Tour Companies That Truly Give Back

By Victor Block
March 21, 2015
al-taqi on Flickr

Following the collapse of their country's government in 1990, some destitute residents of the Czech Republic lost the financial help they needed to survive.  Many of them now live in privately run "asylum houses" that provide shelter and other assistance and allow family members to stay together. 

Visitors to the Inca archeological site of Huchuy Qosqo, perched high in the Andes mountains of Peru, find a restaurant operated by families that live in the tiny nearby village. The establishment provides jobs and income for people who had little of either in the past.

Most inhabitants of Deqin, China, an isolated mountain town near Tibet, are of Tibetan descent.   A boarding school there for underprivileged children emphasizes Tibetan language, culture and traditional medicine.  A vegetable garden planted at the school helps to make it self-sufficient in food.

One Feature in Common

These disparate projects, located in far-flung areas of the world, share one common feature.  They represent programs launched by tour operators to give back in important -- in many cases life-saving -- ways to residents of destinations the companies travel to. They also enable those on group tours to have a very personal connection with the communities they visit. 

While the projects conducted by tour companies are as varied as the destinations to which they travel, all share the common goal of having a positive, lasting impact on people who live there. At the same time, they provide memorable, in some cases life-changing, experiences for those who go on the guided tours.

G Adventures’ Planeterra Foundation

G Adventures’ Planeterra Foundation operates one of the most ambitious programs to assist people in the countries and communities where the tour operator brings clients.  Foundation representatives work with local residents to identify their needs and develop programs to meet them on a long-term sustainable basis.

That history of help led to a $1 million multi-year partnership between Planeterra and the Inter-American Development Bank, the first time a development bank has joined with a private-sector travel company on such a project. Among the first joint ventures was opening a restaurant at Huchuy Qosqo, Peru; establishing a visitor center and homestay program in a small village in Guatemala; and linking a coffee cooperative tour and a café for visitors to a small town in Costa Rica.

Clients who travel with G Adventures and donate to the Planeterra Foundation may direct a contribution to any of four charitable funds. They provide support-for-people programs, business development, emergency assistance and environmental projects.

ElderTreks Focuses on Youth

Much of what the tour company ElderTreks does is aimed at assisting children.  The company – which caters to older travelers -- supports orphanages in ChinaIndia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Turkey.  It assists schools in Vietnam, Tanzania, Tibet and China, including the boarding school in Deqin. ElderTreks also provides support to three villages in Africa along with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research center in Tanzania.

The company’s charitable activities include some unusual undertakings as well.  For example, after a fire destroyed some 200 homes in a Peruvian town because it lacked sufficient equipment and trained personnel, ElderTreks joined with other sources to step in and step up.  As a result, that community now has a donated fire truck, well-trained fire fighters with full gear, and a safety program for residents called “Learn Not to Burn.”

Intrepid’s Many Projects

Activities and organizations in destinations to which Intrepid Travel takes tours, and which receive financial support from the Intrepid Foundation, cover the gamut.  They include health care and human rights, educational and environmental projects, and child welfare, sustainable development and wildlife protection.

Intrepid sweetens the pot by matching all donations to its foundation dollar for dollar, up to $5,000 Australian (about $3,800 U.S.) per donor. Because the travel arm covers all of the foundation’s administration costs, 100 percent of donations go to its charitable activities.

Among those varied endeavors: Paying salaries of midwives in countries where they play a vital role in reducing maternal and infant deaths; supplying chickens that boost the income and improve the nutrition of families in Cambodia; and furnishing educational materials to teachers in Tanzania as well as helping them attend a seminar where they learn to make their own supplies.

Grand Circle Foundation’s Work in Education

Education also is one focus of activities by the Grand Circle Foundation, an offshoot of Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  Since it was established in 1992, the foundation’s support for a worldwide selection of activities has exceeded $97 million. Much of this total amount is directed to nearly 100 schools in 60 villages throughout the world. It pays for projects that school principals and teachers have identified as having the greatest impact on the quality of education.

One feature of the Grand Circle story is participation of its own employees. Most foundation offices organize annual community service events. These range from rebuilding homes in a floating village in Cambodia to providing entertainment for elderly residents of a nursing home in China.

People who travel with OAT also get into the action. One client donated $8,000 to a rural school in Costa Rica. A married couple contributed part of the cost of a generator for an orphanage in Vietnam. A woman who has taken 12 trips with the company raised over $100,000 that was used to upgrade three schools, and build a new one, in Tanzania.

Myths, Mountains and Books

In keeping with its name, many of the tour company Myths and Mountains’ trips head for destinations where high peaks dot the landscape and myths and legends are born. Its do-good story began when Dr. Antonia Neubauer, founder and president of the company, asked a Sherpa guide during a trek in the Mt. Everest region what his village needed most. He replied “a library,” and not long afterward his request was fulfilled.

Since then, what began as a collection of books in one small building has morphed into a network of READ  (for Rural Education and Development) resource centers, with 59 operating in Nepal, 14 in India and six in Bhutan

The services they offer also have evolved, and vary according to the needs in each community. Young children receive early education and day care. Women attend literacy classes, learn a trade and practice computer skills.  There are women’s empowerment programs, micro-financing and credit assistance, nutrition and health information, and much more.

Among features that differentiate the way READ operates from many other programs is that each center becomes financially self-sustaining. Among projects that have achieved that goal are a furniture factory, ambulance service and radio station. In recognition of its achievements, READ has received a large cash award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and recognition from the Bill Clinton Global Initiative.

More Companies and Projects

The list of tour companies that give back to the communities they visit varies in terms of their destinations and projects. 

Programs supported by Cultural Crossroads and its tour participants help indigenous people, empower women and children, provide education and protect the environment. Just two examples: A foundation established by the Queen of Jordan that Cultural Crossroads assists provides economic aid to people and fights child abuse. The Maya Educational Foundation supports programs for the educational and professional advancement of the Mayan populations of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, with a focus upon women and girls, and people living in remote areas. 

Global Basecamps, in turn, recently led a reforestation project to plant more than 56,000 trees in the Peruvian Andes and sponsors students in Tanzania. Like some other tour operators, it also pitches in closer to home. For example, company employees get out of their Southern California office to clean nearby beaches.

VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations supports humanitarian and charitable initiatives in their destinations. Among these are research into cancer and spinal cord injuries, and programs to slow global warming and preserve natural resources.

Travel as a Side Benefit

Companies whose primary purpose is to support and engage in charitable activities and research projects also combine travel with the opportunity to do a good deed. Since 1984, Global Volunteers has been sending people to partner with communities in 19 countries on five continents. Among services they provide are teaching subjects that range from English and math to health and nutrition, providing child care, helping to plan and plant school gardens and prevention of HIV/Aids.

The motto of Earthwatch – “Travel the world while saving the planet” – perfectly describes what it does. The organization hooks up volunteers with scientists who are engaged in a variety of environmental research projects.  One seeks to protect endangered penguins and other seabirds on Robben Island off South Africa. Another, in a very different environment, measures evidence of global warming in a small town on Hudson Bay in northern Canada.

Participating in a project to help slow global warming, teach children about good nutrition or protect penguins may not be first on your list of goals when planning a trip. But those who take part in these kinds of activities, or who travel with a tour operator who supports them, will return home with more than fond memories of visiting another part of the world.  

They also take pleasure in knowing that they played a part in making the lives of people better, protecting endangered wildlife or in some way making the earth a better place.

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