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Volume 4 Issue 4 Highlights



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VolunTourism: 2008 Year-In-Review

What a year 2008 was for VolunTourism! Unprecedented media coverage - from mainstream publications to online - provided insights into the experiences and the entities behind them. We also had a chance to meet newcomers to the ranks of voluntourism operators & suppliers and observe their creativity and ingenuity. And we can't forget the opportunity of hearing from new voices - ones equally empassioned by voluntourism - through blog posts, and online journals & videos. With all of these occurrences taking shape around the world, what moments and items of interest generated the greatest impact on this burgeoning travel genre? Here are ten items that made their way into my 2008 VolunTourism Archives.

I was recently listening to a talk given by a monastic at a gathering of spiritual seekers back in 2006. At one point in his lecture he said, "You know what I call this society? Instant Gratification Society!... I want this, I want that... I want it NOW!" So I will follow his advice and present the ten items in a short list. For those who care to review the detailed explanation that accompanies each item, you are welcome to read on!

  • #10 Responsible Travel & VolunTourism - the emergence of responsible travel entering the voluntourism realm, sparked by efforts in the UK and South Africa
  • #9 The Academic World & Volunteer Tourism - a book of global case studies on the subject, additional journal articles and research, and the promise of a journal dedicated to volunteer tourism to launch in 2009
  • #8 The LGBT Community & VolunTourism - Chip Conley's effort with The Good Hotel in San Francisco, the launch of Sweet, a lesbian travel company focused on voluntourism, and Ed Salvato, of Regent Media, delivers his thoughts on this subject
  • #7 Research on VolunTourism - this is separated from the Academic World because the research primarily came from the private sector in 2008
  • #6 Conde Nast Traveler & VolunTourism - they researched it (with MSNBC.com), they defined it, they explored it and participated in it, and they have since continued posting blog content on the subject
  • #5 Conventions & Meetings And VolunTourism - Meeting Professionals International made it a staple for education and meeting professionals and conference managers incorporated it into their annual gatherings
  • #4 China Volunteerism & VolunTourism - the Chinese Earthquake and the 2008 Olympic Games motivated more than 1 million Chinese to volunteer. what do you think will happen when they take that altruism beyond their borders?
  • #3 The Corporation for National & Community Service And VolunTourism - when the CNCS released data stating that more than 4.7 million Americans volunteered over 120 miles from home in 2007, it became the first government-based entity in the world to verify such statistics!
  • #2 The Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau And VolunTourism - the PCVB made voluntourism an integral part of their 2009 Fiscal Year Planning Guide, making it the first city, unaffected by a natural disaster, to officially adopt voluntourism in this manner.
  • #1 The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC & VolunTourism - by far the easiest choice on the list! Unprecedented media coverage, a surge of hotels and resorts following suit, truly the global story of 2008!

#10 - Responsible Travel & VolunTourism

Particularly in the UK and in South Africa, 2008 saw quite a bit of discussion on how to make voluntourism more responsible. Recognition from the responsible tourism community began flowing to those entities that had demonstrated responsible approaches to voluntourism.

In South Africa, Voluntours South Africa created a "Code of Good Practices" as a guide for their operations and those who collaborate with them to deliver meaningful and responsible voluntourism experiences for travelers and host communities alike. The Code of Good Practice: Responsible Volunteering South Africa was also extended to others within South Africa that serve in this capacity with these words:

It should be noted that Voluntours South Africa (SA) was awarded two commendations throughout the course of the year. At the 2008 Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards, Voluntours SA received "Highly Commended" in the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category. At the 2008 Imvelo Awards for Responsible Tourism in Johannesburg, the operator received the "FEDHASA Chairman's Award" and was a "Finalist" in the "Best Social Involvement Programme."

In the UK, Biosphere Expeditions won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" award from First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards while Camps International won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" award at the 2008 Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards and Blue Ventures Expeditions received the ranking of "Highly Commended."

I do not know what impact this will have on the rest of the world. Responsible travel has certainly been a mainstay in the UK and South Africa for some time. Having responsibility enter the realm of voluntary service and travel should continue to bode well for host communities and voluntourists in 2009 - - as long as it does not stultify the creativity and experimentation by grassroots efforts across the globe.

#9 - The Academic World & Volunteer Tourism

The Academic World took a greater interest in Volunteer Tourism in 2008. Kevin Lyons, PhD, and Stephen Wearing, PhD, led the charge by offering a compilation of insights from other academics, and themselves no less, in Journeys of Discovery In Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives. Dr. Lyons and Dr. Wearing edited this volume of case studies which was published by CABI Publishing in February 2008. Academics from such locales as New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US covered subjects and destinations from Aboriginal Australia to Tijuana, Mexico to Phuket, Thailand. Dr. Wearing & Dr. Lyons took this a step further by announcing the 2009 launch of The Journal of International Volunteer Tourism and Social Development. The Journal will be peer-edited and submissions can be handled online.

Other Academics also generated unique journal articles or conference proceedings on this subject, here are a few:

This year also saw the emergence of the Center for Global Volunteer Service at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Part of the UCSD Extension, this initiative created three online courses for voluntourists to prepare them for their journeys, assist them on their journeys, and support them during their re-entry phase. The Summer of 2008 saw Kristin Lamoureux, Director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at The George Washington University, design a course on Volunteer Tourism. Dr. Larry Beck of San Diego State University, also took advantage of the Summer Break to pursue his own voluntourism trip to Peru during the Peruvian Winter Solstice (21 June, 2008). He has since incorporated his experience into his course on cross-cultural perspectives and tourism. He also shared his insights from the trip in the last issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter. And the list goes on.

#8 - The LGBT Community & VolunTourism

During a recent trip to New York City, I had a chance to sit down with Ed Salvato, Travel Editor for Regent Media. Our discussion was a continuation of an interview I had with Ed, John Polly of LOGO Online, and Shannon Wentworth, Founding Partner of Sweet, a lesbian travel company, back on 9 December 2008. There were several points that Ed raised during our discussion that made me revisit my thoughts on whether to include the LGBT Community's contribution to VolunTourism in 2008. as one of my Top Ten for 2008.

First, I'll start with what I knew prior to Ed and my conversation. I met Nicoll Quinn, one of the team members of Sweet, in August 2008 when she came down to visit me and discuss some of my recommendations on how to incorporate VolunTourism into her operations. Therefore, I knew that Sweet was planning to found itself on the value of "giving back" - good news for those wondering about the intent of for-profit companies. I also knew that Andrew Mersmann, Editor-in-Chief of Passport Magazine had taken on the task of writing Frommer's new guidebook on voluntourism, with a slated publication for late 2009. I knew that the LGBT Community had been actively voluntouring for a number of years, but that this had been couples-based or individuals-base and nothing on a group scale. And, I had also read Julia Steinecke's 13 December 2008 article in the Toronto Star.

What Ed shared with me that tipped my thinking were the following two items for your consideration:

1) The Good Hotel - the Good Hotel launched its "philanthropy concierge" initiative early in 2008, to assist travellers in volunteering while in San Francisco. Ed informed me that the Good Hotel was a Joie de Vivre branded hotel, a company headed up by Chip Conley, a renowned entrepreneur in the Gay Community. This announcement by the Good Hotel was covered by Time Magazine and several other publications.

2) Addressing Specific Social Challenges - the other point that Ed made during our discussion is that the LGBT Community is capable of addressing social challenges that other mainstream travellers may be less likely or less suited to address. Ed suggested that working with children and adults with HIV/AIDS might be a prime calling, especially for members of the Gay Community.

Thus, all of these items combined to convince me that the LGBT Community not only should have a spot in my Top Ten for 2008, but that we should see great strides from this audience in developing a strong VolunTourism niche in 2009 and well beyond!

#7 - Research On VolunTourism

If a travel trend requires research to be conducted on its behalf before it can gain a foothold in the market place, well, 2008 proved to be a year in which some significant names delivered their own research on voluntourism. The following is a list of some of the highlights from 2008:

  • January 2008 - Tourism Research and Marketing (TRAM) released "Volunteer Tourism: A Global Analysis."
  • February 2008 - MSNBC.com and Conde Nast Traveler released the results from an online survey they conducted with nearly 1600 respondents.
  • April 2008 - The Global Center for Volunteer Service at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) released a study focusing on multiple generations and their responses to voluntourism
  • September 2008 - The Mintel Report on International Volunteer Tourism was published and included interviews and qualitative research on the volunteer tourism segment
  • October 2008 - World Youth & Student Exchange (WYSE) Work Abroad released its Member Volunteer Programmes 2008 report which included some insights into how work abroad and volunteering abroad within this membership organization correspond
  • December 2008 - Travelocity released its annual numbers for those planning to engage in a "volunteer vacation" and found that the number dropped from 38% of those planning a 2008 trip to 13% for those planning a 2009 trip

To have TRAM and Mintel put out reports on this subject in 2008 demonstrates that volunteer tourism has achieved a higher ranking of recognition in the travel community. We will see if this trend continues in 2009.

#6 - Conde Nast Traveler & Voluntourism

Some of you might be asking: "Why did he choose this and what makes it so important? And if it's so important, why isn't it closer to the top of the list?" Good questions - ones that you should definitely ask. Here are my responses:

1) Why did he choose this and what makes it so important? Conde Nast Traveler (CNT) is known for its "Truth In Travel" moniker. It is a respected publication with a long history of spotting trends and telling the travel story like it is. Voluntourism having an association with it demonstrates a coming of age, especially for the folks who hold a certain cache for CNT. Not only did the May 2008 Issue define voluntourism but the writers for the story actually traveled to their respective destinations - each utilizing a different voluntour provider - in order to better experience this mode of travel and deliver educated commentary on the subject. (One writer even took her son along.)

Also accompanying this issue was a contest for voluntourists to submit their stories for review by the editorial team. CNT has since taken some of those entries and posted them on the Daily Traveler to showcase the variety of experiences and how they impacted the voluntourists. What started as the May Issue of CNT has now become multiple "issues" covering voluntourism over many months. All important points.

2) And if it's so important, why isn't it closer to the top of the list? In this world there must be a balance - the pendulum swings both ways, remember. In taking some time to review travel media posts over the months since the May Issue of CNT, I have come to the conclusion that other travel publications have made a distinct effort to avoid the term "voluntourism" when writing on the subject. Certainly there could be other explanations, but I have to go with my gut instinct on this one. Travel & Leisure, which covered the subject of "volunteer vacations" in October & November, even used some of the same organizations mentioned by CNT in May, yet, if you read through their postings, you will discover that voluntourism is conspicuously absent.

I expect that we will see this trend continue. Any publications that directly compete with CNT will likely substitute other terms for voluntourism to shield themselves from seemingly directly supporting "Truth In Travel." Should this trend change in the weeks and months ahead, then, perhaps, I will re-position CNT on this list. For now, middle of the pack is a good position for this.

#5 - Conventions & Meetings And VolunTourism

To say that 2008 ushered in a new era of conventions & meetings hosting VolunTourism events and activities in conjunction with their annual gatherings would be an inaccurate statement. New Orleans has been the beneficiary of many such activities since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And prior to that, meeting professionals had organized voluntary service projects, albeit, intermittently.

What is noteworthy on this topic is how meeting professionals, particular Meeting Professionals International (MPI) - the professional association for this group - has created a unique portal on voluntourism and sustainability as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative for meeting professionals. Through this initiative, meeting professionals are encouraged to engage their respective clients in voluntourism experiences, and, as a result, many of them are now utilizing the term "voluntourism."

If you take a gander across the web, you will discover that meetings & conventions groups use voluntourism in pre-convention literature and press releases and post-convention discussions via blog posts and internal & external communications such as newsletters and association magazines. You will see that some even went so far as to invite their members to be "voluntourists" for a day. [Editor's Note: Dr. McGehee, who runs the VolunTourism.org Research Forum, featured a research article on this subject in the last issue.]

When I interviewed folks that organized the Apache Con voluntourism event that took place in November 2008, it was clear that the reason they engaged in the activity was rooted in a direct connection to New Orleans and not for the purpose of generating publicity for their convention. The appearance of voluntourism in their pre- & post-communications was easily discernible. And, the ripple effects that accrue from galvanizing voluntourism in the minds of membership communities can only mean good things for the future.

The other side of this expansion of voluntourism into the meetings & conventions market allows us to move beyond the leisure-centric focus which has, in my opinion, greatly limited the potential of this travel genre. To date, VolunTourism has been seen as either a substitute for "volunteer vacation" or a word mash for "volunteer tourism." It is neither. It represents the dawn of creativity and cross-sector hybridization between the realm of travel & tourism AND the social sector in their entireties. Therefore, VolunTourism's circle of influence and potentiality stems well beyond the encumbrances of leisure or, for that matter, alternative tourism.

#4 - Chinese Volunteerism & VolunTourism

If you have not been paying attention to the growing involvement of Chinese citizens in volunteering, then you might want to start paying attention. Beginning with the October 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games and continuing with a monumental response to the Chinese Earthquake and the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing, a service movement is burgeoning within the student and youth generation of China. Even Jet Li, Founder of the Jet Li One Foundation and action film star, was incredibly active in supporting those impacted by the Chinese Earthquake. The following excerpt is pulled from an article that appeared on 3 December 2008 in the International Herald Tribune:

Mary Lynn Perry, Volunteer Coordinator for the City of Sacramento (California), inked an article for the Aug/Sep 2008 issue of Balance Life Magazine entitled "Voluntourism or the Volunteer Vacation." In it she shared some of her experiences in assisting groups that venture to Sacramento and want to volunteer during their travels. But this snippet is what caught my attention:

"Just this week I was approached
by a group of students who will be visiting in Sacramento
soon. They are school girls from China, aged 12-18, and will
be here to study English, but as part of their time in the area,
they also want to have a chance to volunteer."

I phoned Mary Lynn to hear how the adventure unfolded. She told me that the group had not been able to volunteer as they had numerous other activities which had to be crammed into an already tight itinerary. But, what she did share with me, that seemed to confirm this increase in Chinese volunteerism, is that she has been assisting visiting Chinese students who are attending the University of California Davis (UC-Davis) by placing them into voluntary service projects. These projects are skill-based projects and are primarily aimed at supporting low-income US citizens in doing their Federal Income Taxes. "A number of these students had volunteered in China for the very first time as part of the Special Olympics," Mary Lynn said. "They came to me looking for more and were very excited about helping."

I also came across a story about 1 KG More in the 22 November 2008 edition of the Social Entrepreneurs Newsletter, a publication of the Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum. A young Chinese backpacker, Yu Zhihai decided to start a grassroots movement to encourage backpackers to bring 1 kilogram more of materials to benefit students in rural schools throughout China. He has since gone on to broaden the scope of the original mission to include engagement and exchange between travelers and students - what he calls "voluntourism." The program continues to evolve as more individuals participate and express their opinions on how to improve the program. "100 years of pent-up generosity" and a potential "1.3 billion" volunteers in the making, Chinese VolunTourism may be the biggest story of the next century!

#3 - The Corporation For National & Community Service And Voluntourism

In July 2008, the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) released a Research Brief entitled "Long-Distance Volunteering in the United States, 2007." (CNCS was created in 1993 as part of the passage of the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993.) The Research Brief is the first of its kind by any government in the world, to my knowledge, to publish information regarding the long-distance volunteering habits of its citizens. And, what figures to be even more significant over time, CNCS used "voluntourism" in describing the results from their study.

Why is this so important?

Well, probably the best way to discuss the importance of this publication is to first determine what CNCS is not. CNCS is not a travel trade entity; it is not a private sector corporation; it is not a nonprofit organization; it is not an academic institution. All of the research that has been conducted around the world on the subject of voluntourism has transpired within one of the aforementioned "silos," of which, CNCS is not a part. Now let's talk about what it is.

If you take the time to review the Research Brief, you will discover how comprehensive it is. The numbers are far superior to anything my eyes have reviewed on this subject - I have not seen everything, of course, but I have seen quite a bit over the years. Second, because of the cache that CNCS has in the nonprofit world, the study has already sparked interest within the sector to discuss it further, to offer trainings & webinars, and, in some instances, to begin incorporating it into the operations of nonprofit entities within the US. Finally, since this survey occurs each year, we should be able to follow, from a longitudinal perspective, how voluntourism tracks over many years to come.

It is also possible, from an international perspective, that Australia, Canada, and the UK could follow up with a similar study as each has historically tracked the voluntary service activity of its respective citizens over the years. Who knows, we may even see the United Nations build on this groundbreaking research in some way.

#2 - The Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau And Voluntourism

Philadelphia is by no means the first city in the world to adopt voluntourism, there are numerous others who could lay claim to that distinction. But, what the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau did by including voluntourism into its Planning Guide for Fiscal Year 2009 was to set a precedent for other convention & visitors bureaus (CVBs) to follow suit. This is what we will see carrying over into 2009 (see Feature 1 from this issue).

Kathleen Titus, Director of Tourism Sales, has spearheaded the Philadelphia VolunTourism Initiative along with support from and Ellen Kornfield, Communications Manager for PCVB. Kathleen and Ellen have put a great deal of effort into launching this for their group tour business. Expanding on existing relationships with the Philadelphia Zoo and the Mural Arts Program, they have also brought Greater Philadelphia Cares into their stable and as a result have opened the door to some very unique historic and culturally significant voluntary service activities in and around the city.

But why did Philadelphia take this route in the first place?

Kathleen Titus told me during an interview on 2 September 2008 that responses from sales calls to key tour operators in the New England region coming into Philadelphia were the motivation behind this initiative. "We had asked them what would they like to see or what are the trends that they're seeing their groups ask for and what can we do to keep us on the cutting edge to help them sell Philadelphia and this area. And the one thing that we saw, commonality all across all of the operators that we had met with was volunteering and voluntourism," she said. It was this request for activities in which visitors can "give back" that spurred Kathleen and her team to formalize relationships with the Philadelphia Zoo, the Mural Arts Program and Greater Philadelphia Cares - all in an effort to set Philadelphia as a place "Where you're at Liberty to Volunteer."

#1 - The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC & Voluntourism

What was my first clue that this was the biggest story of 2008? Let's just say that I am grateful it was not my responsibility to post the clip report for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC and its "Give Back Getaways" voluntourism program in 2008.

It started with the USA Today and spread across the world in mainstream and travel trade media on- and off-line - The Wall Street Journal, The Globe & Mail, The UK Telegraph, Smart Money Magazine, TravelMole.com, The Baltimore Sun, and Hotelsmag.com, just to name a few. Elsewhere on the web it was veritably prolific - Luxist.com, Springwise.com, PopSugar.com, and the story even made its way onto The Chronicle of Philanthropy's website - spreading into other nonprofit-directed media outlets as a result.

I had another clue. The discussion I had with Sue Stephenson, VP of Community Footprints for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, and Mark Sherwin, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Tyson's Corner, was one of the most popular episodes of The VolunTourist Webcast in 2008. Later in the year, following our discussion on "Give Back Getaways," the Ritz-Carlton announced its "VolunTeaming" initiative for the corporate meetings & incentives market. This will likely have ripple effects of its own within and beyond the hotelier domain.

To see how other hotels have begun walking in the "community footprints" of the Ritz-Carlton is fascinating. Even their Uber-brand, Marriott, began connecting travelers with voluntary service activities in select destinations in 2008. The Fairmont also followed suit. I already mentioned the Good Hotel in San Francisco, and this list will mushroom in the years ahead as resorts and others embrace voluntary service.

I wrote about my discussion with Simon Cooper, President & COO of the Ritz-Carlton, in Volume 4, Issue 2 of The VolunTourist Newsletter, so I do not need to reiterate the commitment the company has to voluntourism over the long-term. What I will say is you may want to follow the evolution of this program over the course of the next several years. Under Sue Stephenson's guidance, I think we will see some tremendous breakthroughs in the education of nonprofit organizations, especially the NGOs which do and will have a connection to the Ritz-Carlton through "Give Back Getaways" and "VolunTeaming." As hospitality at its highest level connects with voluntary service at the destination level, we have the makings of a savory, mouth-watering dish of (g)astronomic proportions. Bon apetit!

Final Thoughts

It is not a simple task to craft a list from literally hundreds of occurences that made headlines in the VolunTourism world in 2008. I think, however, we will see over time that these items will have lasting waves of impact. One can certainly re-order items, as I even struggled with this a bit myself. Hopefully, this will inspire those of you who are eagerly anticipating what 2009 will bring - Can't Wait!

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