During their travels in the past few years, 81 percent of millennials volunteered in the destinations they visited, 78 percent donated cash, and 83 percent gave in-kind to help with local development, according to those polled in a study from Tourism Cares.

In fact, a benchmark study on happiness released by the Stanford Business School in 2010 indicated that having a higher purpose always boosts the happiness quotient.

“Ultimately, we seek a continuing experience. We thrive on feeling that we matter, and that what we do matters,” the study suggested. “Interestingly, although money does not lead to happiness, giving it away might. In fact, regardless of what they buy, people experience a greater level of happiness when they spend money on others rather than on themselves …”

Cruising for the Cause

The prospect that travelers can have their vacation and do some good too has been at the heart of some recent cruise ship initiatives that offered passengers a chance to give back in the regions they were visiting. Perhaps the ultimate case study for this has been Fathom, a Carnival Corporation enterprise that offered sailings to Cuba and the Dominican Republic on the 704-passenger Adonia with three-day programs that including teaching English to locals or crafting water filters from local materials or offering ways visitors could teach their own expertise in needed skills.

Unfortunately, that endeavor fizzled last year, although programs and core processes were picked up by Princess Cruise Lines and put in place on a number of sailings. The concept provides a way for families to share a meaningful activity during a shore excursion. Holland America Line and Costa Cruises passengers can also sign up for Fathom Travel-branded shore excursions. These will mostly highlight education programs, such as teaching English to local schoolchildren, or focus on economic development, such as helping out in a women’s chocolate-making cooperative in the Dominican Republic.

Princess’s Crown Princess itineraries have given participants the chance to connect with local Caribbean communities and help with beach clean-ups, reforestation, donation drops and distribution, and homebuilds following last year’s devastating hurricanes.

Holland America Line offers some specially themed excursions for ports in Latin America — Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico — as well as other places further afield and closer in. Passengers can sign up to visit with schoolchildren in Nicaragua, or assist marine science teams in Alaska in collecting information on humpback whales.

In January 2011, Crystal Cruises introduced a “You Care, We Care” voluntourism program as part of its Crystal Adventures Shore Excursion Programs. The program is ongoing and allows guests and crew to get directly involved in causes that go to the heart of the destinations they visit. Crystal puts together all the arrangements, including transportation, and offers these opportunities for free to guests and crew sailing on most cruises. The program helps travelers give back, while also bolstering cross-cultural understanding and local economies.

Opportunities include assisting with poverty relief, education, workplace training, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, animal welfare, building/repainting homes, renovating local schools and community centers, helping improve community living conditions, and just give a helping hand.

Local facilitating organizations include a burn center in Lima, Peru, a zoo in Germany, a township orphanage in Cape Town, a biodiversity garden in Darwin, a barrio farming initiative in Cartagena, Colombia, a cultural and historical preservation foundation in St. Maarten, and an underprivileged children’s village in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Tours with a Heart

Tour companies, too, are getting in front of the fact that it is not enough just to feel good on a vacation. It is also important to do good, whether passively, such as choosing a tour company with a conscience, or actively taking a full “voluntour” vacation.

Photo by Ilene Perlman

“There’s an important truth emerging in the travel sector: tourism is fast becoming the largest industry in the world. That growing financial clout also means that travel business decisions can bring widespread economic, social, and even conservation benefits to countries,” said James Thornton, CEO, Intrepid Group, in a white paper co-written with Skift. “But with that impact also comes a recognition that we as an industry have some big issues to tackle, including overtourism, child protection, and the inconvenient truth that the act of travelling is a significant source of carbon emissions. When short-term profits are at stake, sustainability can become a ‘nice thing to do’.”

While Intrepid does not offer week-long volunteer gigs with local organizations, for instance, it does offer travel that puts the small tour groups right into the local action. It launched a promotion, “Be Intrepid,” last year that focused on how travelers can be more responsible and purpose-led during their journeys.

Travel with Purpose

Volunteering isn’t necessarily a good thing. The concept has received plenty of blowback in recent years with unscrupulous agencies collecting high fees from gap-year travelers and sending them into disorganized, poorly funded programs where little gets done beyond shooting selfies and posting social media grams. In many cases it can even be detrimental to the destinations and communities – leaving locals with a sense of exploitation and false expectations.

Those who want to try their hand at volunteering on their next vacation may want to vet their choice through such well recommended agencies as Give a Day Global, which links up travelers to short term volunteer opportunities at nonprofit organizations around the world. Another option is Moving Worlds, which connects professionals to social-good organizations and allows them to become “experteers” and apply their skills to projects in motion. Finally, Habitat for Humanity has shown its power to give back with sorely needed shelter construction facilitated by volunteer programs in 40 countries. The trips do not come cheap, but the results are transparent. Happiness guaranteed.


This article written by Lark Gould first appeared in her column, Travel2020, published by Multibriefs.