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September 28, 2015

Travelers, suppliers and agents are giving back

The results of the Tourism Cares survey titled "Good Travels: The Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler," released late last week in conjunction with World Tourism Day, are nothing short of stunning:

• More than half of traveling Americans have given money, time or goods in support of the communities they visited over the past two years. Among those who did, about 64% volunteered labor or skills, 86% gave money and 78% gave in kind while on a leisure trip.

• Seventy-two percent found their travel giving to be important, or very or extremely important.

• Millennials are particularly tuned into social impact travel: 81% volunteered during their travels over the past two years, while 78% donated cash and 83% provided in-kind giving. On average, they volunteer more than double the hours and donate nearly three times the money and 4.5 times the supplies that travelers 55 and older do. About 80% said they were "extremely satisfied" with their gift-related giving, 54% take an active interest in the causes they gave to and 50% intend to plan more trips around giving.

• Families who travel with children volunteered 12-plus hours more than the average traveler, and 46% later monitor the causes they donated to, with 34% following up with added donations. Nearly 75% said the act of giving created a very positive trip experience, while more than a third intend to increase their children's engagement in giving activities, with 35% planning to engage their kids in discussions about the needs of the communities they visit.

• The affluent care about the social impact of their travels. Fifty-five percent feel it's very or extremely important for their spending and giving to help local communities, with four in 10 factoring the provider's corporate social responsibility into purchasing decisions. They give the most during travel, and a third give again after returning home.

• Among people of all age groups who contributed in some way during travel, 64% expressed very high trip satisfaction directly linked to their charitable activities.

• About a quarter of those who haven't participated in giving while traveling are interested in learning more about opportunities to do so, a number that jumps to a third among millennials.

Prime motivator

Suppliers and agents alike ignore these findings at their own risk. The study, conducted by Phocuswright and sponsored by Amadeus, American Express, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Delta Air Lines, Hosteling International USA and the U.S. Tour Operators Association, points to social impact as one of the most powerful motivating forces that could sway a traveler to choose one supplier over another.

It would appear that, for many travelers, the opportunity to give back has moved from "nice to have" to "need to have."

(Double disclosure time: first, Phocuswright, like Travel Weekly, is owned by Northstar Travel Media, and second, I serve on the board of directors of Tourism Cares.)

Tourism Cares itself provides opportunities for members of the travel industry to volunteer and donate to give back to the destinations to which the industry sends travelers. For more about this and other Tourism Cares activities, visit

The generous generation

Most striking is the commitment to social impact travel on the part of millennials.

That millennials volunteer more hours isn't in itself surprising -- they're at a time in life when career and family obligations are lightest -- but the extent to which they show their commitment to helping by donating money is very impressive, given that, presumably, most are not yet at the height of their earning potential.

If a brand were interested in establishing loyalty early in the game with this enormous generation, stepping up social responsibility efforts and letting travelers know what they're doing are critical.

The study does not address the degree to which travelers conduct due diligence on the efforts made by travel companies to help the communities in which they operate, but I'd caution any company that overstates its social responsibility efforts or fails to deliver on the promises of experience that "greenwashing" is a bad idea. Millennials (among others) well understand the power of social media to spread the word about perceived shortcomings against expectations.

The following pages focus on just a few of the many social impact efforts currently underway within the industry. We're well aware that there are many, many more such efforts. If your company has an initiative designed around social impact that benefits the communities to which you bring travelers, please feel free to describe it in the comments below this article.

-- Arnie Weissmann


U.S. Tour Operators Association

Terry Dale, president and CEO of the USTOA and a member of the Tourism Cares board of directors, said the tour operator group was interested in funding the study in order to better understand the scope of philanthropic travel.

"We've always had an inclination that there was desire out there or there was philanthropic travel taking place, but we never were able to get our arms around how big the market is," he said.

He described the results as "extraordinarily reassuring" because of the fact that travelers are engaging with the communities they visit, and many of those who give back in some way report feeling highly satisfied with their travels.

"It was just, like, one of those defining moments," Dale said, of reviewing the survey.

One of the things that stood out to him was that millennials have such a high rate of giving back when they travel.

-- Jamie Biesiada

G Adventures

The premise is simple, said Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra and vice president of sustainability for G Adventures: "How do you support the communities in which G Adventures takes its travelers?"

Based on that guiding quest, in the 13 years since it was founded, Planeterra, G Adventures' philanthropic arm, has evolved from an organization that gathered donations to one dedicated to working with host communities to develop enterprises that produce sustainable incomes and also engage G Adventures travelers.

This week, G Adventures is taking that premise to new heights: It is launching a campaign to integrate 50 new enterprise projects into its trips over the next five years. In 2014, Planeterra had seven projects that touched G Adventures travelers; as of this month it has 25 such projects, and that number will triple to 75 as G Adventures aspires to offer philanthropic engagement on more than 90% of its trips by 2020.

"When you go on a trip to the developing world, where a lot of G Adventure trips go, and meet people who are a little less well off than we are but they've got a smile on their face, I think it's kind of hard for us as humans not to ask if there is something we can do for them," Sweeting said.

The idea was to find ways to integrate the travelers' experience with opportunities for local communities to earn money. For example, the organization is working with a Masai group in Tanzania on a cook-stove project, helping to install pipes in the villagers' homes to remove exhaust smoke that can cause death and disease among children. G Adventures will take groups to the Masai village to experience firsthand how bad the smoke is in homes that haven't installed the pipes and how improved the homes are after the installation. Money for the next stove that will be installed in the village is built into the cost of the trip.

"It's an incredible experience for the traveler," Sweeting said. "It's not a tourist village; it's as authentic as you can get. The only reason they're going is to see this project that we're working on."

In India, the operator is partnering in Delhi with a charity called Women on Wheels, which works with marginalized women, training them as drivers. All G Adventures travelers who book a transfer service in Delhi are picked up by the Women on Wheels drivers.

If and when travelers want to engage more, they can donate to projects they connect with on their trips or to other Planeterra projects. They can also raise money to develop their own projects.

"We're basically saying, 'Invest in other peoples' futures,'" Sweeting said. 

-- Michelle Baran


Millennials are one market David Searby is hoping to attract with his new philanthropic travel venture, BeachCorps. A foreign-service officer by day, Searby is seeking someone in the travel industry to help him get his idea off the ground.

Searby said he already has letters of support from large hotels and nonprofits and now is looking for a partner to help him execute fares and bookings.

BeachCorps embodies "positive, fun engagement," Searby said. Under his model, travelers would stay at quality hotels; for instance, in the Dominican Republic. Then, for a few days, they would spend time helping local nonprofits. That help might be as simple as picking up trash for a few hours.

Searby's model emphasizes engagement with the local population. For example, volunteers would spend time learning about the nonprofit they are working with -- and a donation to that nonprofit would be mandatory with BeachCorps, he said. Then, they might do some light volunteer work. That would be followed by spending time with locals, perhaps at a barbecue followed by a baseball game, after which they return to their vacation.

BeachCorps will also separate costs into vacation charges, the excursion tour to meet with locals and nonprofits and the mandatory donation made to nonprofits.

This model, Searby said, takes the focus away from vacationers and emphasizes that "the heroes are the people on the ground," working for nonprofits. In some cases, there might not even be any volunteer work, he said; vacationers might just learn about the nonprofit they donated to and engage with locals.

"There was never any work; there was engagement, fun and a meeting of equals," he said. "It's about empowerment." 

-- Jamie Biesiada

Hyatt Hotels

As the global travel industry continues to drive more business to the world's lodging sector each year, Hyatt Hotels is among the hoteliers that are making it a priority to give back a little more each year, as well.

The company's Hyatt Thrive program last year upped its cash and in-kind contributions by about 15%, to $11 million.

For starters, the company now trains each new employee in recognizing instances of human trafficking. Hyatt's global head of corporate responsibility, Brigitta Witt, said it is the company's responsibility to raise awareness and protect human rights.

Beyond that, Hyatt's Community Grants Program has made $2 million in contributions to 167 nonprofits in 38 countries since 2008. Meanwhile, the company's employees donate tens of thousands of hours each month toward activities such as sorting food at food banks, hosting blood drives, cleaning up beaches and volunteering at homeless shelters.

Hyatt isn't alone in its philanthropy directive. Marriott International gives out about $8 million in cash donations and another $15 million or so in in-kind contributions each year, with the recipient charities largely in the fields of shelter and food provision, environmental sustainability and education.

Starwood Hotels donated $5.4 million to charity last year in the form of cash and in-kind donations, with emphasis in areas such as disaster relief and human rights.

InterContinental Hotels Group contributed $6.2 million to various communities in 2014, while its Shelter in the Storm program donated goods and services to stricken areas in Egypt and the Philippines last year

And Hilton Worldwide has expanded its corporate-responsibility efforts in recent years, while the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, run by the hotelier's founding family, made $100 million worth of donations to causes ranging from water sanitation to AIDS-afflicted kids to children's education.

As for Hyatt, the hotelier continues to shift the focus of its philanthropic efforts toward youth.

"Our main philanthropic focus has been, and will continue to be, on education," Witt said, citing charities such as Room to Read, Youth Career Initiative and Khan Academy. "We believe that people who are better educated have greater economic prospects, lead healthier lives and can contribute to more vibrant, sustainable communities."

-- Danny King


Across the Caribbean, so many hotels of all sizes support their communities with charity and guest volunteering programs that there are too many examples to list here. But one that has had a huge impact is the Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International.

A guest at the Sandals Ochi Resort participates in a reading program in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
A guest at the Sandals Ochi Resort participates in a reading program in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Created in 2009 to expand on Sandals' already-existing philanthropic efforts, the foundation has since supported more than 300 programs with an estimated impact of more than $16 million. Many thousands of guest volunteers from the company's three brands -- Sandals, Beaches and Grand Pineapple Resorts -- have participated in voluntourism opportunities to help improve education, community and the environment.

According to Heidi Clarke, the foundation's president, guest interest has been "exceptional."

"We get flooded with emails about how people can get involved and help," she said.  "Our guests fall in love with not just our hotels but the Caribbean people who work in the hotels."

Guests can help in different ways, such as donating money, volunteering or buying gift-shop products that support local artisans.

A popular activity is Reading Road Trip: volunteering to supply books and read to children at local schools in areas where literacy rates are low. Guest participations sometimes continue after the vacation ends.

"It often goes beyond the excursion," Clarke said. "Guests make connections and then tell us they want to do something more for that school."

The foundation has continued to evolve to become more relevant to guests. In June, Beaches Turks & Caicos launched its Volunteenism program, which enables teens to help kids with their homework, assist at local camps, deliver school supplies and participate in community clean-up projects.

Guests also help preserve the local environment, which Clarke said is crucial because in places where there are many social ills, environmental issues often get put on the back burner.

The foundation has donated $2.6 million to turtle preservation, and guests can help release endangered hatchlings safely into the ocean.

-- Johanna Jainchill


When guests at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman expressed interest in contributing to the local community, their requests dovetailed with the company's global voluntourism program, Give Back Getaways, which was launched in 2008.

While an enhanced global version of Give Back Getaways will launch in November at all 88 Ritz-Carltons around the world, local programs are offered at several of the brand's hotels in the Caribbean and Mexico region.

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman's Blue Iguana Recovery Program works with the resort's Ambassadors of the Environment, a group of naturalists overseen by Jean-Michel Cousteau. A breath away from extinction, the Grand Cayman blue iguana is dependent on a breeding program to maintain its claim as the island's largest native endemic land animal.

Guests who volunteer for the program accompany the naturalist guide to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and are assigned activities by a park warden. Activities are seasonal and include looking for nests and eggs, painting fences at the facility or tracking iguanas.

"What we've done is help improve the habitat, which directly impacts the iguanas' health and well-being, which contributes to their longevity," said Janette Goodman, director of human resources.

The program is especially popular with corporate groups, who view it as a team-building activity, Goodman said.

"It's also well received by families who are already involved in environmental activities back home," she said.

Due to Ritz-Carlton's long-standing role in the Grand Cayman community, the property is able to tailor various programs for groups based on their size.

"We've reached out to local partners, including the Frances Bodden Home for Girls; we've had groups paint Black Pearl Park and take part in the Barkers Beach cleanup," Goodman said.

Guests in the iguana program pay $100 per adult and $50 for children 12 or older to participate. All of the money goes directly to the iguana preservation fund.

-- Gay Nagle Myers

Carnival Corp.

The cruise industry has long been involved in philanthropy, but the buzz since it was announced in June has centered on Fathom, the Carnival Corp. brand that begins sailing in April to the Dominican Republic.

Fathom lets passengers combine their love of travel with the desire to make a difference, according to its executives.  

The Adonia, a 710-passenger ship redeployed from the P&O Cruises fleet, will dock in Carnival's new Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic for three nights each cruise, and during the day passengers will participate in social-impact projects such as teaching English or distributing water filters in the Dominican countryside.

Fathom is by no means the only brand in the game. Crystal Cruises, for example, offers a complimentary You Care, We Care shore excursion on every cruise where it is possible, focused on a need or cause specific to the host community.

Norwegian Cruise Line offers tours such as its Save the Turtles excursion during turtle-nesting season in Cozumel, Mexico, where guests can learn about the species and help count turtle eggs.

But Fathom is the only cruise brand specifically created for and structured around social impact.

Jason Maltais, Fathom's senior sales lead for the East Coast, said the brand is targeting three customer groups in particular for the Fathom business profile.

The first is "purpose-driven millennials," Maltais said. These are high school to college-plus young adults who have been raised in an environment where community service is a graduation requirement.

Second, Fathom is seeking "mindful families" who use some of their free time on evenings and weekends to do a church project, staff a soup kitchen or do other community and humanitarian activities.

Finally, Fathom is looking to seniors 50 and older who have always been socially active but now want to take the next step. "Throughout their life they've been philanthropic, but they're tired of just writing a check," Maltais said. "They want to see it and feel it firsthand."

-- Tom Stieghorst


Many of the philanthropic activities of airlines involve charity miles programs and direct ticket giveaways.

For example, in 2014 JetBlue provided 787 flights to the Angel Flights organization, a nonprofit founded by pilots who transport patients, mainly from the rural heartland region, to hospitals for surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments. JetBlue also gave out 3,000 flights in 2014 to a variety of other charities, spokeswoman Tamara Young said.

Other airlines run miles-giveaway promotions in concert with charities. For example, Alaska Air last year partnered with the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington state on a promotion that encouraged the airline's 13.1 million Mileage Plan members to donate frequent flyer miles. The effort garnered 1.75 million miles of donations, which Alaska then matched, mile for mile.

Rebekah Lovitt, left, whom Make-a-Wish flew free to Hawaii with the help of Alaska Air’s Charity Miles program, swam with the dolphins at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island.
Rebekah Lovitt, left, whom Make-a-Wish flew free to Hawaii with the help of Alaska Air’s Charity Miles program, swam with the dolphins at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island.

"It's just always been a part of our DNA to give back to the communities that we service," said Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Eagen. "We know that travel is transformative, and whether somebody is visiting a loved one or they need to get to a medical appointment, travel is very crucial."

One beneficiary of that Make-a-Wish Foundation drive was Rebekah Lovitt, 17, a Redmond, Wash., resident with muscular dystrophy. Lovitt had long wanted to go to Hawaii and swim with the dolphins. But because she is wheelchair-bound, her family wasn't sure if flying her there would be feasible.

With the help of Alaska charity miles, Lovitt was able to live her dream in December when she; her parents, Beth and Dan; and her older sister, Rachel, flew free to Hawaii. Alaska facilitated the flight by outfitting Lovitt with a car seat that rested on top of her airplane seat to provide neck and lateral support, she said.

Lovitt was able to spend five days in Hawaii, where she swam with dolphins and sat in the front row at a luau.

"It was really fun," she said. "I took a lot of pictures, and I love showing people and talking about my trip."

-- Robert Silk


For those travelers weighing the possibility of taking a voluntourism trip, Travelocity is looking to provide some encouragement. And cash.

Earlier this month, the OTA, which was acquired by Expedia in January, launched a contest in which three winners who best express the worthiness of their cause will get an all-expenses-paid trip to locations of their choice.

Under Travelocity's Travel for Good contest, which runs through Oct. 18, the three winners will each get a travel package for two worth as much as $20,000. Travelocity will also make a $10,000 donation to each winner's charity of choice. Winners who enter via social media channels will have the opportunity to include photos and videos in their entries, and they will be judged on creativity, the quality of their submission and the charitable social impact of the trip they have in mind.

While the concept of voluntourism has become more prevalent in the past decade or so, gauging the size of the sector is difficult because the concept can range from ecotourism, where the traveler helps repair the environment, to trips geared to create better economic conditions among a group of people. Participants can range from someone making a weeklong trip to a student traveling abroad for an extended stay. Among Americans, the number of people thought to travel abroad for volunteer purposes each year ranges from 2 million to 4 million.

Still, Travelocity, citing a poll conducted for the company by Wakefield Research, estimated that almost two-thirds of Americans are interested in including a volunteer aspect on an upcoming trip.

"We get to recognize those people who inspire us," Brad Wilson, vice president and general manager of Travelocity, said in a statement. "Everyone at Travelocity is eager to learn about the amazing journeys that these people wish to take in order to make a difference around the world."

-- Danny King

Correction: An earlier version of this report omitted that Amadeus was a sponsor of the study.