Thoughtful travel and empowerment tourism in Fiji with Hands On Journeys

“Do you want to come to Fiji with me in a couple of weeks?” I asked my son, a bit of a random question for a Sunday afternoon.

“Where is it and what does it look like?”

I showed him the brochure I’d got. I got an enthusiastic yes. (Who’s surprised?!)

Thoughtful travel and empowerment tourism in Fiji with Hands On Journeys

(Pre-reading warning: Hands On Journeys sponsored this trip, but these views are firmly my own. In fact, I have rewritten this post to sound somewhat less crazy-evangelical about them, because I loved this trip and love how this company runs so much – if you’ve seen me in person since I returned, you can attest to the fact that I am honestly just obsessed with how great this whole company is – a real values match for me!) 

Taking a group trip to Fiji

I’m typically not a tour group kind of traveller. To be absolutely fair I’ve not been on many at all, but what I’d heard hadn’t attracted me. Then I chatted with Simla (CEO of Hands On Journeys) and I got to thinking that if the right people are on the trip, then group travel might not be so bad.

Hands On Journeys runs on an ethos of “empowerment tourism” (more on that in a second) and you are probably not a “tick the sightseeing spots off and party all night” kind of traveller if you choose to travel with them. In fact, as soon as I met the other members of our group (they tour in small groups so there were just ten others, plus our truly delightful Fijian guides) I knew that I’d like them all and we’d have a good time. Simla had described it to me as a kind of magic that came together on each of her trips and it’s very true that not all group travel is created equal – the people attracted to these kind of tours are much more “thoughtful travellers” and want to give back as well as have a great new experience. To me it was like what would happen if a bunch of people from my Thoughtful Travellers group got together for a trip (and don’t we just have to do that some day?!).

Stand Up Paddleboarding at Savala Island in Fiji

My son getting stand up paddle boarding from Jesse at Savala Island in Fiji

As a single mother there was an added bonus to group travel that I hadn’t thought about. My son quickly made friends with some of the others (all adults, I must add!) and we had one playing noughts and crosses with him at the dinner table, another teaching him to stand up paddle board, another distracting him with drawing using coal from the beach bonfire at our farewell dinner – it was amazing for him and a true bonus for me. (Thanks all!)

What’s empowerment tourism all about?

So, voluntourism or volunteering when you travel has all got a bit messy these days (this short article describes just some of the voluntourism issues) and Hands On Journeys CEO Simla Sooboodoo recognised that – and came up with an awesome alternative. She developed the idea of empowerment tourism and works together with communities in quite different ways to help them out.

As an example, the empowerment tourism project on our Fiji trip involved a local village which Simla found literally by asking a taxi driver to take her to villages that tourists never go to. Over several trips she got to know them and eventually explained her tour business, then worked together with them to set up a business running cooking class experiences for tourists. A proportion of the funds from every tour (more than 10%) goes directly to the community to help them – for example, in the first instance this was to enable them to buy cooking equipment, plates and so on so they could do the cooking class and provide a lunch. On our trip, it paid a wage to the women running the cooking class. Longer term, Hands On Journeys will help the community set up a website to market their classes to other groups of tourists and eventually will leave them self-sufficient to run these alone.

Our Saturday in the village was easily one of the most memorable days of travel I’ve ever had. Our Fijian guides taught us the correct etiquette before we arrived (in between their singing and guitar playing on the bus!) – we wore a sulu (like a sarong), we learnt how to participate in the kava ceremony (one clap, say “Bula!”, drink, three more claps … I think that’s right!), we talked about what Hands On Journeys had done in the community so far. We were welcomed so beautifully, and got to participate in so much of the action that day.

My son chatting with the Fijian kids on our empowerment tourism visit

My son chatting with the Fijian kids on our empowerment tourism visit

Since my son was coming along too, we’d chatted with Hands On Journeys about something we could do with the kids, and so my son’s teacher had got the class to each write a letter about Australia with some drawings. My son distributed these to the kids who’d gathered there, helped some of them read them, and they all sat together drawing and writing replies. Honestly: it brings tears to my eyes to picture this again, more than a week later. It was a perfect way to get my son to interact with the locals and to spread a bit of joy in both directions.

(When we returned, my son’s classmates were equally thrilled to see the replies – and his teacher managed to slot it right in with teaching them the geography of Australia’s neighbouring countries, but obviously in a more meaningful way than just seeing a map. This makes me so happy!)

Curious to know more about empowerment tourism? Simla’s video gives some more examples:

A balance of giving back, sightseeing and fun

While the village day was my favourite part of the trip, the rest was pretty darn awesome too! This is partly because I was doing it with a fantastic bunch of people, and partly because the itinerary included such a range of activities, a lot of which I would have picked myself and some I might not have but that were also great.

I’ll write more about the details of what we did in Fiji in another post, but to give you a taste: my son’s favourite experience was the day we spent on a tiny island (Savala Island, not far from Denarau near Nadi). It might have only been our second full day together but our group quickly managed to pull a bunch of beach chairs all in together so we could hang out all day – although with a couple of group members helping my son on the stand up paddle board and he and I going kayaking for ages, we didn’t actually sit down! – we did all eat a great lunch together though. You could also go on a guided snorkel, a glass bottom boat and feed the baby sharks but we were so busy with the SUP and kayak we didn’t do any of these – so clearly, we have to go back again! My personal favourite is hard to pick but our mud bath experience at the Sabeto Hot Springs was heaps of fun. Fun meals with our new friends were also great, particularly our special farewell dinner on the beach.

Fiji with Hands On Journeys - Sunset from our farewell dinner on Denarau Island near Nadi

Sunset from our farewell dinner on Denarau Island near Nadi, Fiji with our Hands On Journeys friends

Thoughtfully travelling with Hands On Journeys

I have a lot more to say about empowerment tourism and thoughtful travel and do listen out for a podcast episode on the topic soon (I’ll link here when it’s up). In the meantime I’d encourage you to ask me any questions at all about Hands On Journeys – they run tours to Fiji, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Queensland and have Mexico coming out soon – and if you are interested in booking on you can use my discount code Amanda10 to get 10% off any trip. (If you’re in Perth and read this soon, come along to our meet up night too.)

You know what? I can’t seem to adequately put into words how much I enjoyed this trip, and how much it seemed just the right balance of being a tourist, of having fun, of meeting locals, of giving back, of making new friends. Just trust me. It’s something you should try.

 

 

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Comments

  1. What a beautiful experience, for both you and your son. And since I love cooking, and learn so much about a culture through its food, I’d love the opportunity to take a cooking lesson. Great school your son goes to!

    • Thanks Sarah – you’re right, it was a really beautiful experience for both of us. And I’m grateful on a daily basis for my son’s teacher and school, let me tell you!

  2. I am also not someone who would quickly book any type of group travel, but this sounds really good! I love getting more of a local experience and have volunteered abroad a few times to help local communities. Hands on Journeys sounds like a good, meaningful way to travel and explore new places!

  3. We’re very cautious about group travel as well, but I love when I hear about a company that is set-up for the benefit of the people that we as tourists visit. Your son’s experience is a gift and I applaud you for having him participate. I can see why you can get so excited about Hands on Journeys.

  4. What a great bonding and educational experience with your son. I love the idea of visiting the villages that other tourists don’t visit and bonding with the locals.

  5. This sounds like a really special experience for you and your son. Hands On sounds like they’ve found a unique way to bring tourism to new areas. I look forward to seeing how this grows and evolves.

  6. That’s brilliant – the fact that they’re doing something for empowerment of the local communities and people in the villages. Also, I can imagine that it must’ve been a good experience for you in terms of meeting other like-minded travellers. I am also not much of a group tour fan but mostly because I am apprehensive of the sort of people I will meet on the trip. Glad to hear that you found just the right kind of people and your son had a good time with them as well!

  7. Reading this post strengthens my belief that there are organizations and people out there with a higher purpose in life. The more information we spread on initiatives like empowerment tourism, the more it will grow. And that is what some parts of the world really need.

    • Absolutely Punita – warms my heart to see this kind of tourism and hope there are many more organisations out there who are working towards similar experiences and impacts.

  8. What a great idea. Looks like you and your son had a very memorable experience. I know a few others have tried this , I hope they succeed.

  9. What a beautiful idea, empowerment tourism, to give back as well as have a great experience. I applaud how the aim is to make the small villages self sufficient. Now if only I could get to Fiji!

  10. It’s great to see tourism spreading beyond just the usual places so that other communities can benefit as well. I like that the company sought consent from the towns first. After all, not every place wants to become a tourist destination. This could be a great new way of helping smaller communities.

    • Yes – exactly – done very respectfully indeed. It’s those background details that I feel are so important when you’re figuring out if a tour company is “doing this right” or not.

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