My eyes had barely opened, the unknown shapes of unfamiliar surroundings danced across my imagination. Outside, the first soft brush strokes of pink and yellow amber began to paint the green valley with the care and love and an artist’s hand. As I began to stir, my muscles ached from the three days we had walked to reach the small village of Sibjue, a spark of beauty among the towering giants of the Himalaya. They say that smell is the strongest sense linked to memory and I can still breathe in the scent of burning juniper so lovingly spread across the home of our friend Karma Sherpa. The sounds of the new day had long since come alive. The cows stirred outside, stepping into the cold air from their warm hideaways. Water boiled in the kitchen, ready to pour over sweet milk tea and bread. I had only been there a few days, but already that place felt familiar. Like home. Like love. I felt connected to the people and the land, I still do even now sitting here thousands of miles from that moment physically, all the while utterly present inside my soul. That relationship continues and grows each day because of the deep connection that was born from that first experience, so far from anything but so close to everything.
Our names are Kolena Allen and Tanner Colton. We are lucky enough to have been raised in the Pacific Northwest. Our connection to this land and to the places we love at home only grow as we have spent the last 10+ years traveling and experiencing all this amazing world has to offer. We have been shaped by the Northwest, our legs strong from many hikes and our sense of responsibility to justice in the world having grown as we have grown up. Yes, this is home, but there is so much to see, to do, and to feel outside this place as well.
We started our business, Travel Life Adventures (TLA), with the desire to harness the power of travel to change the world, to change people’s lives, and to empower communities that often get bullied by big tourism. We have seen the full scope of what tourism can be in the world. From the exploitation of culture and land, to the transformation of lives through economic empowerment, our relationship with travel is just like any other, full of complexity and hope and the occasional blowout.
Change is hard, it’s messy, and it often leads to unforeseen consequences. We don’t kid ourselves that we have the power to alter the course of a multi-trillion dollar industry overnight. What we also understand is the power of a single act, a shift in mindset, and human connection that comes when we open ourselves up to the intricacies and complexities of immersive travel. When we travel in a conscious, open, and compassionate way we bring home with us something much more than just pictures for “the gram” or some useless trinkets. We bring home a desire to change our lives and the world around us. We bring home some better version of ourselves that we can then give away to a world that needs us.
The Transformational Travel Council defines this type of travel as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn, and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.” We have seen first hand what can happen when compassion and true listening meets the power and ingenuity of communities around the world. We know it’s value, and we know it is possible. This is our desire with TLA, to connect conscious travelers with people, cultures, and land that exist outside of our own bubbles, and in doing so weave a beautiful tapestry of experience that can change the way we see ourselves and how we interact with the world. Sound simple enough? It really is.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, “Travel and tourism in 2018 contributed 8.8 trillion dollars to the global economy. It also generated 10.4% of all global economic activity and contributed 319 million jobs, representing one in ten of all jobs globally.” This represents a massively powerful industry that is shaping our land and culture. So often we see negative stories of how tourism is destroying cities and displacing residents. We hear of landscapes literally altered forever by the carelessness of tourists and the simple massive increase in traffic to a fragile place. But there is another side to this, another story that is not often told. There is tremendous power for good in those unfathomable dollar figures. There is the power to use those dollars to change people’s lives for the better, if only we stop and listen.
That small village we visited that left such an imprint and plays such a vital part in the work we are doing is called Sibuje. It lies in the Solukhumbu Region of Nepal, tucked high on a hillside overlooking a lush river valley, about three days walk from the famous town of Lukla, the gateway to the Himalaya. This is the home village of our partner and friend Karma Sherpa. Karma is our everything in Nepal. He helps us give amazing experiences to our clients and to ensure that the tourism we are participating in is helping the local people and not hurting them. Through his foundation, The Karma Project, we are able to directly connect travelers to people and places they can’t access on their own, and in turn empower the community to take control of its destiny and how tourism interacts with their lives.
Karma supports Sibuje village and has helped the people there create a tourism plan that has greatly decreased the negative impacts of tourism and given economic growth and community cooperation a place to thrive. The people of Sibuje formed a Community Council that discusses, votes on, and drafts up policies and proposals that any entity that operates in their community must agree to and abide by. They also decide as a community how the funds that come in through tourism are utilized for the betterment of all the people who live there. We have nothing to do with this as TLA, we don’t influence or advise in any way. Everything that happens there is because that is what the community desires and sees as best for them. The product of that is not only positive growth for the people, but something utterly unique and treasured in travel: authentic connections with real people. This is the circular outcomes of this type of travel. Better communities create better experiences for travelers which creates a desire for positive change. That is how tourism becomes something extraordinary.
In Chile, we work closely with an organization called Travolution. The work they are doing is centered around a question: “How do we prepare tourism to become a force of positive impact? How do we value the local tourism offerings, respecting the different cultures and rhythms in the territories?” Much of our work with them in Chile centers around connecting people with indigenous communities and using tourism to give a voice to traditionally under-represented groups. By engaging with these communities at a fundamental level Travolution is helping create sustainable and community centered tourism programs that not only empower local people, but give travelers an utterly unique experience in a place that so often is overlooked. When we operate tourism from this inside out approach, the power for change is placed in the hands of local people. According to Travolution: “In our efforts to provide sustainable and respectful tourism within the communities and territories, many cases are always focused on the visitors and tour operators viewpoint. There is a lot to work to be done in achieving ways to develop tourism from the community’s perspectives and the way they want to do it, always looking for their sustainable development.”
We were staying for some weeks in a small village of Mapuche people in Central Chile when we had one of the most profound and life-changing conversations our our lives. Through an interpreter (Mapunangun to Spanish, and then Spanish to English) we talked with an older woman in the village. As we learned of her life, her hardships, and her hopes for the future of her people, we asked a seemingly simple question: When people will come to visit here, what do you want them to see? What can they do to support you? Our experience has given us many answers to this question, most often centered around some sort of economic investment or support of local projects. The woman’s answer would alter our understanding of our work and how we wanted to go forward. After a long period of silence, the woman looking longingly into the distance as she knitted in her lap, she turned to us with a smile. She said, “I want them to hear my story. I want them to tell others that we are here, that we live, and that we welcome them.” We had never been so moved by something so simple. We left there profoundly touched by what seemed like such a simple and fundamental idea. What people want is to be heard and not to be forgotten.
Why this is doubly powerful is that travelers are demanding this type of experience. According to a recent survey done by Booking.com of international travelers, “Currently almost half (49%) feel social issues in possible travel destinations are of real importance when choosing where to go and over half (58%) choose not to go to a destination if they feel it will negatively impact the people who live there.” We have taken many people from Seattle and around the country to Sibuje and Chile and to many other places globally. The outcomes for the traveler are amazing. Take our friend Sarah L who said: “Our guide, Karma’s passion and drive for his people are really inspiring and it made me feel good that my trip was helping to fund these projects. This trip opened my eyes to how responsible and sustainable tourism can greatly impact the local economy …” This is not unique in those who have traveled with us, the profound nature of what happens on our trips is something that can only be experienced.
When we are out in the community giving presentations about the places we work or talking with folks about travel, we hear from so many of you about wanting something more from travel, something deeper. We believe this desire is inherent in us, part of what makes this part of the country so amazing. The Northwest in general, and Seattle in particular, have a culture of exploration and a desire to connect. We see it in the outdoor culture that exists and the way our politics lead the country in a more positive, progressive way. This all comes back to that desire to connect and to experience others as they are. We believe in this and its power to alter our worldview.
For too long travel has been about escaping from life, a way to insulate ourselves from our stresses and pamper ourselves because we deserve it. This is great, but we believe travel is meant for something more. We have the chance, in our modern world, to positively impact others as we grow and discover the depths of who we are as people. Travel is so much more, it can be so much more. All you have to do is be bold, be open, and be ready to accept what the world can provide. Deep connections are waiting for you and the time is now to become part of the movement to change how tourism interacts with the globe. Let us connect you with the people and places we have spent our lives finding. Let us show you what travel can be. Are you ready to go?