We’re lucky to be living on an interconnected planet, where travel is easier than ever before. We all want to explore exotic worlds and experience new things, and tourism has been harnessed by impoverished nations as an important pathway towards economic and infrastructural development.
But there’s a darker side to all of this wanderlust. When practised irresponsibly, tourism can exploit local communities and cause huge environmental damage. We’re happy to read all about the finer details on where to stay or what to eat, but rarely educate ourselves on the ethical impact of the activities we do, or the unique historical or social challenges of our favourite travel destinations. People may set out with the best intentions in the world, but even something as seemingly benevolent as volunteering in slums can help keep young people in poverty and abusive situations.
The fightback against these challenges comes in the form of Conscious Tourism, a movement that seeks to emphasise travel as a force for good in the world. Non-profit foundations such as Contiki’s TreadRight, ChildSafe, and the TREE alliance show that with the proper mindfulness and sensitivity, tourism can foster connections, support education and drive economic growth in low income countries.
The TREE alliance – Training Restaurants for Employment & Entrepreneurship – shows there’s nothing quite like education when it comes to improving quality of life and dragging young people out of poverty’s oppressive shadow. The idea is simple: they locate young people who are at risk – due to their ethnic background, location or family history – and give them hands on training and skills they can use to thrive in the hospitality and tourism industry. Around 200 students from marginalised backgrounds are trained at a time, on two year courses, where they’ll not only learn practical cooking and hospitality skills, but also receive counselling, numeracy and literacy skills and general life education.
And it’s a massive success. Incredibly, 90% of graduates are in employment within one month of completing their course, and all graduates receive follow up support in the years to come. The TREE alliance restaurants – in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Ethiopia – generate over US $2.6 million a year in revenue, which is promptly put straight back into training and supporting more at-risk young people.
And the success of these restaurants isn’t just down to the charitable endeavours. The food is almost as good as the cause. One of Contiki’s favourite restaurants to visit in South East Asia is the Laos TREE Alliance iteration, which serves delicious frozen cocktails, wild forest greens and ridiculously fresh fish served straight out of the Mekong. The young people who work here don’t just cook up a storm, they interact with guests and ensure that everyone always feels welcome as well as well fed.
These restaurants serve as an example that with the right foundations supporting ethical practises, alongside basic human compassion, travel can be a positive force in the world. Tourism and the TREE alliance give these industrious and talented young people that most precious of things: an opportunity.
It’s inspiring, though not particularly surprising, to witness the way they seize it with both hands.
You can visit this Tree Alliance restaurant as part of Contiki’s Cambodia and Laos Uncovered trip while passing through Phnom Penh.