Traditionally associated with budget travel and accommodation, volunteering may be going upmarket.
Capturing the mood of the moment, some companies are combining it with eco-luxury holiday accommodation. As the name suggests, eco-luxury offers classy creature comforts while minimising environmental impact. No dorms, bunk beds or shared shower blocks in sight.
Whether this interest in volunteering turns out to be a passing fad remains to be seen. But as travellers prepare to pack their bags again, following the rollout of COVID-19 vaccine programmes, I sense a change in what they are looking for. It’s no longer good enough just to visit, view and go. They want to contribute, to give something back.
The Great Pause and its impact
A lot has already been written about how ‘the Great Pause’ has encouraged us to stop and think about life and what truly matters. In a recent post entitled ‘Why I hope this pandemic changes our attitude towards travel’, blogger Nomadic Matt writes “the sentiment I’m picking up on is that, when we can travel again, we will do so better and more thoughtfully”.
He goes on to say that “the vast majority of people I talk to and surveys I read show that people want to reconnect with local cultures, explore off-the-beaten-path destinations, and avoid mass tourism. And they want to make sure their environmental impact is reduced.”
The travel industry responds
Matt thinks the travel industry has picked up on this and is re-inventing itself. Companies are focusing more on sustainability and selling their green credentials, he says, along with the benefits of ‘going local.’
All of which sounds great, if he’s right. I happen to think that he is. I’ve noticed that many companies, including airlines, hotel chains and tour operators, are increasingly looking at ways to reduce their negative impact on the environment. In my post on hotel toiletries I talk about how some hotels are replacing small plastic amenity bottles with re-fillable alternatives.
A lot of this is just common sense. But it’s Matt’s point about connecting with local cultures that particularly interests me. Not long after reading his post, I received a regular email newsletter from Marriot Bonvoy, the hotel chain’s loyalty programme. ‘Discover inspiring ways to bond with the community as you travel’ was the subject line. While cultural local experiences are nothing new, the fact that a luxury company like Marriott might be taking an interest in ‘hands-on’ experiences was intriguing. I clicked immediately.
Eco-luxury goes mainstream
Marriott’s suggested activities included giving English lessons or drawing with children in Bangalore, learning about Yunyin brocade at a hands-on craftsman’s workshop in Nanjing, or helping to prepare and deliver meals to the needy in Bali. Or you can plant trees in India, join a beach clean-up in Korea, help with coral gardening in Japan or learn about sustainable farming in Fiji. It seems that direct community engagement and meaningful travel have become a focus for Marriott and are now part of their offering for their 5 star guests.
It will be interesting to see how many travellers take up these opportunities when international travel opens up its doors again. But full marks to Marriott for taking the initiative – and the risk. Nice to see the big brands recognizing what travellers are looking for, and taking the lead in responding.
The small, specialist companies who have been operating in this niche for years are also preparing to return to normal business after concentrating on domestic volunteering during the Big Pause. Award-winning US operator Elevate Destinations focuses on responsible eco-luxury travel, offering a wide range of activities from the cultural to the adventurous.
You can stay in an eco lodge in Belize and help to clean the local school, followed by a chocolate-making lesson (now you’re talking!) Or you can volunteer at a dog and cat rescue organization in Phuket, Thailand, and combine this with a luxury resort stay.
Another award-winning eco-luxury company offering similar experiences is Hands Up Holidays. They have options for solo travellers and also families, promising to help ‘get your kids out of their bubbles’ by introducing them to new activities in the wider world.
Not all of the trips are to needy countries – you can choose to help Australian wildlife recover from bush fires, for example. Underlining all the opportunities on offer is the philosophy that travel changes lives – not only for the communities but for the volunteers.
Luxury and volunteering – an incongruous mix?
All this seems a far cry from traditional volunteering, which tends to be longer-term and therefore usually provides low-budget basic accommodation. Moreover, simplicity seems to be a better ethical fit in a situation where you want most of the benefits to go to the recipient community. It might seem incongruous, hypocritical even, to spend a day or so volunteering for a cash-strapped cause then go back to your 5 star resort at the end of the day!
But maybe that’s exactly the point of it all – to make people think. A taste of how the other half lives, for those who have never encountered the discomforting reality of poverty, can be enlightening. It also offers a soft introduction to volunteering for those who have considered it but haven’t quite found the courage to give it a go.
All in all, I think it’s a good thing – and what’s more, I’d be up for it! Having one foot in, and one foot out, of my comfort zone is definitely the sort of volunteering I would be more likely to consider as a first timer. I think I’d go for the cat and dog rescue work, or maybe meals for the needy. If it turned out to be a transformational experience, as I suspect it would, then I might be ready for the ‘real thing’ next.
What do you think? Have you been on volunteer trips or assignments, and would you be keen to do one like this?
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