It's in the nature of Americans to assign benefits of a Greater Good to the simple pleasures of travel. The economic engine of the U.S. travel industry is fueled in large measure by a consumer's desire to have fun, but fun these days is often connected to the desire for self-improvement or virtue.

If there were a catechism of travel that maps this underlying current, it might begin something like this:

Q: Why do we vacation?

A: We vacation to relieve stress.

Q: Why do we travel to faraway lands?

A: To better understand other cultures and people.

Q: When staying at a luxury resort, why do we use the same towels day after day?

A: To lower operational costs for the hotel.

A: I'm sorry. I meant: To save the planet.

The industry is taking notice of virtuous travel. "Voluntourism" is on the rise, hotels are greening and travelers are being told that they are not merely tourists but ambassadors of public diplomacy.

It's all good for travelers and good for the industry, and I want to make it clear that juxtaposing examples of near-passive virtuous travel with what I'm about to write is not an attempt to belittle this trend. I just want to place it in a somewhat different context.

I was recently invited by Royal Caribbean International to help select finalists in a contest by which the cruise line will choose a travel agent to be godmother of the Liberty of the Seas when it debuts in May.

Criteria for selecting the godmother focuses on the exceptional qualities of nominees -- courage, determination, an ability to inspire and a spirit of community service.

More than 2,400 travel agents were nominated, and these were winnowed down to 100 before 19 other judges and I became involved.

Reading these 100 nominations was an extraordinarily humbling experience. It immediately became clear that each nominee was more courageous, determined, inspirational and community-minded than I. Yet I was supposed to judge them and score their virtues on a scale from one to 10.

I ended up deciding a "five" would fit my understanding of a saint, and from that median point I would move up or down incrementally.

Interviewing the top 10 finalists in person during the pre-inaugural relaunch of the Majesty of the Seas last weekend, I was struck by how the experience of travel played such an important role in the lives of these extraordinary women.

Travel exposed Marie Brousard of American Express Centurion Travel Services not only to the needs of the world but to how needs are met in other cultures.

An organization Brousard founded provides water pumps and orphan shelters to remote villages in central Africa and Haiti, among other projects.

Donnalea Madeley of Thomas Cook in Thornhill, Ontario, started Hands Across Nations after deciding to join volunteers she had booked to Belize; her group has since built medical and dental clinics and a community center in Bolivia and Mali.

Susan Weissberg of Wylly's Travel in Coral Gables, Fla., was so moved by a client's description of poverty in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that she raised money for pumps to provide clean water to a community of boat people living nearby.

Agency clients can provide more than inspiration; they can provide the means to help achieve virtuous ends.

Ann Toricivia of Friends Travel in Levittown, N.Y., and Barbara Tyree of Tyree Travel in Old Bethpage, N.Y., return agency profits to multiple charities. Carole Weishaar of Carefree Travel in Scottsdale, Ariz., began the Desert Cancer Foundation of Arizona to help pay for cancer screenings for uninsured women, and her client base is among her most enthusiastic contributors.

It's a good thing that the pleasure of travel can provide an excuse for virtue, and it's a great thing that the industry is making it easier for travelers to indulge in the pleasures of virtue.

In this regard, these women leave most of us in the dust. Each is not only a fitting godmother for the Liberty of the Seas but is the living embodiment of how travel can amplify virtue and provide a path to a transcendent form of self-improvement.


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