Feeling Good Through Doing Good: Voluntourism Catches on in the Travel Industry

by Anne Dimon

Widely acknowledged to increase one’s sense of well-being, the concept of “giving back” has always been part of wellness living. Now we’re seeing “voluntourism” grow in tandem with Wellness Travel and its niches, such as Active Family Travel and Solo Travel.

Last month Tourism Cares, the charitable arm of the tourism industry, released the results of what it called the first-ever holistic study of the philanthropic habits of American travelers. Conducted by Phocuswright, the study found that more than half of the Americans travelers surveyed have given of their money, time, or goods while on a recent vacation.

Tourism Cares CEO Mike Rea noted that “voluntarism has been a viable sector of the industry for some time now, and we are certainly seeing an increasing number of companies making philanthropic opportunities more easily available to travelers.”

Following the devastating earthquake in Nepal earlier this year, for example, Journeys International added two trips designed to aid in the rebuilding efforts. On the 11-day Hands on the Himalayas, participants helped rebuild the school and toilet facilities of the Okhaldhunga district, says the company’s Asia destination specialist Kerina Rowley. A second trip, tailored to families, was created to help increase tourism to the area during the prime family-travel seasons.  

Since the earthquake, the nonprofit arm of Journeys International has collected $75,000 for the purchase and distribution of food, water, blankets, mattresses, tarps, tents, and medical supplies.

Meanwhile, at New York-based Micato Safaris, general manager Patti Buffolano says giving back and “sustainable tourism" have been part of the company’s culture for years. “We’re fond of saying that safari is our business, but education is our passion,” she says.

Through its not-for-profit AmericaShare, the company covers the cost for one Kenyan child to attend primary school for every guest who books a safari, and also runs a program through which Micato travelers sponsor children to attend boarding school. It built a multi-facility community center in Mukuru, one of Kenya’s largest slums, and partnered with Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, his wife Jessica, and Virtuoso travel advisors to facilitate the building of the Virtuoso-Upchurch Learning Centre for special-needs children.

Micato clients on safari in Kenya often visit the Harambee Community Centre in Mukuru, and can help out for the day through the Lend a Helping Hand program. 

Travel agents do their part
Agents, too, have been encouraging and facilitating philanthropic efforts. Betty Jo Currie of Currie & Co Travels Unlimited, a Virtuoso company based in Atlanta, says her clients are “typically interested in what they can do to help when traveling to certain countries.”

She seeks out local organizations around the world "that are responsible employers and pay attention to conservation and sustainability” with whom to partner, and also supports NGO and client efforts to give back. Her clients have brought clothes to orphanages in Malawi, bought handicraft from women's collectives in Nicaragua and Belize, and visited the company sponsored home for the blind in China.  

“Sometimes, clients visit these places and play or interact with locals, hold babies, help them practice English, sing songs, and connect with others in profound and memorable ways,” she says. “Sometimes they come back and give money.” 

At World Travel Mates in Charlotte, owner Cathy Reavis has focused on “voluntourism” and humanitarian travel since the company launched 20 years ago.    

Working with non-profits to facilitate travel for a variety of projects, she has sent teams around the world to install water wells and build homes; to teach job skills in Haiti; and to work in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Often, her clients and staff have participated as well.

Reavis personally helped facilitate a micro-finance conference to help women start a business after their husbands were killed in the Rwanda genocide.

The family that gives together…
The Tourism Cares study reported that families traveling with children actually gave more time and in-kind services than any other group. And Reavis said she is definitely seeing “an increase in families traveling together to give back.”  

“We should certainly honor those who wish to just get away from it all; giving is not for everyone, all the time,” noted Tourism Cares’ Rea. “However, we do see a big opportunity to introduce the value of giving during and following a travel experience.”

Pic: Peeples Gary, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


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