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Volume 3 Issue 4 Highlights

 
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Study and Research

EMERGING BEST PRACTISES IN ADVENTURE TOURISM AND VOLUNTEERING

Christina Heyniger, Founder, Xola Consulting, Inc., and

Kristin Lamoureux, Director, George Washington University's International Institute of Tourism Studies (IITS)

For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist, I am pleased to present findings from research on best practices recently conducted by Christina Heyniger, of Xola Consulting, Inc., and Kristin Lamoureux with the International Institute of Tourism Studies, George Washington University. Christina and Kristin would also like to thank Amanda Charles, research assistant to Ms. Lamoureux, for her assistance in pulling this together for The VolunTourist.

Introduction

The notion of tourists “doing good” or “giving back” as an integral part of their vacation experience is not a completely new concept, as tourists have often sought to donate some resource to destinations they visit. In specific cases, tourists have involved themselves in scientific or academic work projects, or visits to orphanages and schools while touring a new place. Tourists choosing to blend such service-oriented activities with the traditional tourist diversions have often come away with a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling of well-being for having made a positive contribution towards impacting local lives.

In a 2005 Travel Industry Association (TIA) survey one-quarter of travelers (47% of them between the ages of 35-47) said they were currently interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation, and in a recent travelocity.com poll the number of people planning to spend time doing volunteer work while on vacation increased from six percent in 2006 to eleven percent in 2007. Thus consumer demand for meaningful vacation experiences continues to grow, which is further evidenced by the rapid multiplication of companies offering service oriented vacations and programs.

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As more organizations from the tourism industry and the realm of humanitarian and environmental aid seek to serve this demand, we find that there are increasing numbers of organizations struggling to operate effectively at the intersection between offering quality, purposeful vacation experiences that are not intrusive, exploitative and/or disruptive to local destinations. This case study research was undertaken by Xola Consulting and The George Washington University’s International Institute for Tourism Studies in the spring of 2007, to identify operational best practices that can serve as a model for social entrepreneurship in the tourism industry.

Research Approach

The approach for this exploratory research was to examine the work of six social entrepreneurs who have incorporated rural adventure tourism in their efforts to address important human and environmental issues. The six organizations, including tour operators, NGO’s, and a new breed of donor-brokers established to help channel tourist dollars to small-scale aid programs around the world, are described below. Each organization participated in an open-ended interview. Questions were developed based on a preliminary literature review and discussions with industry experts. The results of the interviews were reviewed for similarities and differences. This research is preliminary. The authors expect to expand this research to a larger audience in the near future.

Overview of Organizations

Emerging Business Models

1. The Interwoven Itinerary: Tour operators take an adventure tourism itinerary - bike, horseback riding, hiking/trekking - and include volunteer visits to villages along the route (PEPY, Explorandes, Relief Riders International)

2. Adjust Standard Procedure to Include Tourists: NGOs and other aid or research-focused organizations (church groups for example) invite tourists to join in their work for short periods (Los Ninos)

3. Innovations to Support Donors in Direct Giving: A general backlash against “big business” has led many philanthropists to want to give to small projects and know precisely where and how their donation is applied. Donor-brokers focused on the adventure tourism sector take travelers' desires to donate and help establish aid projects or vet existing projects (Global Sojourns’ Giving Circle, Generosity in Action)

Explorandes is a Peruvian owned and operated company, established in 1975, that has been operating cultural and nature explorations along the Inca trail. As an adventure travel company operating in extremely poor and remote areas, Explorandes’ social programs grew out of management’s consciousness to help the rural communities, and started with modest initiatives such as helping to raise money for the community to build a new roof, or delivering school supplies. For years these programs continued without tourist involvement and without publicity; the company saw these activities as part of its social responsibility to the communities. With the increasing interest of tourists to engage in voluntourism activities, the company realized it had an opportunity to create a new type of product offering that would be beneficial to both travelers and the rural communities. It now supports aid programs in ten communities throughout Peru with approximately ten to fifteen percent of its trips involving some type of community aid work — either purely financial contributions or financial contributions accompanied by physical work.

Generosity in Action is a non-profit organization based in the United States that provides tax-deductible donations for the benefit of projects in third world countries, which do not have NGO or 501c3 structures behind them. Generosity in Action validates the authenticity of the projects discovered by travelers in their journeys and provides a mechanism for travelers to give directly to these programs. In the words of founder Duncan Beardsley, “Generosity in Action provides the opportunity for the smallest charitable need to be funded by American generosity.”

Global Sojourns is engaged in providing customized adventure tours for small groups around the world, with a special focus in Africa. Founder Priscilla Macy's driving mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to connect with a destination: its history, culture, nature, and special needs. In 2006 Global Sojourns launched a program for travelers called the Giving Circle. Travelers joining Giving Circle learn about international philanthropy and participate in the identification and vetting of projects suitable for their future financial donations and possibly hands-on volunteer labor. Through Global Sojourns the Giving Circle provides a mechanism for channeling donations and following the impact on the communities. Global Sojourns views Giving Circle projects as a key component for inclusion in customized trip offerings, providing an unusual opportunity for travelers to educate themselves about a region's challenges and issues, support worthwhile aid programs, and experience a truly one-of-a-kind integrated travel experience.

Los Niños, Inc., a non-profit organization, has been working with communities in Mexico along the US/Mexico border over the past 30 years. Initial focus was to address the needs of malnourished children in the many communities stretching along the western border from Tijuana to Mexicali. Over the past 20 years the focus has evolved to a participatory development approach. The organization realized that the best solution to alleviating food scarcity in these communities was to create opportunities for families to address their situation of poverty. In 2003 Los Niños launched VolunTours™, a marketing and membership building social enterprise that supports volunteer vacations, team building events and other service learning opportunities. Income generated benefits Los Niños' core community-driven development programs while offering participants new awareness, education and volunteer opportunities.

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PEPY is a non-profit organization with an environmental education mission. It is closely linked with the adventure cycling tour company, PEPY Tours, in its operations in rural Cambodia. Since its inception PEPY’s efforts have supported the construction of two schools in rural Cambodia. PEPY Tours guests may find themselves volunteering in the schools, or on projects managed by one of PEPY’s local partners. The Cross Cambodia PEPY Tours adventure cycle trip took place in January 2005. Since then PEPY has operated twenty-five tours for a total of 200 guests — some have blended adventure cycling and volunteering while others have focused solely on volunteer activities.

Relief Riders International is an adventure tour company providing travelers the opportunity to join a humanitarian expedition on horseback through Rajasthan’s Thar Desert in India. Although currently not in operation as the company’s directors contemplate a new strategic direction, the company’s trips involved guests in the set up and operation of a medical camp and a cataract eye surgery camp to serve rural villagers. At local schools, the company provided de-worming medicine to local children as well as school supplies and distributes goats to below- poverty-level families along its route.

Summary of Findings

The tour operators and NGOs participating in our study confirm what much of the research into strategies for international development has found: despite the risks, forming strategic partnerships is the most effective and cost-efficient approach to successful social-aid programs.

Overall, the study revealed:

    • Emerging Business Models
    • Common Challenges
    • Compelling Success Stories
    • Emerging Best Practices

Examples of Emerging Business Models

1. The Interwoven Itinerary: Tour operators take an adventure tourism itinerary - bike, horseback riding, hiking/trekking - and include volunteer visits to villages along the route (PEPY, Explorandes, Relief Riders International)

2. Adjust Standard Procedure to Include Tourists: NGOs and other aid or research-focused organizations (church groups for example) invite tourists to join in their work for short periods (Los Ninos)

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3. Innovations to Support Donors in Direct Giving: A general backlash against “big business” has led many philanthropists to want to give to small projects and know precisely where and how their donation is applied. Donor-brokers focused on the adventure tourism sector take travelers' desires to donate and help establish aid projects or vet existing projects (Global Sojourns’ Giving Circle, Generosity in Action)

Preliminary Challenges for Organizations Studied

The best intentions may sometimes have unintended consequences. Respondents identified several challenges that they have faced in the development of their programs. For tour operators, one challenge is not creating dependencies they may not be in a position to serve long term such as in a local community. “Voluntourists” may over time put local communities in a welfare state of mind when self empowerment is the goal. Additionally, there is a challenge in giving what the tour operators think they need rather than what they actually need. Balancing travelers' expectations with the realities of humanitarian and environmentally oriented field work is another challenge. Lastly, from a business perspective, balancing short-range-profit-needs with the longer-term-results-horizon required for social projects can be difficult.

Success Stories

Even with the challenges, the benefits to communities, travelers and businesses are compelling enough to warrant continued exploration. Some examples of successes include:

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Tour operators and NGOs

  • In leveraging community assets for tourists, assist destinations in enhancing and preserving their natural and cultural aspects
  • NGOs are able to attract funding more easily when people can experience in-country the benefits of their donation

Communities

  • Receive aid for common needs – medical, educational, infrastructure
  • May develop businesses catering to tourists

Travelers

  • Add the emotional benefits of “giving back” to the standard list of tourism’s intangible benefits: rest, relaxation, cultural exploration, adventure
  • Episodic type of volunteer experience combined with travel attracts people who may not typically volunteer in their home setting

Emerging Good Practices

From the study, several practices emerged as examples of what many of these organizations are doing or hope to do in the future. NGOs and Tour Companies alike can benefit from these lessons learned which include:

  • Appropriately identify community needs
  • Create a shared investment - communities and the traveler-volunteers must both contribute in some way
  • Start by identifying organizations who have history in the region before launching new initiatives that may be duplicative; seek partners
  • Follow up; maintain a presence in the regions you visit

Conclusion and Future Research

As discussed earlier, as more organizations both from the tourism industry and the realm of humanitarian and environmental aid seek to serve this demand, we find increasing numbers of organizations struggling to operate effectively at the intersection of two very different disciplines. A core challenge for these organizations is how to meet the increasing demand for quality, purposeful experiences without creating tourism activities that are intrusive, exploitative and/or disruptive to local destinations. This pilot research provides some guidance for tour operators and NGOs seeking to enter into this type of activity. This research is by no means exhaustive. It is meant to provide a “first glance” at some of the challenges and triumphs of several organizations that have sought to incorporate social entrepreneurship into their business operations.

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In the future we expect researchers will delve further into the areas of volunteer tourism and its impacts on destinations, as well as social entrepreneurship within both the adventure and volunteer tourism niches. Furthermore, as more people choose to engage in the range of volunteer tourism experiences we expect both business and academic leaders will give increasing attention to the need for human capacity building in regions around the world where extreme needs exist, and to whether and how volunteer tourism can support development efforts of this nature.

Hope you enjoyed this month’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please either submit your questions to the VolunTourist newsletter, or e-mail me directly.

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.

Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg VA

nmcgehee@vt.edu

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>

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