Giving back to Mother Earth

Wanderer Jeremy Wayne observes how airlines, hotels and their guests are joining forces in the new “voluntourism.”

I was 10 years old when my parents took me on vacation to Ischia, the gorgeous but relatively sedate Mediterranean island that is to its glamorous neighbor, Capri, a little like laid-back Nantucket is to ritzier Martha’s Vineyard.

On our last starry evening, walking back to our hotel from an early dinner in town, we came across a mobile blood bank, set up by the local hospital. Without a word, my father peeled off from the family group and nipped inside, while my mother explained to me what a blood bank was and what my father was doing. When he emerged a few minutes later, I looked at him in a new way, part admiration and part disgust. I mean, who would willingly have a needle jabbed in to him and have his blood drawn? And in a yucky foreign country, what’s more. I didn’t get it, not one bit. But my father’s explanation was typically gentle. “We’ve had such a lovely holiday,” he said, putting a reassuring arm round me, “and everyone in Ischia has been so kind, it’s the least we can do to say ‘thank you.’’’

In the forgetful way that parents have, he naturally failed to mention the taxi driver who had left us stranded on the far side of the island because we were five minutes late for the appointed rendezvous or the girl at the Kodak kiosk who shouted at us when my mother queried the inflated price of a roll of film. But in the face of clear good-heartedness, I decided to let these things go.

Forty years on, the idea of giving back when we travel is no longer confined to individual acts of kindness. Professionally organized, publicly embraced, it makes my father’s impromptu gesture seem rather quaint, which is certainly not to belittle it. From little acorns of thoughtfulness grow mighty oaks of humanity. As the Bahais so wisely say, you can’t change the world but you can change yourself. And little by little, it seems we travelers are all changing for the better.

Start with the airlines. No one’s naïve enough to think that guilt over carbon emissions is going to stop us flying, but a small contribution — a fraction of the airfare we pay — can help to offset them. Delta, Jet Blue and British Airways are among the companies that offer carbon offset programs. Giving back to the environment, or at least, not contributing further to its destruction, is something we all now practice in our daily lives, sometimes because the law requires it or, better still, because it is something we want to do of our own free will. 

On vacation, we all know the card that absolves housekeeping from having to change our bedsheets daily. And the hotel bedroom lights we all used to leave on — because we couldn’t be bothered to cross the room to switch them off, eroding natural resources over time often in countries that can ill afford them — are now responsibly turned off before we head for the elevator. And then, there’s plastic. Well if, like me, you can’t enjoy your piña colada in the sun without a straw, why not go the whole nine yards — since this is a luxury travel column, after all — and invest in a sterling silver one from Tiffany? It’s the answer to all your plastic straw needs. Just don’t leave it in the sand.

Like supermarkets, banks and Amazon, hotels themselves have realized that doing good is also good for business, a two-way street if you will. These days, nearly every major hotel brand facilitates some way of  “giving,” often to local communities. Marriott Rewards subscribers can donate points to the American Red Cross and UNICEF, among other noble charities, while Hilton Honors members can donate to virtually any charity of their choice through the Point Worthy program, which converts loyalty points to cash. 

While great hotels have always been an integral part of their wider environment, creating jobs and developing local infrastructure, nowadays many luxury hotels have formalized the process of giving back. If you’re planning a trip to Portugal’s Douro Valley, for example, the luxury Six Senses Douro Valley hotel donates money from its water-bottling activities — it produces its own mineralized water on site — to the Bagos d’Ouro Association, to support underprivileged and disadvantaged children in the region. At Rosewood Mayakoba, one of the most sumptuous hotels in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (where the staff are so kind and generous of spirit that when you depart you miss them every bit as much as the luxury amenities,) guests are able to support the recently opened Centro Educativo Bilingüe Bet-el School, all through sustainable tourism. 

Ever wondered what happens to all that leftover soap in hotel bathrooms? Here in New York City and around the world, luxury brands like Hyatt, IHG and Mandarin Oriental join Marriott and Hilton in donating thousands of tons of soap a month to the Clean the World initiative, an organization that sanitizes and recycles bath products and then distributes them to the needy in more than 30 countries worldwide.  

Luxury tour operators, too, are weighing in.  Remote Lands, a bespoke operator focusing on Asia and offering everything from exclusive admission to historic sites to pool villas and private jets, is involved with numerous foundations concerned with education, architectural heritage and the arts. They highly encourage clients to take an active interest in their missions, which include Bhutan’s Tarayana Foundation (working for a happy and poverty-free Bhutan), looking after elephants in Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park and preserving Tibet’s cultural heritage through its Tibetan Village Project. 

From an early age we’re taught that giving is better than receiving. But there are many ways of giving, not merely putting coins in a tin, writing checks or having a few dollars added to our bill at checkout. If you really want to connect, but without necessarily forgoing your creature comforts, then luxury “voluntourism” one of the travel industry’s new buzzwords, is the way to go.

An organization that voluntourists should certainly know about is ME to WE, a pioneering, social enterprise cofounded by those inspirational Canadian brothers, the humanitarians Craig and Marc Kielburger. With departures from North America every week, ME to WE organizes incredible vacation trips to Ecuador, India and Kenya, where individuals, couples, small groups or families take part in sustainable development projects, such as conservation quests, working with children and local families and building schools. Staying in eco-friendly, five-star jungle lodges and tented camps — since no one said luxury and giving back were mutually exclusive — these immersive, horizon-expanding trips really are the experience of a lifetime.

As they say at ME to WE, “Meaningful travel is about being a part of something larger than yourself.”  In the age of the iPhone, insta-gratification and general self-absorption, that is something worth remembering. Happy travels in 2019, and happy giving back! 

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