Thursday, November 12, 2009

Volunteering and Tourism…Voluntourism!

Are you familiar with the idea of voluntourism? For me, I encountered this strangely coined word for the first time in a recent article in the Time Magazine--Silver-Spoon Voluntourism: Luxury hotels offer day trips to help vacationers connect with communities. Voluntourism, also known as Volunteer Vacations, means doing voluntary work while you tour. Only after Googling did I realize that voluntourism is nothing new. In fact, it was recognized by the Travel Industry Association of America as a growing trend in tourism back in 2005. According to the latest poll by travel web site Travelocity, the percentage of travelers planning to volunteer during vacations in 2007 nearly doubled from the previous year, jumping from 6 percent to 11 ( Following traditional travel agencies and some NGOs, luxury hotels now jump in line and start to offer voluntourism trips to wealthy clients. Designed to connect tourists with the communities they visit, many short-term voluntourism projects involve hard labor. For instance, the Mandarin Oriental in Miami offers a two-night package in which guests spend a morning removing invasive plants and assisting with recycling programs in Everglades National Park. But unlike programs such as Habitat for Humanity that pair weeklong projects with unglamorous accommodations, “hotel-organized excursions generally take up no more than a day, and participants can cap off the experience back at the ranch with $15 cocktails and a night on high-thread-count sheets.”And do guests get discounts for being do-gooders? They don't. In some cases, hotels charge participants an extra $40 or more to cover transportation and other costs associated with their manual labor.

Having trips with a heavy focus on voluntary services sounds interesting. But is it innovative at all? Do you think it innovative for luxury hotels to offer voluntourism excursions? Presumably, participants in luxury hotel-organized trips are rich people who care about local communities.Thus so-called silver-spoon voluntourism claims another goal, which is to link local charities to potential donors. Unsure of how well this social function can be served,I see offering voluntourism trips as a clever move for luxurious hotels to address emerging consumer needs-just like adding another hotel amenity. In this regard, it is a well-received innovation, or even a Blue Ocean strategy--it creates a less competitive market for voluntourism where ordinary travel agencies can't easily enter because of its high-end nature.

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