October 31, 2007 As global tourism in the developing world grows, so too does the awareness of the importance of responsible travel - being mindful of local customs, cultures and ecosystems is vital to striking a safe balance between traditional societies and new world economies. The emergence of terms like “Volunteer tourism” and increasing recognition of travel organizations that seek to promote the practice of providing help or services to the region being visited is evidence that this shift in attitude is continuing to gain momentum.

Buffalo Tours, an operator in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, is pioneering sustainable, responsible travel within the region and has been awarded the 2007 ‘World Savers Award by Condé Nast Traveler for its assistance to the country’s hill tribes. Vietnam is one of the few places left in the world where travelers can interact with isolated hill tribes who still live by their own traditions, rituals and superstitions and homestays have long been on offer through Vietnamese tour operators. What makes Buffalo Tours different is the focus on responsible tourism programs including a ‘donate a water buffalo’ fund, volunteer placements for travelers in villages, medical treks to the most remote villages and support for a local orphanages.

In July, Buffalo Tours opened Mai Chau Lodge, an intimate, Vietnamese-style lodge which offers training and employment to local hill tribes. Visitors are welcome to learn some of the local traditions such as cooking, weaving, dancing and crop harvesting. Buffalo Tours is actively involved in poverty alleviation in the Mai Chau region, and runs community projects that travelers can visit or participate in on longer stays at Mai Chau Lodge.

“Volunteer tourism” is a phrase growing rapidly in the travelers’ discourse and refers to holidays that incorporate community development or assistance. The intrepid traveler can choose to learn about a new culture by working side by side with local people and making a contribution to their holiday destination. Volunteer stints last anywhere from one week to six months involving work as diverse and farming and teaching. Destinations for volunteer tourism include countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and South America and Asia.

Websites such as ResponsibleTravel.com and the International Ecotourism Society provide information on ways to reduce your impact whilst traveling abroad and opportunities to do more than just sight-see. After all, getting involved with rainforest conservation in Ecuador or community development in Zanzibar surely makes a trip more rewarding, as well as being less invasive for the host nation.

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