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Voluntourism: Holidays that keep on giving
Less than a quarter of a century ago, a trip to the city of Cobán, Guatemala, would have been a culture shock for most Canadians. These days, a Subway restaurant, a Payless Shoe Source and a McDonald’s line one of its main streets, making a visit to the Central American city less foreign – and, for many, a less enticing vacation destination.
“Look at Expedia, Travelocity and others like them. They beat each other up on price, inventory and service in selling you how to travel, but in all these organizations the space was never defined as to why people travel,” says (RRU BCom alumnus) Aaron Smith, an east Vancouver-based entrepreneur and world traveller with a background in the tourism industry. “Voluntourism had long been billed as a gap-year experience, and I saw that it could be taken beyond youth; it just needed an aggregate platform,” says Smith.
In September 2011, Smith launched the website Go Voluntouring, which organizes trips to countries around the world where visitors can contribute to community development projects and wildlife and environmental programs. Less than six months after launching his web venture, global travel conglomerate Flight Centre snapped up the site. (Flight Centre did not disclose the purchase price.)
While voluntourism is a relatively new term for this kind of travel, it’s not a new concept. Smith says it’s been around since the Second World War, just not in the consumer capacity it is now: the Peace Corps traces its roots back to 1960, and faith-based missions have been around longer than that.
Robert Hood, chair of the Tourism Management Department at Thompson Rivers University, says while the university doesn’t have a specific course in voluntourism “yet,” professors embed the concept into classes such as sustainable tourism. He’s been aware of the word “voluntourism” for a decade, but thinks it’s “a bit of a misnomer,” as it implies that all the benefit goes to the place, while there are a wealth of benefits for the individual traveller.
Hood believes personal growth is a prime motivator for people who take voluntours, and while he thinks it’s “particularly good for young people because it gives perspective,” he sees the trend gaining popularity among baby boomers who have the pensions and savings to be able to afford to do it, and perhaps possess skills they want to utilize and offer after being forced out of the workplace here in Canada.
“The idea of working your whole life and spending retirement golfing doesn’t appeal to everyone,” says Hood. “Maybe they’ll go to Club Med for one vacation, but they want to do something meaningful on the others. They’re into the experience of mingling, meeting and working with local people.”
Chris Buckshaw, founder of three-year-old Vancouver-based El Camino Voluntours Inc., says the trend reflects “a change in the consciousness of people, and it is making travel more socially and environmentally responsible.”
A 10-night El Camino tour starts at about $1,000 (after flights), with about 25 per cent of the cost going directly to the project. Each volunteer will work about six hours a day in “fairly heavy-duty” conditions, says Buckshaw, adding that although the company is “pretty small in the grand scheme, most of our trips sell out.”
At print time, all nine El Camino trips for 2012 were sold out, and Buckshaw was looking to expand to 15 before the year’s end. He says that El Camino will break even this year, and expects to hire more staff and offer 30 trips in 2013.
Even though Go Voluntouring will orchestrate about 1,800 trips in 85 countries and work with 140 partners by the end of 2012, it isn’t yet generating a profit. Smith attributes this to his revenue model, which involves working predominantly with not-for-profits. “I wasn’t waiting for it to be the perfect model before I launched; I was building the plane while I was flying it,” he says with a laugh.
Flight Centre will recoup its investment, Smith believes, through flights and post-voluntour add-ons. If someone goes on a two-week voluntour in Nicaragua to build a solar-power system for a village, they may stay a third week to go on a surf trip offered by Flight Centre, for example.
According to Smith, voluntourism is “growing at the rate cruising was in the ’90s.” He’s still working with Flight Centre on Go Voluntouring, but he’s already wire-framing his next project, which involves organizing what he refers to as “ancestry tourism” trips. “The future of travel is all about personalizing the experience,” he says.