Eco-luxury with volunteering – a post-pandemic travel trend?

Bedroom in eco luxury lodge

Traditionally associated with budget travel and accommodation, volunteering may be going upmarket.

Lazing in the sun on a tropical beach is not everyone’s cup of tea. Activity holidays are perfect for those who want a break from their usual routine, but like to keep busy – perhaps by learning a new skill, or donating down-time towards helping others. Volunteering can be the perfect choice. Signs suggest that its popularity has increased notably since the pandemic.

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 for the moment, I definitely sense that for many travellers 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’ encouraged us to stop and think about life and what truly matters. In a 2021 post entitled ‘Why I hope this pandemic changes our attitude towards travel’, blogger Nomadic Matt wrote: “the sentiment I’m picking up on is that, when we can travel again, we will do so better and more thoughtfully”.

Traditional weaving on the loom in Peru is one of the eco-luxury activities on offer from some luxury holiday brands
Traditional weaving in Peru

Matt went 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

Evidence suggests that Matt’s predictions were right. The travel industry has picked up on this and is re-inventing itself. Companies are focusing more on sustainability and selling their green credentials, along with the benefits of ‘going local.’

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.

Eco-luxury tours often include work with children like these smiling girls in Africa

A lot of this is just common sense. But it’s Matt’s point about connecting with local cultures that particularly interests me. Marriot Bonvoy, the hotel chain’s loyalty programme, invites clients to ‘discover inspiring ways to bond with the community as you travel.’ While cultural local experiences are nothing new, the fact that a luxury company like Marriott takes an interest in ‘hands-on’ experiences is significant.

Eco-luxury goes mainstream

Marriott’s suggested activities include 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.

Teacher pointing to blackboard in front of children in classroom in Zimbabwe. School volunteering is one activity on offer on an eco-luxury holiday.
Photo courtesy of Marriott International

Meanwhile, British Airways is just one of the airlines including increasing content on sustainable travel in its in-flight magazine, like this article by Nina Karnikowski on how to travel more thoughtfully. Nina advocates for putting nature at the centre of our journeys – and focusing on slower travel. Naturally, the author of this slow travel blog couldn’t agree more!

The specialists

The small, specialist companies who have operated in this niche for years, concentrated on domestic volunteering during the Big Pause. They have since returned to international activities. 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.

Volunteer helping with koalas in Australia - an eco-luxury holiday activity
Photo courtesy of IFAW

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!

Working in the fields at Rarotonga, Cook Islands

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?

Note: there are no affiliate links in this post.

Update, 4 September 2021

Here’s an interesting blog post by Hands Up Holidays, which appeared on fellow travel blogger Paul Johnson’s site A luxury travel blog: 2021’s best eco-luxury hotels. The post describes 10 amazing hotels and gives tips on how to make a difference in the country concerned. Well worth a read.

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  1. Interesting trend. I have volunteered before while traveling, but this is a great option for first-timers to have a taste and get the courage to go forward if they like it. Good article!

  2. I’ve always been skeptical about the well-meaning and noble gap year kids going to help teach classes for a couple of days, but I know the spirit is in the right place. More importantly, there is a shift in consciousness to sustainable travel and I think the Great Pause will help to further this – at least while people are realizing what a privilege it is to stay in another country, and not to exploit it. I like the idea of letting go of white privilege and doing menial chores that locals would do as part of a trip. I think that will help people get a better understanding of life in those cultures and to be thankful for the occasion.

  3. This is certainly a new concept. I do hope it takes hold and people don’t fall into the old trappings of travel. Giving more to the community is definitely the way forward.

  4. Interesting article. I had not heard about this trend before. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to live in luxury and still volunteer and help others. I doubt that anything useful can be achieved in under two to four weeks, though, so would be opposed from that angle. Volunteering should, in my opinion, always have the recipient of the assistance in focus, and never be a case of exploiting vulnerable people in order to make rich folk think, my tuppence anyway haha.. πŸ™‚

    1. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it as exploitative necessarily – a bit ‘tokenistic’ perhaps, if that’s a word! I guess the best arrangements are those that benefit all parties, and when considering how much benefit the community or cause gets, it’s a bit hard to quantify. If that day or few hours of volunteering ends up having an effect on the person and changing their attitudes/future behaviour for the better, you’d never know about it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts πŸ™‚

  5. What a coincidence. We were literally talking about this last night. How we want to give back when we are able to travel and volunteer where we can. A great post giving us more to reflect on.

  6. I love this eco-luxury idea with volunteering in the local communities. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the why and where I travel. Definitely interested more in the hidden gems as well as my continued staycation.

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