Volunteer tourism can solve problems for developing nations, says a growing breed of travellers. It seems we could rake in the moolah while exploring an exotic location by simply doing our good deed for the year, for another community
Like most young Indians, Ishita Khanna graduated from college with books filled with neatly-written notes, and a head stuffed with lofty ideas of changing the world. She wanted to work for the environment, and help locals earn a livelihood. Conserving Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh was this Dehradun resident's chosen mission. After working for two years with the help of government grants, Khanna realised it was nothing but "painful". How could she generate revenue on her own?
Khanna realised the answer lay in the one piece missing from the scenic jigsaw puzzle of the mountains that surrounded her -- posing tourists and blinking cameras.
Volunteer for a vacation
Volunteer tourism, which Khanna decided to dabble in, offers visitors a vacation while allowing them to partake in activities that can help local communities. "The tourism world was made aware of Spiti's existence only in the mid-nineties. I wanted to make sure it didn't turn into another Manali or Goa," says the 34 year-old, who launched EcoSphere in 2002, with Sunil Chauhan and Nono Sonam Angdui.
A volunteer helps build the Kolbung Primary School in West Bengal
EcoSphere is a Delhi-based self-sustainable firm that organises customised trips for travellers, and works towards pumping the revenue earned into activities that can improve local community life. "We organise both, commercial trips and volunteer programmes. They cost almost the same; the difference is that in the latter, volunteers can choose to be part of a short-term (15 days) or long-term (one month minimum) developmental project, and take up tasks linked with skills they possess," she explains.
Khanna's volunteer tourism packages start at Rs 15,000, and rates can vary depending on individual requests.
A short-term programme at Spiti for instance, can involve building green houses at spots where the minimum elevation is 14,000 feet, and temperatures average at -30 C. Tourists can also help locals with daily chores like herding cattle and farming. Long-term projects are more like internships, explains Khanna, with volunteers building and testing models of sustainable energy.
Khanna admits that over 90 per cent of her clientele includes Western tourists. "The UK has a strong culture of the gap year. After young men and women graduate from university, they travel and work towards giving back to the community. When Indians think of vacation, they think of relaxing."
And so, EcoSphere ties up with foreign agencies that help steer tourist traffic to their site. The absence of a screening process that can scan travellers based on the worth of the skill each is able to offer, doesn't bother Khanna. "Our nine-year experience has taught us that it's only serious do-gooders who choose to be a part of such programmes anyway, and the package rates makes sure it isn't an easy trip."
Welcome to the culture museum
Kolkata entrepreneur Asit Biswas founded HELP (Heritage, Environment, Livelihood and People) tourism three years ago, with Supratim Basu and Sanjib Saha after graduating in media and Economics from Kolkata. All trekking enthusiasts, the three realised how mainstream tourism in India wasn't helping locals better their lives. Tourist traffic was in fact burdening the ecosystem. "When we started in the Eastern Himalayas, we focussed on trips that would help conserve wildlife and nature. Gradually, we figured that although areas in the Western Himalaya were attracting travellers, locals tribes were profiting the least. Around 36 villages in the area are all located around heritage sites. We decided to adopt villages in Assam, Darjeeling and Arunachal Pradesh," says Biswas.
One of HELP's volunteer programmes works with the Idumishis of the Dibang Valley, one of 26 marginalised tribes of Arunachal. "They are just 4,000 in number, and almost 75 per cent of them don't speak the Idumishi dialect any longer. It doesn't have a script, and is likely to be lost without organised documentation," he shares.
HELP has launched an outreach programme that uses skilled volunteers trained in the know-how of sound technology to create podcasts of traditional stories, translate them for preservation, and later, link them to the art and culture that's still visible. "They make sure they interview the elders in a village. Eventually, we'd like to use the data to set up a museum of Idumishi culture."
The three year-old firm also organises pilgrimage, wildlife and adventure tours. Biswas is especially proud of the Chakma project in the Dhapa tiger reserve of Arunachal Pradesh. Working with the local hunter-gatherer community, HELP has managed to cut down the community's dependence on the forest for food and fuel. Community elders entered a pact with the core committee from HELP, promising to use alternative energy for cooking instead of ravaging the forests in search of firewood. The condition � HELP would set up a school to educate their children.
After a year-and-a-half of gathering funds from their clients, HELP has managed to set up the Nam Dapha Nalanda School that educates over 90 students, all belonging to the Chakma tribe. "We have four permanent teachers, but the visiting volunteers who play an important role, teaching the children about nature, art and conducting special nature conservation classes," says Biswas.
Volunteers who come with special skills end up paying a minimum fee, and enjoy free lodging on the school's premises. "We are not going cheap. For the regular volunteer, the fee remains at a premium. The destinations are exclusive, and the communities are unique," says Biswas, who is careful about the volunteers he chooses. Those keen to join him are expected to fill up an application form and send in their resum �s. A volunteer tourist at any of HELP's North Eastern destinations can pay anything between Rs 1,200 and Rs 3,000 per day.
Go global, help local
It's not surprising then that Yale graduate and Colorado-based entrepreneur Chris Baker is hopeful of revenues rising. "Business is soaring. We've seen that our model resonates with travellers, and we are looking to expand to a second site in Latin America in early 2012," he says over email.
OneSeed Expeditions grew out of Baker's experiences of having worked on microfinance, and travels across rural Nepal. He launched the company to utilise the power of travel to fund creative solutions to ease poverty, says his company webpage. "We aim to align the two powerful motivators of exploration and local investment," explains Baker.
His team in Nepal includes Bishnu Thapa and Tek Bahadur Dong, veteran guides who bring a strong local background and anthropological information to their pilot project. The group plans adventure trips for tourists, and weaves activities into the itinerary that help local Nepali women set up small businesses, whether delivering tiffins or weaving handmade shawls.
Indian firms offering volunteer tourism packages have come together to form their own network called The Green Circuit. Internationally too, they are part of a wide network called TIES (The International Eco-tourism Society) that includes 150 NGOs, 300 local service providers and academicians from around the world.
At the start of the year, an exhaustive survey was conducted among all their members, and the findings were used by an advisory committee made up of veteran travellers and activists to draft a set of guidelines that could help make volunteer tourism a sturdy revenue model.
The Voluntourism Guidelines project is aimed at travel firms keen on offering such packages to their clients, as well as communities looking for volunteers. Still in the conceptual stage, the draft is expected to be produced for a review by TIES members next year.
The draft suggests setting norms to ascertain if monetary aid raised through volunteer travel is in fact reaching the local community, inviting periodic reports to track the progress made by volunteers, and to ensure that proxy agencies do not mislead clients.
If the guidelines are approved, the community hopes to expand its numbers to include more commercial tour operators.
But can volunteering be a truly money-spinning idea? Dr Stephen Wearing, an academician whose book, Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make a Difference, says, "Tourism is always looked at as a profit-making system, so, yes, volunteer tourists will almost always pay in some way to participate in these activities. Besides, the amount they pay is usually more than what an average tourist would pay on a 'normal' holiday to the same location."
However, Wearing also strikes a note of caution about the organisations that may be drawn, simply because of the moolah. "While there are a few sponsorship programmes, the financial contribution demanded of the volunteer tourist will draw in those who wish to take advantage of the increase in profit. They may try and up their profits by cutting short on time and effort. They may shirk from appropriate evaluation and fair allocation of money and resources to the community from the profits made."
According to Wearing, a bilateral relationship, where communities and tourism firms profit equally, is the best way to go.
Not everyone is convinced. Sandeep Sinha, co-founder of The Blue Yonder, a Bengaluru-based responsible tourism firm, and a member of TIES, says such an outlook is idealistic. "Most host agencies are based in developing nations while those that rope in volunteers tend to be from developed countries like the US and the UK. The balance of revenue is tricky, and it's unlikely that local communities will end up eking out as much from the endeavour as Western agencies will," he says.
For those who think volunteer tourism could be the next big rage among travellers, Khanna has this to say: "You can't make it mass tourism. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, and that small-time Delhi agent will be selling you the idea of a volunteer programme. It will turn into a farce. I don't believe it's a good idea for large tour operators to get into this field; it might make it difficult for travellers to tell who is offering a genuine programme."
The big players however are excited. Kashmira Commissariat, chief operating officer, Outbound Division, Kuoni India, says, "Volunteer tourism is a gradually growing travel niche. Clients looking for a cultural and spiritual experience during their break are known to opt for such vacations. SOTC offers customised products to suit the requirements of clients, and community-driven activities have been part of some itineraries," she says.
Cox & Kings Ltd. may not offer structured volunteer programme packages, but they have made exceptions in the past for foreign tourists who wished to volunteer for work experience or study projects, says Karan Anand, head, Relationships & Supplier Management.
Ironically, some Indian tourism officials refuse to buy the idea of volunteer tourism as upping revenue for state tourism boards. The image of India as poor and needy -- one which volunteer tourism may propound -- hasn't gone down well.
"Volunteer tourism cannot be promoted on a large scale. It's a fancy prefix that tour operators would love to have on their resum �. We don't need foreign funds to help local communities," says Siddharth Tripathi, director of Jharkhand State Tourism Development Corporation. "People from urban pockets might be keen to improve the lives of those in villages. The question is who's to tell if our efforts can actually make them happy? Their lives are unique. We can't take a call on how satisfied they already are. Volunteer tourism, if at all, should be promoted only as by-Indians-for-Indians."
Take road trip for change
What happens when two Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) graduates get together to take a trip while making a contribution to society? GrassRoutes, started in 2009 by Keerthikiran K and Abhilash Ravishankar is a fellowship programme for urban educated youth to spend a summer working with change-makers and social entrepreneurs, creating sustainable, significant impact in different parts of India.
Applicants aged 18 to 25 years send in their resumes in January to be 'fellows', and of the lot, 50 are chosen to participate in a one-month activity-based programme that sensitises the youth to problems plaguing rural India. "We map the applicant's skills and place him with an NGO that can compliment his talent," explains Sri Ranganathan, programme director with GrassRoutes.
Projects include preparing business plans for local entrepreneurs, documenting progress of NGOs and introducing new technologies that will improve the quality of community life at the village level.
Contact: ranganathan@ grassroutes.in