Wildfires. Hurricanes. Droughts. As climate disasters increase in intensity everywhere on the planet, how do we navigate as caring, conscientious travelers? Obviously, showing up in the days after a disaster and expecting to be waited on would be worse than insensitive, almost imperialistic, but what about in the months and years afterward? How can you not merely avoid being an inconvenient burden as a tourist but actually have a positive impact as a traveler in the aftermath of disasters? “Generally it’s really positive to go, because most places that need to get back on their feet depend on the part of their economy that draws tourists in,” says Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force, an organization that supports essential workers in disaster response and recovery. Still, how do you show up with sensitivity and do more good than harm? Here are a few things to consider.
Consider donating to support local organizations that help after climate disasters—even before spending on travel. Just as you would research that noodle shop, do some digging to find on-the ground organizations that will use your money to support community workers and projects. Groups such as the Climate Justice Alliance and Grassroots International are great resources for identifying local, accountable outfits led by communities.
Don’t show up immediately. Keep paying attention, to learn when the emergency and the post-crisis recovery phase have passed, which often takes a few months, if not longer. When you do go, spend as much money as you can in locally owned businesses. A majority of the money spent on global chains leaves, but money spent on communities truly helps them rebuild.
You want to ensure you’re actually helping—not creating more work. “Reach out to community groups before you go and ask them how you can be of support,” suggests Bineshi Albert, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance and a member of the Yuchi and Anishinaabe tribes, who is based in Oklahoma. That’s better than “just showing up and [asking them] to find work for you,” she adds. She’s had to stop doing valuable recovery work in order to find work for volunteers.
However, Albert has seen crises alleviated by attentive donors mobilizing to donate water purification systems or even solar panels on a trailer to help communities get back on their feet. Instead of volunteering during a trip, it might be more useful to organize friends back home to sponsor such donations.
Parachuting into a place never makes for an authentic travel experience, but it can be especially problematic in the wake of climate disasters. Call ahead or reach out to locals on social media to get a sense of how they’re feeling about tourists and to manage your expectations if you do decide to travel.
Listen and share
“Be genuinely curious about how people are doing,” Soni advises. “Just like you would if you were visiting someone who was sick, you’d ask, ‘How are you doing now?’ and you’d mean it.” And then share what you learn. Climate disasters devastate communities for years, but media attention doesn’t last long. Through social media networks, helping others understand the challenges can help communities feel seen and supported as they continue to recover.