Several Caribbean hotels have voluntourism programs in place, such as Sandals Resorts International’s Reading Road Trip. // © 2015 Sandals Resorts International
Feature image (above): Sandals’ Reading Road Trip allows guests to visit local schools. // © 2015 Sandals Resorts International
Voluntourism is still a relatively misunderstood market segment. Some people are surprised to learn that it comes with a price tag; their initial impression is that their good deed will be rewarded with complimentary travel.
And as voluntourism has grown, it has both expanded and contracted in scope. There are options for extended stays helping out in exotic destinations such as Africa and Asia, as well as opportunities for an afternoon of service complementing a Caribbean vacation.
“I believe there’s a real demand for voluntourism from the typical Caribbean tourist,” said D. Kwayera Archer-Cunningham, president and CEO of Global Ase Consulting Limited, an international firm that assists corporations working for social good. “I’m convinced that more and more people want to do something that makes their vacation memorable and meaningful.”
Archer-Cunningham breaks it down this way: The luxury travel market has always taken advantage of voluntourism opportunities independent of any facilitator. The family travel market often promotes voluntourism to deepen a travel experience. A third market is the significantly untapped Caribbean diaspora who are second-generation or who have no connections back home because of complete migration. This group still wants to connect to the authentic community experience.
Archer-Cunningham also feels that travel agents may not be sufficiently educated about voluntourism and may not be aware that it’s commissionable.
Some Caribbean hotels have voluntourism initiatives in place, such as Sandals Resorts International’s Reading Road Trip, an initiative aimed at improving literacy, comprehension and vocabulary among local students. There are eco-focused voluntourism programs, such as Tobago’s Save Our Sea Turtles and Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Centre, where travelers pitch in to help with conservation efforts.
Foundations such as New York City-based Projects Abroad offers a wide range of voluntourism programs in Jamaica, while Dove Missions Dominican Republic provides travelers a chance to join programs, ranging from one day to one week, where they interact with schoolchildren from Puerto Plata.
“I am aware of the various long-standing reading programs and other conservation programs,” Archer-Cunningham said. “And I certainly think they are nice; however, what I am recommending is a bit different — not a total departure from those opportunities, but an expanded concept. The experience I am recommending is one where the volunteer traveler is given an immersion experience, one that creates a memorable and emotional ‘feel good’ connection.”
Archer-Cunningham noted that before engaging in a voluntourism experience, travelers should reflect why they’re doing it, what the purpose is and what’s in it for them.
“I look at any volunteer experience from a socially transformative perspective — both for the volunteer and the host community — one that provides capacity building [and] mutual respect and ensures that clear guidelines are in place to guarantee a successful experience,” she said.
In creating voluntourism programs, Archer-Cunningham suggests hotels follow several best practices: have a strong cultural exchange component; offer one to three days of volunteer immersion; and rotate qualified organizations every three years in order to give new organizations an opportunity to take advantage of the potential relationship. She also recommends that people from the hotels and travel agencies promoting volunteer opportunities increase their effectiveness by going out and experiencing the host community.
What’s more, Archer-Cunningham envisions airlines getting involved in Caribbean voluntourism initiatives.
“I would like to see them abate the baggage fee as long as travelers’ bags are solely for the volunteer experience,” she said.
Global Ase, which has headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, as well as New York, is currently in a research phase exploring best practices for commissionable voluntourism activities. It will soon announce a recommendation fact sheet for industry suppliers and travel agents in the Caribbean.
“As destination advocates, we need to celebrate cultures; it’s what makes destinations appealing and distinct,” Archer-Cunningham said. “Only through an immersion voluntourism experience does this opportunity fully avail itself. Understanding that [a country or community’s] cultural assets are something to be respected and shared ultimately creates a level playing field so that traveling volunteers can really do good while feeling good.”