'Voluntourism' movement becoming popular among travelers

Thursday, August 11, 2011 | 5:02 p.m. CDT

CAPE GIRARDEAU — When people choose vacation destinations, they generally look for beautiful beaches and luxury accommodations, but a new movement gaining popularity among travelers adds more meaning to a typical family trip.

Voluntourism, a new term in the travel industry, mixes elements of service into a traditional vacation. Travelers can either choose to dedicate the majority of their vacation to volunteering, or dedicate one or two days of their trip to giving back.

Carolyn Kempf, president of Elite Travel in Cape Girardeau, said she has seen voluntourism gain popularity among the agency's customers over the past several years.

"It's become a real trend," Kempf said. "I think a lot of people who take their families on vacation realize it's a great opportunity to teach their children a really good life lesson."

Incorporating service into a vacation is easier than some people might think, and opportunities to give back exist no matter where a family's destination might be.

"Let's say you're taking a trip to New York City, and you're buying $100 theater tickets and you're staying in a $350-a-night hotel," Kempf said. "You can do some research ahead of time and look into local food pantries or other organizations in that area and spend one of your vacation days volunteering there. There's almost any vacation you can do that will allow you to give back at the same time."

Kempf said people traveling to areas known for their beaches and luxurious all-inclusive resorts may not realize a need exists, but many times devastating poverty lies just beyond a resort's walls.

"Jamaica is a good example of that," Kempf said. "It's a very popular place to go for all-inclusive vacations. There's a brand of resorts called Sandals Vacations, and what people don't know is that in addition to their beach-front properties, that company also has schools, orphanages and educational projects that they've developed on the island of Jamaica. So you can go to these places and take a day to visit or volunteer at their orphanage or their school system and help out if you want to."

Another option for vacationers who would like to get a sense of a destination's culture is to spend a day with a local family through a Jamaica Tourist Board program called Meet the People.

"By doing that, you get to see how they really live their daily lives," Kempf said. "If you're a tourist who likes to experience other cultures or a parent trying to pass on some life lessons to your children, that's a good way to do it."

In addition to volunteering, travelers often help by giving away many of the items they take with them on vacation.

"Some people will go on a trip with full luggage and come back with it empty because they've given everything away to locals while they're vacationing," Kempf said. "That's happening more and more because so many vacationers see that local people living around the vacation destination are much less fortunate than they are."

Kempf and six women, including friend Reno Anderson, recently took a voluntourism trip to Haiti. While there, they donated items and helped at a Haitian maternity and birthing center.

"We delivered suitcases full of birthing kits with supplies donated by people in our community here, in Cape Girardeau," Anderson said. "We also spent time helping out at the center and put together some maternity kits for new mothers. We donated all of that to Heartline Ministries, which has a birthing center down in Haiti. It's really a fabulous organization."

Anderson said the group chose to travel to Haiti because of the huge amount of need there and because of its proximity to the U.S.

"We thought going to Haiti would give a number of the women in the group, who hadn't traveled to developing countries, a good experience of helping out in a place that isn't all that far away," Anderson said. "Someone in the group had heard about Heartline Ministries, which is very safe and secluded, so we thought it was a good option for the women who didn't have experience traveling to Third World countries."

Kempf said she often gets asked why she feels the need to travel to other countries to help out when there is so much need at home.

"People often ask me why I'm so keen about going to other countries to help, but until you've traveled to Swaziland (Africa) or Haiti, there's a poverty in those places beyond anything you will ever see in the U.S.," Kempf said. "The plus side of going to another country and doing goodwill is, when you come back, you suddenly become keenly aware of the needs in your own community. I've noticed that people who go and do humanitarian trips become better citizens in their own backyard. If every person going on vacation just took one afternoon out to help, I think it could change the world — I really do."

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