Travel

Travelers inspired to do good while seeing the world

May 9, 2014 at 4:02 PM ET

Image: Claire Thomsen and villages in Bhutan
Courtesy Claire Thomsen
"There was something about Bhutan,” said Claire Thomsen, 16, who raised $50,000 for The Chuzagang Community Library and Resource Center. Her inspiration was a trip to Bhutan at age 11.

A number of travel companies are offering globetrotters increasingly innovative ways to support a charitable cause while seeing the world.

Last month, United Airlines announced that MileagePlus members will be able to redeem miles for offsets to cover carbon emissions associated with their air travel, a first among U.S. airlines, the carrier said. And Room Key, a hotel search engine created by six major hotel companies, launched a “Stay the Night, Join the Fight” campaign with Stand Up To Cancer to raise a minimum of $3 million. For every hotel stay reserved through Roomkey.com, $1 will be donated to cancer research.

“What we now know as ‘cause marketing’ has bloomed,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company. The merging of travel and philanthropy began to take off in the 1980s, and today many companies — hotels, airlines, cruise lines, tour operators — “do a very good job,” he said, from sponsoring high-profile fundraisers to engaging staff and customers in efforts to support charitable causes.

Airlines and hotels can mobilize quickly in areas where tragedies strike — like after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and in Japan after the tsunami — by flying in supplies, relief workers and volunteers or providing emergency housing. And traveling offers some unique opportunities to do good. Travel technology company Sabre Holdings, for example, advises travelers to be on the lookout for human trafficking activity through its “Passport to Freedom” program.

Other philanthropic trends have recently emerged, like "volunteer tourism" or "voluntourism."

“Many travelers want to understand a destination in a deeper way, and volunteering is an opportunity to connect in a substantive manner. It’s not just about having a great meal or taking a great picture,” Harteveldt said. Travelers also “want to have an opportunity to give back and create a meaningful, more authentic experience.”

Some are frequent volunteers, like Karin Fetherston, a 67-year-old retired medical investigator from Piedmont, California. “It’s really nice to have a reason to visit a place,” said Fetherston, who has participated in 18 programs since 2009, mostly organized by Road Scholar, a nonprofit group formerly known as Elderhostel and Earthwatch. “I love to learn things. You generally do something much more intensely when you do service learning, and your experience is more in-depth."

Fetherston’s experiences have ranged from teaching English to children in Cambodia and delivering over-the-counter medical supplies in Cuba to digging for mammoth bones in South Dakota. At the end of May, Fetherston will head to San Remo, Italy, to assist with a scientific whale survey. “Everything I’ve done has been fascinating,” she said.

An online survey of 5,000 U.S. leisure travelers conducted in the first quarter of 2014 by Harteveldt’s firm, not yet released, indicated that nearly 9 percent said they engaged in some volunteer community service work while on a trip within the past 12 months.

"Many travelers want to understand a destination in a deeper way, and volunteering is an opportunity to connect in a substantive manner. It’s not just about having a great meal or taking a great picture."

But Lynn Minnaert, a clinical assistant professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University, said there can be a downside. “It can be an ethical gray area,” she said. “Often tourists go in with the best of intentions, but the local communities don’t always benefit much from what they do,” she said. Direct contact may not always be appropriate, she said, especially with people with illnesses, children in orphanages or other vulnerable people, she said, referring to some "transformative travel" experiences as the "Eat Pray Love" phenomenon.

But there are ways to strike the right balance between meaningful support and respectful engagement, said said Martha Honey, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel. Travelers should do their homework in advance to learn about sponsoring companies, such as if they are deeply connected to host communities on the ground, Honey said.

Florida-based Holbrook Travel carefully vets programs and organizations it works with, like its sea turtle monitoring one in association with the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Costa Rica. (The Center for Responsible Travel recently released the “Travelers' Philanthropy Handbook” that includes a section on the “Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving” to assist in making responsible choices.)

But, Honey said, “often times the most beneficial thing is to contribute cash to worthy projects.”

READ Global, a nonprofit founded by Myths and Mountains, a U.S.-based, adventure-travel company, which stands for rural education and development, has built 73 community library and resource centers and provided seed money for more than 100 small for-profit businesses in villages in Nepal, India and Bhutan since 1991. Volunteers often provide initial funding, but both the centers and their partner businesses that help sustain the centers financially are owned and operated by the local community, a model designed to generate jobs and encourage empowerment.

Claire Thomsen, 16, of Malibu, Calif., first went to Bhutan when she was 11 during a nearly yearlong trip around the world with her parents, visiting 27 countries. “Meeting a farmer and his 10 children inspired me," she said. "The kids all had these impossible dreams that were not reachable” in the small, remote village of Thongjabi in the Sarpang District. “It was really an eye-opening experience. It haunted me. I wanted to help them in some way.”

So Thomsen set out to raise $50,000, which took two years. The Chuzagang Community Library and Resource Center, with ongoing financing provided by a for-profit farm tractor rental business, opened in late 2012, offering programs from early childhood development to job training. Thomsen returned to Bhutan in April 2013, connecting with many villagers.

“A few women in their 60s came up to me, crying, thanking me, telling me how grateful they were that the library offered them the chance to learn how to read," she said. "It was because of me, I couldn’t believe it.”

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