Transformational Travel: How Women Can Be a Force for Good

Last updated on November 18th, 2021

Featured image: UGO Travel for Change client works with local mamas in Arusha to serve lunch

Making Travel More Meaningful

By Carolyn Ray, Publisher, JourneyWoman 

Transformational travel is not new, nor is it a trend.  But it does bear some explanation, particularly with lingo like ‘conscious’, ‘responsible’ or ‘purposeful’ travel swirling around, all of which seem to be used interchangeably. As we return to travel, how can we make a difference in the world, and in ourselves?  And how we can not only speak about our values and beliefs, but follow through with concrete actions when we travel, and when we return home?  

The Transformational Travel Council defines transformational travel as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.” The council goes on to say: “We believe meaningful travel starts from the inside out – and that is what we’re here to shift. Too often our travel reinforces our existing boundaries, worldviews, and practices, rather than stretch and evolve them. What we’re bringing to travel, for you, for us, our communities, and our planet is an experience that integrates mindset, intentionality, reflection, empathy, and joy.” 

I sat down with entrepreneur Jill Valentine to talk about how she sees the evolution of travel and the work she has done in Uganda and Tanzania as a Transformative Travel Coach and Founder of UGO Travel for Change, a social enterprise that combines coaching and immersive volunteer abroad experiences to help clients create profound personal change, while at the same time making a social impact in communities around the world.

Jill Valentine uses a saw in the Philippines

Jill Valentine helping build new homes from coconut wood in Tacloban, Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan

A Q&A on Transformational Travel

Carolyn: Jill, how do you define transformational travel? There’s a lot of terminology and it can be confusing – how can we simplify this? 

Jill: To me, transformational travel is about travelling with the intention to change yourself and change your world while being open to the possibilities of what your journey will bring and reveal.  Conscious, responsible and purposeful travel can all fall under the umbrella of transformative travel. The key is that the travel experience is being leveraged to create change – personal and/or social. 

When I travel, I always ask ‘how I can best interact with the place and people I am visiting?’ From the attitude I bring, to who I will be supporting with my purchasing power, to the activities I do, to my relationship with the locals. Is the intention to help create change or give? Do you want to support the local community? Do you want to have a cultural exchange? Or perhaps leave no trace? Looking at the immediate and long-term impact we create when we travel anywhere is key – and trying to maximize the positive and minimize the negative. 

Carolyn: How does one start to travel with intention? Or are we already doing it? 

Jill: Travel is as much about the journey within as it is the destination. We can leverage the natural powers of travel as a way to accelerate self-discovery, self-growth, and change.

As Joe Dispenza, author of The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery says: “Once we begin to see travel as an inner journey, it is possible to turn every trip we take into a spiritual practice – a hero’s adventure that enlivens our hearts and enlarges our souls.” I just love how every time I travel abroad, I also journey within.

Travel is a ripe opportunity for self-reflection and self-growth. Emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially, we are primed for adaptation and exploration. When we travel, we are removed from our familiar and routine lives. We become immersed in a new culture with different values and perspectives, away from expectations and responsibility. This shifts us out of our comfort zone. We become open and ripe for change, learning, and connection.

Carolyn: Why is Transformational Travel important? And why now?

Jill: Transformative travel is important because it changes how we interact with our world. The more awareness we have of ourselves and who we are in the world, and the more we feel connected in the world, the more likely we are to move through the world as kind, confident, happy people wanting to improve our communities and the world around us.

Transformative travel can teach us how to be better global citizens and to provide us with the clarity and confidence to thrive in our lives. It helps us be conscious about how we engage with our world both at home and when travelling abroad.   

A group of women sit in a circle next to the sea during a transformative travel experience

UGO Travel for Change transformative coaching session on a local beach in Puerto Rico

For individuals on a personal level, it’s important now because so many people are living their lives on autopilot. We’ve been programmed by society to accept working in jobs that don’t fulfill us to buy things we don’t need and are feeling disconnected from others. Transformative travel can be a powerful tool in helping people rethink their priorities, put their lives into perspective, decrease stress and be refreshed, help explore one’s life purpose, and deepen their sense of gratitude (a key pillar of happiness). 

At the moment, the world is in crisis and there are many people suffering. We need more global citizens with empathy, and a desire to help the greater good and our planet (whether locally or internationally). That spirit is definitely fostered when we travel abroad and connect with others around the world and when we spend time connecting with nature.

A group of women embracing in a group hug, on a transformational travel experience

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Carolyn: How does one start her transformational journey?

Jill: You can start one of two ways: You can start with a destination or trip in mind and put a transformative intention into it.  For example Carolyn’s Camino Walk is planned so she can think about what personal change she would like to foster, perhaps practice mindfulness or deeper connection to nature, and she is adding a social change component of raising funds for Period Purse.

The other way to start is with an intention for change first and then plan a trip to support it. 

Once you have a transformational intention, then consider what kind of experience, destination or program would create a ripe environment for change. If you are looking to build confidence, then perhaps consider an adventure like climbing a mountain or a physical event like a marathon or cycling across the country. If you’re hoping to connect deeply with your spiritual self then perhaps a meditation retreat or travelling to a spiritual location like the Camino de Santiago would be ideal. If you want to give back and make a difference then consider post-disaster volunteering or an eco-experience. 

Either way always ensure you are creating the conditions and taking actions to foster the transformation you are hoping for like being journaling, asking yourself reflection questions, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone as well as reflecting on how your actions are impacting the locals.

Carolyn: How did you get started on your journey?

Jill: For years I worked in the non-profit/charity world wanting to make a difference but feeling completely unfulfilled. I did jobs that didn’t light me up. I felt undervalued and knew I wasn’t living up to my potential. I had travelled and volunteered abroad but felt like I was on auto-pilot not really questioning anything, pushing myself, or seeking out what I desired. It wasn’t until after I spent a year volunteering in Uganda that my life really shifted and even then, it took a life coaching program to help me really reflect on it and process it all to truly understand and articulate how it had changed me and why the year was so significant.

Through the coaching, I realized what my values were. I was honoring and living them in Uganda, but they were absent in my Toronto life after returning home. My life in Uganda has been full of adventure, a sense of freedom, deep purpose through serving others, a close community and I was using my strengths and skills. I understood that wherever I decided to live I needed to foster and live these values. I became a transformative travel coach combining all the things I love and was good at – travel, helping communities in need, creating transformation for my clients, spending time with amazing people, building community and deep connections, and working in my zone of genius.

When I started my business, I spent a ton of time networking and learning all about marketing and branding, as well as working on my mindset and inner self. I sometimes can’t believe that the quiet, uncertain, unhappy Jill trapped behind a 9-5 desk feeling small and bored is living the life and running the business I am now. It’s an exciting journey with lots more growing and learning to come but I also do the inner work each time I lead a program abroad, so I have lots of great opportunities ahead for lots more transformation and growth.  

A woman dumping a bucket of soil while working during a transformative travel experience.

Jill helping manually make cement for a perimeter fence in Arusha, Tanzania

Carolyn: I think a lot of women can relate to that. How do you continue transformation when you’re home? 

Jill: Starting a transformational journey is important, but one key piece you don’t want to miss is maintaining the transformational momentum when you return home. Be sure to intentionally continue to process your experience as well as your return home. What growth, learnings, desires came up and how will they impact your life? How will you create or foster your transformation when you return to your familiar life?

For many women, volunteering abroad has sparked a desire to become lifelong changemakers and their immersive cultural experience has deepened their connection to humanity.

A group of women sitting on a beach and talking, wearing white tshirts part of a transformative travel experience

UGO Travel for Change clients sharing after a day of fixing roofs in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Young woman looking at golden pagoda. Hiking at Asia.

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Carolyn: What have you learned about yourself and the world?

Jill: I have learned that I live a life of extreme privilege and there is a disturbing disparity in the world between the poor and the wealthy. I am not sure exactly when the depth of it really landed for me, but my travels abroad certainly opened my eyes to it, especially my work with children with disabilities in rural Uganda including in refugee camps.

I also learned that I believe deeply that we should use our privilege to help those who are less fortunate, especially those who are suffering. It is now my main mission in life and what fuels UGO Travel for Change.  

Fortunately, I also learned that I can make a difference in the world, and that it doesn’t need to be huge and recognized. The skills and expertise I have that I could have used to start up an NGO that bore my name in a foreign country I can leverage instead to help many on an individual and grassroots level, empowering local leaders to rise and shine. Leading from behind with a service leadership mindset is one of the most powerful ways to truly lead others and change lives. 

Beyond that, I have learned that getting away from your life is one of the best ways to improve it. That the happiest people aren’t the ones who have the most stuff but are the ones that are grateful for what they have however much it may be. And that truly no matter where in the world you travel…we really are all the same. We all seek happiness, a sense of belonging and connection, to feel safe, and to feel that we matter. 

Courage, Community, Kilimanjaro 2019 team with the local mamas from Dare Women’s Foundation

Carolyn: How can we be an ally for this kind of travel, particularly if we’re not travelling right now? 

Jill: The easiest way to become a transformational travel ally is to start being intentional with your own travel to change yourself and change your world. Ask yourself: ‘how I can use this trip to help me learn about myself or grow?’ And then ask: ‘how can I ensure I can positively impact the local community I’ll be visiting?’

Beyond that, bring awareness to others.  When someone you know shares their travel plans with you, ask them what they are hoping to get out of their trip, and how they are going to ensure it happens. Or if someone in your life is seeking change or growth, suggest using the power of travel to help.

Carolyn: What resources are available to learn more?

Jill: Transformative travel is an incredible opportunity to grow ourselves, to learn about our earth and other people, and to connect more with the world so we can be a more powerful force for good and inspire others to join us.  

UGO Travel for Change and Beautiful Life Retreats are partnering to host a four-part Transformational Travel workshop series in November for the JourneyWoman community. The program will provide you with more understanding on how to do transformative travel effectively providing you with specific tools and exercises. 

The Transformational Travel Council is another great resource as well as the books, Why Travel Matter: A Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel by Craig Storti, and The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery by Joseph Dispenza. 

Carolyn is the Publisher + Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC). A Canadian raised in South Florida, Carolyn loves all things Spanish, historic destinations and always has her backpack ready to go.

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