Arnie Weissmann 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 recently.

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 cardiologist.

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 their travels.

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.

I have 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 back.

Travel agents interested in further information about Mila Tours can visit his Web site at


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