7 ways you can support local communities when abroad, according to travel experts

When planning a trip, you may research transportation, accommodations, activities and other experiences – but have you considered looking into how to support the community you're visiting?

About 66% of the 30,000 American surveyed in Booking.com's Sustainable Travel Report 2022 said they "want to have authentic experiences that are representative of the local culture." And about a quarter of respondents said, "they would be willing to pay more for travel activities to ensure they are giving back to local communities."

Overtourism has been found to impede the quality of life of the locals and stress or deteriorate the resources of a place. As the pandemic provided much-needed relief to tourist hotspots, the urgency around supporting the local community when traveling has only amplified.

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It can be difficult to figure out how to be a responsible visitor to a different community. About one-third of the survey's respondents said they don't know where or how to find the types of activities that give back to the community and want companies to be more transparent about where their money goes.

"Ultimately, to determine if you are a responsible visitor, I would ask the question, 'Did I leave this place better than when I found it?' " said Rēnata West, founder and managing director of Pacific Storytelling, a company that brings indigenous voices of the Pacific into the travel community.

As countries around the world open their borders to visitors and remote work has encouraged more people than ever before to live abroad as digital nomads, travel, and especially leisure travel, is at a high since the pandemic began.

Here are six ways you can support the local community as a traveler, according to experts.

1. Learn the basics

"To get to know the community, the culture and the local people, language-learning would be the first step for me," Maren Pauli, a linguist and culture expert for the language-learning app Babbel, said. "What I always do when I travel is learn the basics, like 'hello,' 'thank you' and 'goodbye.' It can do so much."

"You're acknowledging that you're in a different country, and you're trying to at least be friendly with people in their native language," she said. Pauli was born and raised in Germany but lived in Japan for over 10 years.

If you want to take your language learning a step further, she suggested to "start using your language before even traveling." For example, if you're traveling to Mexico, patronize a local restaurant where the staff speaks Spanish and try to order in Spanish, or try to connect with someone who is from Mexico before your trip to practice having conversations.

When you learn the basics of the language, you're also more equipped to shop at a local market, where you can engage and support with more locals, instead of a grocery store, she said. "If you don't know the language, you often hesitate to do that."

2. Shop small

When travelers explore beyond the major tourism destinations, they’ll find many local delights.
When travelers explore beyond the major tourism destinations, they’ll find many local delights.

An important part of supporting the local community of a destination is through where you put your money: patronizing small businesses. It can also lead to more memorable experiences on your travels.

"Instead of buying souvenirs at the airport or your resort, take the time to visit the locals," Katrina Warren, a Black solo traveler and travel consultant for her own company, Alexandrian Consulting, aimed at increasing the number of travelers of color worldwide, said. "Try their restaurants and street food. Every dollar you add to their economy matters. In so many regions, it goes further than you can ever imagine."

In the aftermath of COVID, where many small businesses struggled to make ends meet, it could make even more of an impact.

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3. Avoid peak season

West's top tip for people hoping to support the local community on their travels is to visit outside of peak season – "this way, there is less strain on local infrastructure and you will probably have a better time without the crowds." (Not to mention, flights and accommodations will probably be cheaper.)

Popular tourist destinations during the off-season tend to be more relaxed and less frazzled, providing the space to make more intimate connections with locals. However, it's possible that some attractions may not be available, or the weather may not be ideal during an off-season trip.

4. Book through a local

Before you get things rolling for your trip, consider booking through a travel advisor who specializes in the area of the world you are traveling to, West suggested. This familiarity is invaluable. They can guide you to independent hotels, restaurants and other businesses to patronize and tell you which are tourist traps to avoid. "Ask your specialist travel advisor about anything you should be aware of when visiting and if they have any personal stories to share that might be helpful," he said.

Knowing some cultural norms and being aware of the history of a place will help you navigate the destination better, and that'll result in a better experience for both you and the locals. It also shows a desire to understand the other culture, West said.

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5. Slow travel

A hiker walks on the Appalachian Trail at Round Bald, on the North Carolina - Tennessee state line.
A hiker walks on the Appalachian Trail at Round Bald, on the North Carolina - Tennessee state line.

Instead of a trip, make it a sojourn and consider extending your stay so you can focus on getting to know a place's way of life. Thanks to an increase in remote work, more people have been participating in a way of traveling called slow travel. With slow travel, the focus is on moving at a slower pace and connecting with people and places through meaningful experiences.

"To better support local communities, you could try to have a central base and stay longer in one place rather than hop from one community to the next; this way, you are more likely to get to know the locals a bit better, and you’re more likely to find the hidden gems that only the locals know about," West said. You could also look into volunteering with a local organization while there.

6. Choose to listen

Balaram Thapa, director and travel advisor of Nepal Hiking Team, an adventure travel company specializing in trekking, hiking and cultural tours, urged people to step back and approach their travels from the perspective that they're learning from the host culture.

"Use your travels as an opportunity to learn from others," he said. "Listen more than you talk, and try to understand the points of view of those around you. This will help you gain a better understanding of the culture and build meaningful connections with locals."

As an experienced traveler, Warren echoed that sentiment. "My first advice would be to have grace and patience with every interaction," she said. "Whether it's personal space, tone of voice or cultural attire, understand that this is their norm."

7. Don't be afraid of mistakes

West reminded us that "travel is about people meeting people, and we are all human and going to make mistakes at some point." Anticipate messing up and feeling a bit of culture shock, like cultural norms you aren't used to, but try your best to stay open-minded to the experience.

Pauli agreed. "Mistakes are there to be made and they help us learn and help us grow," she said, like when you're trying out a new language in a new place and messing up the pronunciation. "If you try to speak the language and you fail, it's better than to not try at all. Don't be afraid."

Warren recommended that people "reflect internally on how you handle stress and triggers before traveling" to new places. Culture shock is real, she said, so "knowing what you need when you're stressed makes it easier on everyone involved."

How do you support the communities you visit?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Traveling tips on how you can support local communities when abroad