The Peace Corps offers a chance
for its volunteers to see the world and help the world. Though it
inherently involves travel, it was difficult to imagine how the
corps might represent a travel industry business model. Until
There has been a
notable increase in volunteer tourism. Some people look at their
vacation as more than an opportunity to sit on the beach and sip
mai-tais. They want to help improve life in the village where the
waiter who brings mai-tais to tourists was born.
An article in the
April 11 issue of Newsweeks international edition put it this way:
These days, people are more inclined to use travel as a way to
affirm their connection to humanity, to measure the things we all
have in common. Its less about being jolted out of your own world
than about feeling bolted to the wider one.
Making a business
out of volunteer tourism, however, is rather tricky. First, theres
the question of taste: Is it seemly to wring profit out of people
who are, in essence, performing charitable acts? And the second
hurdle might make agonizing over the first point moot -- where
would the profit come from? Theres commission on an international
air ticket, but shelters for volunteers in local villages, if they
charge at all, are not likely to be participants in Pegasus
commission clearinghouse system.
Firms such as
Micato Safaris have set up volunteer programs, but these are not
business ventures; theyre established in the spirit of giving back
to the communities that serve their guests.
Only recently have
I come across a company that has built a decent-size business
around volunteerism, and it has done so in a manner that enables it
to be profitable, pay commissions and hold its head high. This
unusual company is headed by an atypical tour operator. Luis
Vasquez, president of Mila Tours, is a retired
As I was nearing
retirement, I was looking around for what to do next, Vasquez told
me. Physicians need continuing education credits to maintain their
licenses, and it occurred to me that, even though most doctors take
classes at a local hospital across the street from their offices,
theres no reason they cant sit in an accredited class somewhere in
China. Or, if they wanted to, they could volunteer to give lectures
somewhere else in the world and get a tax break on a portion of
To test the waters,
Peru-native Vasquez invited three doctors to give a lecture in
Lima. He said he couldnt pay them, but that hed take good care of
them and afterward, take them to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. All
three jumped at the chance.
I charged attendees
a small fee to hear their lectures. It was enough to finance the
trip. No profit. Afterward, my brother called and asked if I could
do the same for people he knew who were electrical engineers. I
figured, well, a meeting is a meeting. I can do that.
These trips already
featured the components of Mila Tours (Mila stands for Meetings In
Latin America). Vasquez weaves an act of volunteerism with a
high-end tour that emphasizes cultural experience. He now makes his
profit from the tour.
representatives in 20 countries in Central and South America,
Vasquez said. If a traveler has something to offer, a skill of any
kind, I can find a place where that skill can be put to good use.
They dont have to be classical or intellectual professions. Ive
booked tours for carpenters. One man said he didnt really have any
skills, but he loves to fish. I found a place where people were
anxious to learn from an expert fisherman.
Vasquez has a
marketing agreement with an organization called Cross-Cultural
Solutions (CCS), whose purpose is to match volunteers with areas in
need. Through their non-profit status, a volunteer can easily
establish a tax deduction for the volunteer portion of the trip,
though he said this can also be done regardless of CCS involvement
if you consult your tax advisor about how to do it.
Mila Tours recently
arranged for a Canadian institute teaching English as a second
language to send students to Yandalo, a Peruvian village in the
upper Amazon basin, for their fieldwork. He also arranged for staff
of the Chicago Adler Planetarium to bring telescopes to lecture on
astronomy in the village.
Why Yandalo? My
grandmother was born there, he said. I want to give something
interested in further information about Mila Tours can visit his
Web site at www.milatours.com.