Fueled by a climate of awareness, tour operators are getting in on the giving game en masse.

This year alone, Collette Vacations, Lindblad Expeditions, Big Five Tours & Expeditions and the Travel Corp. have launched nonprofit foundations aimed at giving something back to the environment or to the communities where they operate.

"We, as the travel community, are part of the problem because we're sending guests [around the world]," said Ashish Sanghrajka, vice president of sales and partner relations at Big Five Tours & Expeditions. "And we in the tourism industry have the widest reach of any industry."

In June, Big Five launched the Spirit of Big Five Foundation, a nonprofit organization and an extension of the philanthropic efforts that the Sanghrajka family, which runs Big Five, has been involved with for a decade. Its first major initiative was to partner with Metropolitan Touring in Peru to help finance a recycling facility on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos through Fundacion Galapagos. Big Five also helps fund ongoing education programs in Kenya, South Africa and India.

According to Sanghrajka, customers today are better informed about the world and are going to start demanding greater purpose from their vacations.

"For us, it becomes an obligation to erase our own [damage]," said Sanghrajka. "For the agent, it becomes a necessity to remain competitive. Over the next two years, their consumers are going to ask, 'What are you doing to erase my [carbon] footprint?'"

For smaller, home-based agents, making their business sustainable can be a daunting task, Sanghrajka said. But being able to point customers to operators that have philanthropic programs helps, he added.

 

Tour operators' growing altruism involves sizeable investment, especially considering the notoriously tight margins their businesses survive on. Collette Vacations, for example, launched the Collette Foundation this January and is committed to spending $2 million over the next five years to help children around the world.

The Tauck Foundation, the 13-year-old endowed foundation that is part of Tauck World Discovery, distributes 5% of its endowment assets annually in charitable grants and direct charitable expenses

The vast majority of operators' foundations have nonprofit, or 501(c)(3), status and are consequently tax exempt, but most deny they're giving to charitable programs simply for the tax benefits.

"For 10 years we were doing it without a tax break, without a foundation," said Sanghrajka. "We do it because we want to do it, not because there's some hidden [financial] benefit behind it. If I thought for a second it was just about tax benefit, would I personally go to the school in India?"

And while operators' charitable efforts scream marketing opportunity, companies aren't capitalizing on their philanthropic endeavors in any significant way to help boost their leisure business. Rather, they're choosing to drop subtle hints.

"There are a number of itineraries that include optional visits to the sites [Collette helps fund]," said Allison Clark, foundation manager at the Collette Foundation.

She added that guests could easily book with Collette and never know the operator has a charitable division. But those who seek it out will find it, she said, and increasingly customers are searching.

"It is a change in the awareness level of the clients," Clark said. "They don't want to see a country through the [window] of their motorcoach anymore. For the past five years, they've wanted to get outside and discover."

And while the temptation to encourage guests to assist with contributions is there, few operators are going around with a donation jar just yet. "We did a little pilot [program] and reached out to guests [for donations]," said Liz Walters, managing director of the Tauck Foundation. "In the end we realized it wasn't the business we're in."

As an endowment, the Tauck Foundation provides grants in three areas: destinations, youth organizations and Sparks, an educational summer program for underprivileged children launched two years ago.

Lindblad Expeditions, however, has a solid fundraising base, and according to President and CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad, the company raises about $1 million annually from guests and donors for its various conservation programs. Lindblad recently partnered with the National Geographic Society to create the Lindblad/National Geographic Fund and further increase its efforts to support conservation, education and sustainable development initiatives.

As for why many people decided to care now, said Lindblad, what's important is that they do.

"What we're doing is creating a different relationship between travel and trying to inspire people to actively find ways to care about the planet," said Lindblad. "It's not so much that people who are doing this, whether it be us or others, are just so noble. It's a real response to what a lot of people want out of travel." 

To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].

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