Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

At the Swiss Travel Mart last week in Zermatt, the subject of the European migrant crisis came up in a conversation with a tour operator.

"I feel guilty sometimes," she said. "There are thousands of people in misery, yet I'm worried that someone who is on vacation may be inconvenienced at a border crossing. Or that the crisis will hurt our profitability."

Although one can be in diverse areas of Switzerland -- in addition to Zermatt, I was in Zurich and La Chaux-de-Fonds -- and experience no delays nor see overt signs of the migrant crisis, I spoke to another operator who had guests scheduled to arrive in Budapest last week, with plans to travel to Vienna. His company reached out to them about anticipated problems and rebooked the clients to another destination.

It's not surprising that the first operator would feel dissonance between her emotional, human reaction to the crisis and her responsibilities to her customers and employer. Or that she would be bothered by the stark contrast between a holiday, which traditionally suggests a retreat from everyday problems, and those very large problems that cannot be ignored.

There is not much tour operators or travel advisers can do that will mitigate the migrant crisis. But her feelings and instincts are nonetheless linked to our article today about Tourism Cares research, which reveals that many travelers don't desire separation between a vacation and the in-your-face reality of the places they visit.

During the course of our conversation, the operator said she also felt uncomfortable about tours that profit from bringing clients into poverty-stricken areas. She cited bus tours through the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as exploitative and cynical.

I suggested that there was a difference between voyeuristic "poorism" and the types of volunteer efforts or desire for meaningful travel that the Tourism Cares research concludes are increasingly important to travelers today.

"Perhaps," she said. "But how much good is volunteering for a few days really going to do? If travelers sincerely wanted to help, they could probably do more good by donating the money they spent on the trip."

Which brings us back to a different reality that the research uncovers.

There is a scene in the movie "Schindler's List" in which the title character, a German who has taken great risks and spent much money to help save Jewish lives in World War II, has a moment of guilt when he looks at his expensive watch and wonders how many more lives could have been saved if he had sold it and used the money to help additional Jews escape.

The scene touched on the inherent human conflict between the desire to help people less fortunate and the urge to enjoy the material bounty that comes with disposable income.

How one deals with this division is ultimately a very personal decision, but the Tourism Cares research suggests that consumers have introduced soul-searching into travel planning as never before. They still want to travel, but they want to incorporate a socially important dimension into their trips.

And as our article examining the research demonstrates, the industry has responded with a wide variety of options for travelers. There is a continuum of companies that want to attract those who desire to mix social impact with travel: On one end, the cost of entry to even be in some travelers' consideration set is to be a responsible employer, supportive of communities in which one operates and to utilize environmentally sustainable practices. This is the baseline.

At the other end of the spectrum are products that include hands-on volunteer opportunities in the communities that are visited.

There are myriad points in between, including the establishment of a nonprofit foundation, or soliciting money or supplies from guests for needy host communities or visiting projects that the travel provider has initiated or supports.

The research also found that after they return home, a significant number of travelers want to remain engaged with the projects they became exposed to while traveling.

There have always been nonprofits and government programs to enable people who want to fully dedicate their money or lives to providing aid in a straightforward manner, without attaching it to a vacation.

As an industry, we are going to fall short of the selflessness demonstrated by those who are devoted to spending all their time and resources to helping others.

And, sadly, there are those within the industry who exploit, rather than support, the needy communities in which they operate.

But as an industry, we have made great strides toward the World Travel & Tourism Council's goal of making travel a force for good in the world. It is not enough to simply say we create jobs and trickle-down wealth; there must be overt activity and meaningful connections that have the potential to change the lives of both those living in underdeveloped communities and their more fortunate visitors.

Consumers are apparently pleased that we are providing opportunities to mix leisure and purpose. One can't help but feel that, in the end, whether we are motivated by guilt, goodness or profit to do the right thing, it doesn't matter terribly much to those who help or are helped.

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