, but also the community members that are working hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. What’s more inspiring to a young girl than seeing a group of badass Dominicanas running a successful business and changing their community? I know I’d want my future children to have this kind of experience at a young age.

Activities Onboard the Adonia

Kids aren’t the only ones who get to have a little fun on the Fathom ship. The onboard programming offers a pretty much non-stop schedule of activities. Some are for personal health and wellness, others (like wine & paint night) are just plain fun. But many of the activities are there to support the theme of giving back. Core activities like “Getting to Know the DR” and “Being a Fathom Traveler” give travelers a bit more insight into the local context and our role during our time in the country. Optional activities like “Raising the Next Generation of Changemakers” and “Social innovation in Action” give travelers ideas about how to take this passion for social impact back to their daily lives.

The Inspiring Library

The library aboard the Adonia is a-mazing. And I’m not just saying that as a personal bookworm and library lover. Throughout the ship there were conversations about how incredible the book selection was. At least half a dozen people asked us if we had checked out the library yet (uh duh, day 1!). The selection of books on the Adonia’s library has been carefully curated to inspire, educate and motivate you to do good in the world. From the gorgeous photo books featuring Fathom’s two destinations, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, to nonfiction on social entrepreneurship and innovation, the selection was a perfect backdrop to the theme of the trip.

Support Social Business Shop

Throughout the ship were carefully placed, little details highlighting the theme of intentional living and giving back. The shop on board was one area in particular where this really stood out. Forget the usual cruise gift shop, this little store is filled with items supplied by social businesses around the world. From clothing and handbags to beauty products, most of the items in the store have a story behind them. It feels good knowing that your money is going toward helping somebody in need.

It’s been hard to fit everything into just 9 categories, because we haven’t even had the chance to talk about the delicious food, inspiring artwork carefully curated around the boat, along with many more amazing features. I guess you’re just going to have to take our word for it and jump on board to find out for yourself!

Don’t Forget To Move was invited to visit this Fathom cruise as guests. As always, the views and opinions expressed in this article are our own and in no way influenced by the fact that we received a complimentary trip.

Why We Choose Not to Swim with Whale Sharks in Cebu

I look up from the boat and realize we’re a lot closer to shore than I thought. The gentle rhythm of the boat, combined with an early morning start, must have put me in a sleepy slumber. Christine gives me a gentle nudge and points in the direction of the eager onlookers. All the passengers on board have begun to gather around the left side of the boat, gazing at the masses of wooden paddleboats that are beginning to assemble in the water. We all begin to search the waters, hoping to get our first glimpse of the famous Oslob whale sharks. Most of the passengers on our boat are here to swim with the whale sharks, and in a short moment they too will join the hordes of tourists being shuttled in and out of the waters of Oslob. Unfortunately we will not be part of that group.

Don’t get us wrong, we’d love to be able to experience these majestic animals in their up close and natural habitat. In fact, when we first started planning our Philippines trip swimming with whale sharks was high on our bucket list. And that was a really tough list to make. Coming into this trip we were super excited about planning our list of things to do in the Philippines. We scoured the Internet, pulling apart every Lonely Planet forum and making our way through the masses of blog articles compiled by eager travelers and locals alike. From the thousands of options out there we barely managed to narrow it down into a list of ten. Of those ten choices one that really stood out was the incredible opportunity to swim with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu.



Years ago Christine was fortunate enough to come across a couple of whale sharks while diving in Honduras, which can be rare, and we’d heard it was pretty easy to replicate those experiences in Cebu. Pictures on the Internet did nothing but fuel our wanderlust. At the time however, little did we know about the potential affects that this could have on the famous whale sharks in Cebu. Like many animal tourist activities, there are always a number of factors to consider regarding animal welfare, sustainability and overall community impact. Having a swim with the whale sharks might sound like a fun idea, but it quickly turns from interesting attraction to animal exploitation if tourist interaction is impacting the species and it’s habitat.


Scene From the Whale Shark Tours in Cebu

When we were taking the boat from Bohol to Cebu we happened to dock at Oslob, so we were able to witness first hand the scene at the beach. Picture an area no bigger than a football pitch, about 50 odd meters from the beach and full to the brim with boats and people snorkelling around. From the surface we couldn’t get a full gauge on what was going on, but do a simple search and amongst the amazing whale shark selfies you’ll see pictures of people touching and holding onto the animals. It’s crowded and you don’t seem to get long in the pit. Tour guides roll you in and out at a rate to keep up with the continual flow of boats arriving, while feeding the animals to keep them attracted. Even seeing this was enough to make us feel confident we made the right decision, with the tour looking more like a zoo than an authentic nature exhibition.



But we didn’t want to make a snap judgement based on our personal experience alone. We’re far from experts in marine biology so we decided to chat with actual marine biologists who could give us the scoop on whether this activity is detrimental to the animals. Here’s what we learned.

Want to find other ethical whale shark experiences while traveling? Check out our full guide to Swimming with Whale Sharks Around the World

The Impact on the Whale Sharks

Many international marine conservation organizations have spoken about the negative affects of the whale shark tours in Oslob. Reef-World, a UK based conservation group focussed in Southeast Asia, and their United Nations Environment Programme initiative Green Fins, have “come out against the tourism activities in Oslob, noting that the practice of feeding wildlife is unsustainable”. There are also many local initiatives in the Philippines that are working on monitoring and researching the whale sharks visiting Oslob. The Large Marine Vertebraes Project Philippines (LAMAVE) in particular is leading the way in research surrounding whale sharks in the Philippines. They also have the difficult task of juggling marine conservation, local community development, education initiatives and Philippine bureaucracy.

The official conservation status for whale sharks is ‘vulnerable and declining’, so now really isn’t the time to take a gamble on how much of an impact this tourist activity is having. A study conducted by marine biologists observing Oslob whale sharks supports this sentiment by stating, “poor and unregulated whale shark tourism can lead to short and potentially long-term impacts, like behavioral change and displacement from critical habitats” (Source). Some of these behavioral and habitat changes include:


Decrease in Nutritional Value

The main reason the whale sharks visit Oslob everyday, and keep returning, is because they’re getting fed. Everyday fishermen attract the sharks to the site by feeding them one type of krill (uyap) that they purchase in bulk. Because of this the whale sharks are now spending up to 6 hours feeing in Oslob, losing out on some of the key nutrients that they gain from foraging naturally. With over a hundred different types of nutrients on offer the whale sharks are only getting a handful because of the lack of quality in their feed. Think of it like a human eating the same thing all day, everyday. One of the concerns is the affect this may have down the line with growth and reproduction.

Migration Patterns of Whale Sharks

Whale sharks are highly mobile animals, so by enticing the whale sharks to stay in one spot it is interfering with their natural movements and migration pattern (Source). One whale shark in particular has been known to stick around for over a year in Oslob. It’s still too early to tell the lasting affects of this, but marine biologists predict it could alter their breeding habits and ultimately their reproduction. Considering they’re a vulnerable species any risks with reproduction should be taken very seriously.



No Touching the Whale Sharks!

Although there are strict rules and regulations prohibiting interaction with the whale sharks, with several hundreds visits a day it’s inevitable that there’ll be some daily contact. Whale sharks bump into the boats and have evidence of cuts and scarring. Researchers have also reported that whale sharks now associate other non-tourist related boats with feeding, causing them to get injured when they come too close to motors and oars.

Along with that there is also the growing concern of increased tourist contact. As the popularity of the tours increases, so does the lack of compliance with local regulations and guidelines. For example, the 2 meter minimum distance of tourist to whale shark is very rarely enforced, with up to 97% of cases breaking the rule in 2014 according to a thorough research study (Source). This non-compliant regulation comes down to a lack of respect for the guidelines from not only the growing pressure on the tourism industry, but also the tourists joining the tours searching for that ‘ultimate selfie’.



What To Do Now?

As responsible tourism advocates we hope to inform and present a different side of the picture. By writing this article we’d love to see more tourists became aware of all the facts, so they can make an informed decision on their travel plans.

What we’re definitely not doing is asking everyone to suddenly stop visiting overnight. The affect this would have for the whale shark population dependent on the food, as well as the local population dependent on the income, would be disastrous. Rather, we’d like to hear more people talking about this and putting pressure on the tour agencies and local authorities to start regulating the industry more closely. Which should lead towards developing a strategy to ensure the safety and health of the whale sharks going into the future, as well as the education to tourists and locals alike. It won’t happen overnight, but as conscious travellers we can start to make changes slowly. Eventually, just like pressure on elephant riding tours and tiger temples in Thailand, there will be enough voice to support the issue.


Source: Lonely Planet

Responsible Tourism in the Philippines

So if you shouldn’t swim with the whale sharks, what should you do? Luckily there’s no shortage of amazing responsible tourism opportunities to view marine life in the Philippines: like being able to swim with turtles on Apo Island only a couple of hours south of Oslob. And unlike the negative affects of the whale shark tours in Cebu, this activity actually supports marine conservation and provides alternative income for the old turtle fishermen who now work as guides. This is an observational activity, with strictly no feeding or touching, but was by far one of our best travel experiences from our six months volunteering and traveling around the Philippines.



And if you really had your heart set on seeing the whale sharks then there are always opportunities with reputable dive companies that see them in their natural habitat, without feeding. Other locations off the coast of Dumaguete, Donsol and Pintuyan are known for whale sharks in the right season. Pintuyan in particular, in Southern Leyte, is known for its responsible interaction with wild whale sharks. Our best suggestion is to do your research, which really depends on the time of year you visit the Philippines. After that get in contact with dive shops for further information and they’ll help you out.

So to everyone thinking about the tours, although you’re free to make up your own mind, we would strongly urge you to consider all factors before booking your tour. And if you were originally planning on doing this (remember we were also), it’s not that you’re terrible and want to destroy the whale sharks, it’s just often hard to really know all sides. Hopefully now you do.


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