Business Times - 23 May 2009
Living it up, and lending a hand
The recession is sending a steady stream of high-net-worth travellers down the philanthropic travel and luxury voluntourism routes, despite a slump in global tourism figures. But who's benefiting? By Audrey Phoon
NEXT week, two of Christopher Hill's clients will embark on a trip to Brazil, where they will spend a few days schooling street kids and help renovate a dormitory at a children's home in the city of Campinas in Sao Paulo.
What they will not be doing, however, is roughing it out. Throughout the 15-day trip, the travellers will rest on the plumped-up beds of modish hotels and spend the remainder of their time experiencing the finest of what the surrounding regions have to offer - that is, generally vacationing to a tune seldom heard of in these downturn-muffled days.
The pair are not the only ones to have signed up for such an experience lately. Philanthropic travel or luxury voluntourism - as this upmarket sightsee-cum-do-good travel category is known - is the newest trend in high-end vacationing, and to meet the growing demand a number of organisations proffering it in various forms have recently sprung up.
Apart from Mr Hill's UK-based Hands Up Holidays, which was set up in 2006 and is one of the pioneers in the field, other specialists in swanky philanthropic-minded travel include Exquisite Safaris Philanthropic Travel, which combines 'fundraising learning experiences' with luxe trips to some of the world's most exotic places, and Heart+Passion, which offers upmarket holidays interwoven with medical and care missions.
Top-tier hotel chains such as Fairmont and The Ritz-Carlton began offering their share of high-end help too last year, in the form of the Community Conscious Vacations and Give Back Getaways programmes, respectively. These allow guests to comfortably contribute to the community during their stays: at the Fairmont Winnipeg, for example, guests can assist in building homes for needy families under a scheme that the hotel has developed together with Habitat For Humanity. For a little more than the price of a room, they can purchase a package that includes accommodation at the Fairmont, transportation to and from the building site as well as what will probably be a much-needed amenity kit comprising band-aids, hand cream and access to the hotel's steam room.
Admittedly, philanthropic travel is still on the cusp of travel preferences in Singapore. But there are signs that it is picking up speed - lifestyle group and concierge service
Quintessentially, for one, says it has put together a few such packages here. And locals are getting a taste of what such a vacation could be like through The Ritz-Carlton Millenia, which organises regular social visits to St Theresa's Home that are open to non-guests.
What's interesting about this genre of travel is that, even as the United Nations World Tourism Organization reported in March that tourism had dived by nearly 8 per cent earlier this year as compared to the same period in 2008, the figures for philanthropic travel 'continue to grow strongly', note the operators interviewed by BT Weekend.
'The economic recession is helping global citizens realise our vulnerability and awaken to our humility,' declares David Chamberlain, Exquisite Safaris' founder. Either that, or the people who can spend are shelling out for these feel-good vacations that assuage any guilt about spending.
He continues: 'People who have found success in their chosen careers are getting the call to do something more with their lives; to contribute generously to a world desperately in need of their help.'
Siobhan Flanagan, corporate communications manager of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, confirms this. 'Research shows that luxury travellers are looking for experiences that offer value, but that also align with their values,' she says. 'Increasingly, people are refocusing on what's important to them, be it family, friends or community involvement, and (such holidays) provide a simple way to give back to local organisations.'
Hype or heart?
But are these short-term commitments really beneficial to the communities in need? Some individuals, such as IT manager CK Lai, feel that it's a case of the wealthy merely depriving the locals of much-needed jobs. 'By paying for your 'experience' and doing physical tasks, you are probably taking away the job from someone in the community who could really use the money,' he says. 'And if you don't have specific expertise that you can contribute, such as medical training, then you're better off leaving the job to others who do.'
Lawyer and regular volunteer Amy Lee adds: 'Charity work is all about identifying with the cause. A short stint here and there will not do justice to it. It may also not be respectful of the community we have to work with - we should leave the community in a condition that does not make them resentful of their own conditions.'
In any case, volunteer work and living it up luxuriously just don't gel - at least not on the same trip, reckons Ms Lee. 'I would support philanthropic travel - but as much as I love my Conrad Hotels, I must say that part of the fond memories of my charity work is the cheap lodging,' she says. 'It has a very bonding effect on the team. Your memories are unique to you and your team because you suffered together. Staying at the Conrad at the end of the day won't be the same.'
Still, there are others who would argue that philanthropic travel helps draw out vital contributions from those who would otherwise never consider leaving the comfort of their plush homes to contribute to needy communities. Explains Hands Up Holidays' Mr Hill: '(This sort of travel) makes volunteering accessible to people who might otherwise be put off by the perception that you have to 'rough it' to volunteer, or that you have to go and help for long periods of time. And these people frequently have specialist skills such as in marketing, accounting, design and medicine that can be of benefit even with four to five days of volunteering.'
He continues: 'Part of our aim is also to inspire our guests to become long-term donors and passionate advocates for the projects they get involved in, which makes the impact long-term.'
Help or hindrance, what's certain is that philanthropic travel is playing a role in gradually changing mentalities and driving societies towards more community consciousness. And it may also heighten awareness of issues closer to home.
Says Belinda Yap, who visited a home for the elderly last month as part of one of The Ritz-Carlton's Give Back Getaways: 'Even though we only spent a few hours with the residents, we could see they were very happy to have visitors come by to talk to them. After the trip, I realised I should try to spend more time with my own aged parents and include them in more activities.'
VOLUNTOURISM: PROS & CONS
'(This sort of travel) makes volunteering accessible to people who might otherwise be put off by the perception that you have to 'rough it' to volunteer, or that you have to go and help for long periods of time.'
- Christopher Hill, Hands Up Holidays
'By paying for your 'experience' and doing physical tasks, you are probably taking away the job from someone in the community who could really use the money.'
- CK Lai, IT manager
· Hands Up Holidays
(www.handsupholidays.com) consults with local communities to offer tailor-made luxury volunteering trips to places such as Brazil, India and Thailand, where travellers work with locals on building and ecological projects and stay in places such as the five-star The Sarojin in Khao Lak and The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra.
· Exquisite Safaris Philanthropic Travel
(www.exquisitesafaris.com) personalises experiences for private philanthropic consumers, NGOs and wealth advisors who want to build philanthropic travel services into their advisory services. Travellers get to explore the likes of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda where they both 'give and receive' experiences, and each trip culminates in a monetary donation to the communities.
(www.heartandpassion.com) is a 'group of committed travellers and philanthropists who coordinate magical journeys of caring, sharing, learning and giving' to destinations such as Ecuador, Mali and Haiti. The group works with on-the-ground NGOs to provide support to local communities in the form of training, advice, labour and, 'where demonstrably useful', funds. Next month, it is organising a trip to Ethiopia where it will work on water and medical projects.
· New Zealand Luxury
(www.newzealandluxury.com) recently auctioned off a luxury holiday to experience the best of what the country has to offer, where all proceeds went towards the Untouched World Charitable Trust. The website's spokesman Neil Pollett says the auction, which attracted bidders from Singapore among other places, was held as 'there is lately too much focus on the world economy decline at the expense of environmental issues that are also paramount'.
· The Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts
(www.ritzcarlton.com) offers a Give Back Getaways programme where guests can help clean a children's hospital in Berlin or visit the sick and aged at St Theresa's Home in Singapore, for instance. Sue Stephenson, the company's vice-president of community footprints, says the hotel company's network also helps connect guests who are active in charitable causes within their own communities, with those who are 'doing great good in other parts of the world'.
· Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
(www.fairmont.com) has a Community Conscious Vacations scheme that offers guests a chance to get involved to different degrees - for example, they may build houses in Winnipeg or help prepare meals for the homeless in Florida. The group's corporate communications manager, Siobhan Flanagan, says that the hotels have received a 'growing number of requests inquiring about how they can incorporate a charitable/community component to their stay' and that the scheme - which does not make any additional profit for the hotels - aims to facilitate this.