On November 18, we gathered another stellar panel of experts for our third Retravel Live: Children & Travel. Our founder, Bruce Poon Tip, was joined by family travel specialists Heather Greenwood-Davis (Contributing Editor, National Geographic) and Maria Pieri (Editorial, National Geographic Traveller UK), as well as Sébastien Marot (Executive Director, Friends-International and the ChildSafe Movement) to discuss the impacts of travel on children — both our own and ones we meet along the way.
We all agree that travel is a transformative experience for our kids but how do we properly support children we meet on trips? Read on as we take you through our top takeaways — but you can also watch the full event recording below.
1. Children are not tourist attractions
As well-travelled parents, all of our panelists agree that even the best intentions can have negative impacts on local children and their communities. Whether it’s taking pictures of them for your Instagram or handing out goodie bags, there is real harm being done.
In his child safety work in Asia, Sébastien understands how important tourist dollars are to the local people and economy. But he also sees how the desire to ‘help’ disrupts education, causes an uptick in dental issues and even the creation of fake orphanages.
“I try to think about it in the same way I think about my own children. How would I feel if someone came through and started handing them money on the street? How would I feel if somebody dropped a bag of candy off and sort of left them to it. If we think about the world’s children like our own children, we’ll be better.” —Heather Greenwood-Davis
“I wouldn’t take a photograph of anybody without asking their permission and certainly not children, let alone actually then putting it up on something like social media.” —Maria Pieri
2. Let your children lead the way with the local kids they meet
Given the potential for harm, Bruce asked the panel whether we should be teaching our children any different rules for interacting with kids in other countries.
“When left to their own devices, kids do very well at finding the similarities between them. When my kids were 5 and 7, we actually went to Peru. Coincidentally, it was a G Adventures Planeterra excursion that we were on and they saw some kids there who didn’t have shoes and were running around and kicking a soccer ball that was pretty much made out of plastic bags. And my kids begged me to be able to take off their shoes and join these kids in playing the game. They were most interested in the connection with the kids and the similarities they saw. You know, they love soccer too. I think kids know how to make friends.” —Heather Greenwood-Davis
Sébastien agrees and offers that as they get older it’s important to be supportive and ready to answer questions openly and honestly about disparities they see. As for teaching them different rules, he says:
“I don’t think there are rules for children, the rules apply to the adults.”
3. We all have a role to play in educating travellers about child safety
Whether you’re a travel journalist, agent or tour operator, it’s hard to know how and when to teach travellers about interacting with local children. What advice do our panelists have to help prepare them before their trip?
“It’s our responsibility to ensure that we are selling the dream but then also selling the reality. ” —Maria Pieri
She recommends that travellers read up on Child Welfare Policies already in place like the one created by G Adventures in partnership with ChildSafe. But that travel media can help by weaving this education into their destination features.
“It definitely is about preparation. I agree with Maria that I think we have a responsibility as agents or advisors, to make sure people are prepared... and to maybe somewhat thwart that well-intentioned gift buying… and all the packages of things you’re planning to leave in the community.” —Heather Greenwood-Davis
Sébastien also sees an opportunity for the industry to share and repeat ChildSafe’s 7 Tips for Travellers like not giving to begging children or treating them like tourist attractions. More than anything, travellers need advice on appropriate ways to help and contact info to react to children in danger.
4. Even from home, you can build your children’s global point of view
With the pandemic’s thumb still on the pause button, many parents are looking for ways to excite their children about the world and its people. What can we do when it feels like we’ve all been grounded?
For Maria, it’s more about the things we can do and use them as conversation starters like:
• sign up for virtual museums and exhibition tours
• travel with purpose: explore local woods and parks and look into their culture and history
• watch nature docs like David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet and Nat Geo channel
• try making that amazing pasta you all enjoyed on holiday in Italy
• tie future travel ideas to their current interests like meeting famous TikTok-ers in LA
• remind them of past adventures and daydream about ones still ahead
In addition to reading books and watching cartoons themed around travel, Heather recommends inspiring a global mindset from your doorstep.
“We have a little of everything in Toronto [Heather's home town and G Adventures' global headquarters!]. There are a million neighbourhoods you could visit and explore and walk around. If all we can do is walk a few blocks, why not walk a few blocks in a neighbourhood that’s going to expose you to something new? Whether it’s new takeout food or new music or whatever it might be… I think you’re going to see that a lot of us have a new appreciation for all the things we can do that are close to home.”
5. Sometimes it is about the destination, not the journey
Whether your kids get a say or not, Bruce thinks it’s a good idea to kickstart conversations about potential destinations and cultural differences before you go. How do our panelists engage their kids in where to go and why?
In very democratic fashion, Sébastien’s family drops their top destination ideas into a hat. Each pick sparks a discussion about everyone’s personal interest level, the culturally interesting things to see, what the food is like, the history and how they’ll get there. For them, planning is half the fun.
Maria’s approach is less formal and more likely to happen over chats at the dinner table.
“We’re trying to do it based on what we think they will enjoy, even though they sometimes don’t always know what they will enjoy? As well as what they will learn and experience and to try something a bit different. So I suppose I curate their answers and bring them all together, and then we decide.”
In 2011, Heather’s family embarked on a year-long around-the-world trip to 29 countries and 6 continents. As her kids were young, the destinations weren’t as important as what they wanted to do for fun. Their planning post-its included ‘eat ice cream for breakfast’ and ‘touch a pyramid’ which sounds like a good time.
As for Bruce, he loves the journey but also to debrief with his kids once they get home.
“When your kids get older you start seeing the benefits that they have in terms of their global view of things. How they think of the world, maybe how they choose what they want to study, how they interact with other children at home. I always talk about those benefits of travel. Travel is transformational. It’s not necessarily always in the moment. It’s when you come home. It’s when you grow up. It’s knowing your place in the universe when you witness how other people live in the world. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be like a lesson because they pick up things along the way.”
Just like Bruce (and Whitney), we believe the children are our future. So what are our parting thoughts on the future of travel for the next generation?
“It will be slower. It will be more considered. And it will be more sustainable and hopefully more experience-based.” —Maria Pieri
“Whether it’s Gen Z or whatever comes after Gen Z, I think they already have a global mindset. I think they have that from a really young age. These are kids who have heroes in Greta Thunberg and the Malalas of the world. They are already thinking about those big issues and that is going to impact where their parents take them on vacation.” —Heather Greenwood-Davis
“I really hope that mass tourism is a thing of the past. It has to be reinvented. In a few years, the norm of travel will be responsible travel… Responsible for the people. Responsible for the environment. Responsible for the culture itself that we visit.” —Sébastien Marot
Quick recap for travellers
• Think about how you can make a difference before you go
• Let what you would do at home guide what you do on holiday
• Take your time and go slow - don't try to rush the experience
• Research your destination’s specific issues and learn the child safety tips
• Read up on G Adventures' Child Welfare Policy created in partnership with ChildSafe
Want more? Watch the whole event here:
To see all of the incredible places you can put everything you've learned into practice, check out our National Geographic Family Journeys.
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