When clients of the luxury travel agency Artisans of Leisure flock to Vietnam, they peruse the floating markets of the Mekong Delta or take in lotus flowers blooming around the ancient pagodas of Hue.
Recently, however, they are embracing an off-the-map concept known as philanthropic travel. They donate cows – or even a water buffalo – to impoverished villages. And they follow up by sponsoring a ceremony and a big party.
“Our clients are really looking for human connections,” said founder Ashley Ganz, who is based in New York. “Not so much on a financial basis. It’s more about the human exchange.”
Like its competitors, New York-based Artisans is experiencing a boom in this ethically complicated niche, and larger, tony operators are quickly jumping on the bus.
Ritz Carlton Hotels and Resorts has just launched a 71-hotel program called Give Back Getaways, allowing guests to participate in music therapy programs for the disabled in Istanbul or home restoration in the ancient water town of Wuzhen, China. Guests will shell out somewhere between US$50-100 for the experience, part of which is forwarded to the local charity.
American Express Travel is set to launch its own package for its elite Platinum Card members, one of which will include an Orient-Express train trip through Botswana and South Africa that will offer visits to soup kitchens and basket-weaving projects en route. The cost: US$13,000 per person, and evidently, the company sees a future from this kind of demand. “Even in the past week we received many calls from travellers who want to go help out in Myanmar,” said spokeswoman Mona Hamouly.
High-end sightseers these days want to break out of the tourist bubble of spas, vineyards and antiquing; instead they seek a deeper, emotional connection with locals in need of help. Known as realitybased, or experiential tourism, the trend at this level of affluence is a kind of luxury-vacation offsetting.
Operators and social theorists surmise that this jet set generosity could be the loud echo-effect of anti-poverty crusaders Bono, Bill Gates, and Brangelina. Others attribute the trend to niche positioning in a very competitive luxury market. Still, the contrast of Thurston and Lovey Howelltypes putting in face-time with disease-stricken villageiosie before retiring to a $500-anhour, his-and-hers massage can be jarring.
Arthur Brooks, a sociologist who studies the confluence of conservatism, wealth and charity, agrees with operators who say that a little generosity is better than lot of indifference.
“It’s easy to ridicule people who dabble,” he said. “But it’s cynical to say that it’s reprehensible to care about poor people while enjoying the finer things in life.”
Ultimately, he believes, the concept challenges the soul. “It goes back to the Biblical teachings,” said Mr. Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness.
” It won’t help the poor if we don’t help the poor, but it also doesn’t help the poor if we make ourselves poor.”
Observers say that broadening one’s portfolio of giving is a prime motivator. “Many of our guests are already actively involved in worthwhile causes in their own communities and now through this program they can continue this spirit of giving while on vacation,” said Simon Cooper, the Canadianborn president of Ritz Carlton who led his company’s recent initiative.
The concept springs from another recent trend called “poorism,” otherwise known as “voluntourism.” Pioneered by companies such as Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures, programs dispatch travellers to towns ravaged by disease, poverty or disaster, where they offer their services, whether it be building houses, working in an HIV-AIDS hospice or soccer coaching.
Munificent as those gestures might sound, some proponents of philanthropic tourism take exception to voluntourism’s approach, which they believe can be counterproductive.
“Most grassroots organizations can’t manage when hundreds of people come for a morning or afternoon to build a nursery school or a latrine,” said David Chamberlain, owner of San Francisco-based operation Exquisite Travel, whose company donates US$250 per traveller to the grassroots organizations with whom he has worked.
Mr. Chamberlain says that many of the towns his company supports have massive unemployment issues, and the can-do, Peace Corps model of voluntourism only takes jobs away from locals who need the money, no matter how paltry. “The philanthropy message of giving puts the community’s needs first,” he said, emphasizing that companies in his space who do not give something back to the local volunteer organizations have questionable intentions.
“We’re trying to inspire not only travellers and hosts, but also the industry,” he said. “We’ve been reaping rewards of world heritage sites without participating in helping the communities around them.”
One of the company’s big accomplishment is contributing for a school in Zambia, which cost US$10,0000 and was completed last year.
Founded in 2006, Exquisite has since booked 150 trips. “When we started our business, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we create experience meaningful for travellers that would be different?’ ” recalled Mr. Chamberlain.