07/17/2012 07:08 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Travel Matters: Making Meaning In Faraway Places

Contradictory economic forces have merged to intensify a growing trend in travel: the mass pursuit of meaningful experiences.

Pre-recession, the pursuit of la dolce vita meant tearing through the Mediterranean on a chartered yacht, renting a Bahamian island, upgrading to a presidential suite.

Post-recession, those who aren't opting for the increasingly popular "stay-cation" have pared down their travel preferences to adapt to a consumer culture that frowns on excess and prefers an an altruistic tone: "We're just back from building a school in Peru" or "We were on safari in Kenya and helped dig a well in the village."

In spite of the recession, considerable disposable income remains available for high end travel. For those who have exhausted the first wave of consumer pleasures -- luxury items that anyone can plunk money down to buy -- the stakes have been raised. In travel, one trend is the pursuit of "meaningful," "experiential" activities.

Taking their cue from those that can't afford or are now offended by conspicuous spending, and perhaps inspired by media sightings of celebrities in remote Third World villages, today's "meaningful" traveler wants to return home with the experience that s/he has done more than just vacation: He has made a difference to others; she has opened her family's eyes to the rest of the world. (In parentheses, read: surely the kids now realize how spoiled they are and will henceforth appreciate everything they have -- hopefully in time to put together a better college resume.)

Note that this trend accomplishes much:

  1. You can flaunt your vacation while drawing attention away from what it cost.
  2. You can practically apologize for having to go on vacation. Narratives of service trips can be expressed with dutiful reluctance and hushed evangelism.
  3. You can sustain a relationship with your field project, continuing to remind friends and family of your moral virtue.
  4. With any luck and some mindfulness, you can actually make a difference to the communities you visit and the connections you make may take hold of your soul.

Those of us that have a stake in the sustainable, philanthropic side of travel might want to feel some alarm at the current trendiness in this arena. What will happen when "meaningful" travel becomes old news for consumers? What will next impress?

Already a dark-sided market opportunity has emerged: apocalyptic tours featuring environmental destruction or disaster. In parts of the world that have experienced devastation that is beyond repair, there is curiosity in witnessing post-disaster conditions, often with very little accompanying interest in doing anything about life there. Like "slum tourists" or "poverty voyeurs" who are merely curious in living conditions that are in extreme contrast to their own, "apocalyptic tourists" are drawn to regional disasters that either portend similar eventualities at home or affirm the home advantage of the traveler.

The lesson best learned early by this trend is not to leave one's common sense and decency at home. Wherever you go, there you are, in the picture and how that goes depends on your own sense of agency and ethics. One hopes that volunteers in Haiti will continue to care about communities there after the celebrities have left; that families assisting with endangered species projects in Madagascar are raising generations that will vote for international conservation laws and that the current interest in "giving back" will encourage local tour operators, hotels, lodges and other institutions to positively invest in their communities.

For more information about travel that gives back, visit Elevate Destinations.