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July 2005 - 3Q's

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Verge Magazine: Travel with Purpose

Our “3-Q’s” for this month were sent to Jeff Minthorn, Editor of Verge Magazine – “Travel With Purpose” – with operations in Canada. Here is what he had to say in answer to our questions:

1) Verge Magazine has the tagline "Travel With Purpose." What were the determinant factors that encouraged you to develop a magazine of this genre?

When we began planning Verge magazine, we suspected that there was interest among young Canadians in opportunities to go abroad; and also that there were a very limited number of resources with information about how to do it. The resources that did exist seemed pretty lame - often dull, or worse, patronizing.

Market research for our original business plan, and continued research since, has borne this assumption out. The "travel with purpose" tag was a bit of an evolution and didn't happen until our third issue, at which point, we had conducted our first readership survey and found there was significant interest in opportunities for "meaningful" travel. This was great news for us; because from the beginning, the idea was to present travel opportunities from a socially and environmentally responsible point of view - travel as a way to start to understand world issues.

2) What two or three VolunTourism projects that you have discovered through your research and travels have really impacted your thinking about this type of travel and its relative importance to the world at large?

There are many projects that I've become aware of through my work at Verge, which have had an impact, both positive and negative, on my thinking about volunteer travel. The programmes which I think have the most positive benefits, both for community and participant, are the ones which operate at a small, local scale and are completely predicated on addressing needs identified by the community. These sorts of programmes are more about lending support to local expertise and initiatives.

I've also encountered less positive impacts. For instance, volunteers who…

  • Disrupt local customs and even damage family relationships through their behavior, dress, etc.
  • Inadvertently undermine local employment (why hire a local teacher when these Canadians will work for free?); or
  • Bring an attitude of "I'm going to help these people with my western expertise" as opposed to, "I'm going to join this group of people and maybe the skills I have will be useful".

At the end of the day, I think that as this sort of travel becomes more popular - and I think that it will - it's incumbent on providers to ensure that participants are going for the right reasons and with the right attitude. The best sorts of programmes foster a spirit of international cooperation, mutual respect and local pride in accomplishment. They are empowering for the community first, and, by extension, for the traveller who has chosen to help.


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3) Are VolunTourism projects creating a new type of traveler, i.e. A VolunTourist, or are these VolunTourists a breed of global citizens that are being groomed through their life experiences leading up to their travel excursions?

Personally, I think that both factors are at work simultaneously.

People here (Canada), more than ever before, have the resources available to be informed about the world - assuming they choose to look. And most of us have friends, neighbours, family, from other countries. I think living in this type of environment has generally increased our awareness about world issues and I have the sense that people are looking for ways to start addressing these issues. They want to feel like they can do something about it. They don't want to feel powerless. Look at the overwhelming response of people following last year's tsunami disaster.

So in that respect, I do think that there is a new sense about what it means to travel - at least within part of the population.

A "Voluntourism" experience can also awaken a new sort of traveller, especially if that person has never travelled, or if previous travel experiences have been limited to resort vacations, or short business trip visits.

People who spend several weeks or a year living in a community and working shoulder to shoulder with the people who live there, start to gain an understanding about issues and dynamics at work there. You'd rarely gain that sort of understanding by passing through for a couple of days. When you return home, you have friends in that community, you keep track of what's happening in the news, you want to know about what's happening in that country and in that region of the world. I think it can shift one's travel priorities - from simply passing through, to engaging.

Spending an extended amount of time in a community also gives you some sense of how locals perceive tourists and the significant impact, positive and negative, that tourists can have on a place. It can't help but affect your own way of travelling.

With degrees in environmental studies and architecture from the University of Waterloo, Jeff has a solid background in design - which he makes use of on the odd job in the office. He has worked and studied on four continents, including a season's worth of expeditions to Antarctica. With several years' experience guiding and instructing, Jeff is a big believer in experiential education and throwing himself (and others) in at the deep end. He has a penchant for getting himself into (and sometimes out of) difficult situations, and was once nearly drowned while teaching swift-water rescue to a group of emergency personnel. He says that running a magazine is just as interesting but slightly less dangerous.

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