The Impact of Our Travels (Part 3)

This is Part III in MSL's first series piece. For Part I, click here.

Admittedly, many opportunities for Voluntourism don’t come cheap. Set aside the altruistic gloss of good intentions, critics note, and it’s still a vacation. Between transportation and lodging, the price tag adjoined to building a school or conferring with local elders grows steadily. For what these travelers are willing to pay, skeptics may ask, can't they just cut a check and leave the work to the professionals? It seems fair to ask if the warm, fuzzy feeling that travelers carry back home with them justifies routing inexperienced volunteers into projects that could be undertaken by local experts and craftsmen. For its coordinators, the proper question is how to strike a proper balance between the two sides of the coin.

For a full economic assessment of the impact of such activities, there are a few other factors that must be plugged into our opportunities/cost equation. There are also a number of perspectives to weigh in on. Voluntourism, done properly, is not a solitary pursuit, but a conversation between travelers, service providers, non-profit organizations, and (most importantly) a host community. Once all of these views have been brought into alignment, the value of the connections forged through these experiences cannot be understated. There is a significance behind bringing willing travelers directly to the front lines of a community's needs. 

Our world is awash in charities and NGO's in need of financial support. In many communities around the globe, even government-funded programs are sorely wanting. There is a multitude of deserving hands reaching out to the well, and help doesn't come quite so easily. That's where the experiences fostered through impact travel programs stand to help tip the scales. They play a part in elevating the needs of communities, which sometimes lack direct connections to the broader world stage, above the din.

Through impact travel programs, travelers have the opportunity to network with NGO's and service providers working on the ground, day in and day out. Engaged properly, they can become immersed in the culture and routines of their hosts to get a sense of the heartbeat underscoring the pristine postcard facade that most visitors are accustomed to. In its ideal form, social impact travel connects travelers who have the passion and resources for making a difference with the experienced organizations and service providers who have the potential to make it a reality.

In compiling a simple economic analysis, it's easy to assume that it's all about the money.

It's not.

Intangibles play a crucial part in forming the context in which basic exchanges and consumer decisions are made. In addition to the needs and wishes of the host communities that open their ports to tourists and the agencies and organizations that work alongside them, the individual traveler is also a shifting variable that must be re-examined. As we explored at the onset of this series, a generational shift in attitudes toward travel is underway. That same outlook that is steering travelers away from introspection toward exploration has also affected the way we do business. For consumers and industry members alike, the emphasis has moved from Products to Purpose. We're entering the era of the Social Entrepreneur.

When Javier Junior Valdez set out to start his own company, purpose sat at the very heart of his vision. Today, Myght Inc. empowers its clients to travel with purpose by tying together what its travelers are doing with the importance of why they're doing it. Working with governments and large corporations to coordinate sustainable travel opportunities, Javier makes sure that awareness is a central piece of the puzzle. For Myght, the guiding mantra is "Passion, not profits". They're not alone.

Kathy Wongfounder of the ultimate BOGOMoeloco, is something of a serial entrepreneur. Most recently, she's trained the focus of her business acumen on bettering the world with enterprises driven by social good. Moeloco provides shoes to children in India for every pair of flip-flops sold. It's an example of the emerging opportunities that enable consumers to make a bigger bang with their buck. And she's not alone. Moeloco has organized its following into a community of aspiring change-makers through a network of chapters around the globe. For a number of rising young stars following in Kathy's uplifting footsteps, the social enterprise model holds appeal. Nearly four years after Moeloco launched its first product with the aim of sharing kindness, Wong is expanding her mission of connecting aspiring change-makers by exploring social entrepreneurship in a new series online called "Crazy Dreamers TV" (now streaming).

These examples offer a hopeful look at what is in store for the future of travel, but change is often slow and cumbersome. In some cases, the old ways of doing business still hold strong. Skeptics are quick to note that Voluntourism, like travel overall, is another industry, driven by goals, quotas, and the need to remain profitable. The danger, they warn, lies in the darker motives of human nature. As the market grows, so too does the very need for need—there’s an incentive for unscrupulous individuals in governmental and corporate roles alike to make living conditions even worse, or at least maintain the status quo, to keep philanthropic visitors coming back to their shores. Suffering can be monetized into just another commodity.

While there are bound to be extreme cases, reality typically strays far from the dystopian fantasies formed by such fears. The driving forces behind the ways in which we do business on the global stage are changing. In addition to the new mindset pioneered by social entrepreneurs, corporate image and customer relations have also grown to become significant benchmarks for corporate performance and profitability. Travelers are also becoming more socially aware when it comes to destination planning, as seen in the initial reaction among many to #BoycottBermuda following its reversal on laws recognizing same-sex marriage. Intrepid travel also witnessed a significant response from travelers following their efforts to meet gender equality standards in their staffing of travel guides. 

The results of bad PR can be devastating. Which is why sustainable travel represents a considerable act of trust on the part of the corporations and service providers that coordinate these trips. Storytelling is a natural part of the experience. In addition to the photos and memories that travelers will share with their families and friends, the industry also relies on word of mouth as a source of promotion. They essentially place a great deal of their brand identity in the hands of their travelers, adding a new level of meaning to the cooperative experiences they promise.

This not only creates an incentive for service providers to engage in the types of proactive educational and group-based activities that we explored earlier with Fathom, but also establishes a potential counter to the allure of sustaining impoverishment for the sake of profitability. As the demand for social impact and sustainable travel opportunities continues to grow, so too will the number of potential offerings. And customers these days are doing their homework. The modern traveler wants to see the impact they’re leaving in their wake. This puts the onus on service providers to illustrate not only how each individual trip is making a positive contribution, but also how the community as a whole is benefitting from their efforts.

Transparency and effective communication are necessities in this industry. This focus on outputs, as well as the spirit of alongsidedness fostered throughout the process helps to create one of the industry's greatest advantages: Travel is becoming more of a communal endeavor. 

-MJ

Stay tuned to MSL this week for additional chapters on "Voluntourism" in our first week-long series!

Photos by Canva