Back by popular demand, National Geographic Traveler magazine selects inspiring travelers who go beyond merely vacationing to make the world a better place.
Where most people see a bike, Muyambi Muyambi and Molly Burke see potential. Their organization, Bicycles Against Poverty, uses a microfinance model to distribute bikes in rural Uganda, turning what would be a three-hour walk into a swift spin to health clinics, markets, and schools.
"I'm from southern Uganda, but grew up traveling often to the north, an area deeply affected by war," says 24-year-old Muyambi. "Traveling showed me how people lived, and it revealed their struggles." Muyambi found a way to make a difference while studying at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, where he met Burke. Together, they developed their nonprofit, which distributes bikes to low-income entrepreneurs who make monthly payments of about $3 to cover half the price of a bike. The organization, which has issued more than 660 bikes so far, then provides workshops in financial management.
While looking to expand their program, the cyclophiles raise funds through their annual 3,200-mile bike tour across the U.S. It's not easy-Muyambi works as a civil engineer in Washington, D.C., and Burke draws no salary from the organization. Says Muyambi, "It's amazing to feel you're contributing to the people you love, the country you love, and the world you love-because they are all connected."
John Denham has spent more than two decades protecting Costa Rica's turtles. When he first traveled there he saw leatherbacks on the edge of extinction on the Pacific Coast and green turtles endangered on the Caribbean coast. "Poachers roamed freely along the beaches, killing turtles and robbing eggs from nests," he recalls. With a commitment to conservation, this prompted John to take action.
In 1989, John bought 2,000 acres of coastal forest with a goal of protecting nearly four miles of turtle-nesting beach. When he established The Pacuare Nature Reserve nearly every turtle nest was pilfered by poachers and green turtles were being slaughtered. Today, 24-hour patrolling has reduced poaching to 2 percent and the forest is rich in wildlife, with over 30 mammal species and a bird list of 230.
John and his wife, Hilda, travel from London to Costa Rica to lobby for local support for sustainable policies and to engage local schools in educational missions. Staff biologists study the reserve's ecosystem, volunteers plant trees and join night patrols, and school groups bunk in rustic cabanas and count hatchlings as they race from their nests to the sea.
A passport is the ultimate ticket to ride, the key to unlocking the world and engaging with new ideas. But securing one can be a hurdle. Little more than a third of Americans have passports-compare that with 67 percent of Canadians who hold one-and it's not just the price ($135 for adults, $105 for minors) that holds would-be travelers back but also the uncertainty of how to travel. This challenge is even more pronounced in poor urban areas.
Tracey Friley decided to do something about it. She launched Passport Party Project, a grassroots initiative to provide underserved girls the tools they need to obtain their first passports. When the program's first phase wrapped up this summer, 100 girls had received passports and six young travelers made their debut international journey to Belize. Funded by Expedia.com, the program proved such a success that Friley is busy plotting her next steps.
"To struggling families, international travel is a luxury, an unattainable goal," says Friley. "So passports aren't a priority because they don't feel they can travel internationally anyway. But I think travel should be available to everyone, particularly children. The sooner they explore, the better for the world."
The Oakland-based Friley caught the travel bug early, and her youthful journeys made a lasting impact. "Travel is important for kids because they get a chance to see for themselves that the world is bigger than their neighborhood, their state, or their country," says Friley. "I want kids to know that the world's borders are meant to be crossed, that it's cool and interesting to meet people from other countries and cultures, and that they themselves are cool and interesting, too."
"Wanting to help is the easy part," says Shannon O'Donnell about the altruistic aspiration that hits many travelers to developing lands. "It's a wonderful motivation, but the who, what, where, and how of providing assistance really matter. Not every solution is right for the people you want to help."
While traveling, volunteering, and blogging (www.alittleadrift.com), the 29-year-old studied ethical ways for travelers to help and published her tips in The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook.
"One of the refrains I hear most is that it's hard to sort through the heaps of options," she says. O'Donnell launched Grassroots Volunteering, a database of free and low-cost volunteering opportunities and sustainable tourism enterprises.
Working with students and volunteers, O'Donnell researches each organization and business in her growing list. It's a labor of love-and a slow one at that. But as her site grows, so do the opportunities and their impact. "More travelers would do good if it were easier to do good," she says. Her next step is to develop a mobile app that surfaces responsible enterprises nearby.
"Travel has the power to transform your life," says O'Donnell, who will spend the next year volunteering in Kenya. "With a little planning, it can also positively transform the places we visit."
Wright has journeyed the world as a photographer for more than two decades, focusing her efforts on human rights issues and documenting the traditions of changing cultures around the world.
Wright's photography is represented by National Geographic and Corbis and has appeared in numerous publications, including National Geographic magazine, National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, Islands, Smithsonian, American Photo, Natural History, Time, Forbes, O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Outside, and San Francisco Chronicle.
She is a recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography for her photographs of child labor in Asia and a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.
Her writing and photographs have been published in her books Faces of Hope: Children of a Changing World; The Dalai Lama: A Simple Monk; and The Spirit of Tibet: Portrait of a Culture in Exile, as well as through the Discovery Channel Photo Journeys series.
On January 2, 2000, Wright's life was nearly cut short during a horrific bus accident on a remote jungle road in Laos. Wright's recent memoir, Learning to Breathe: One Woman's Journey of Spirit and Survival, chronicles her inspirational story of survival, years of rehabilitation, and ongoing determination to recover and continue to travel the world as an intrepid photojournalist.