Volunteer Tourism Keeps on Giving

When we travel, sometimes we take back souvenirs- but what do we leave? Elevate Destinations, a sustainably-minded travel company, organizes “ecoluxury” trips that not only are meant to enlighten travelers, but also provide a percentage of profit to benefit the destination country.

In a report published this year, 44% of US consumer travelers weigh in the environmental impact of their travel, but more than half of US travelers are unconvinced by companies’ messages about green practices. Elevate Destinations is a company that has been nurtured by a demand for organizations to work out carbon-sensitive itineraries for both consumers and businesses while building an awareness of a country’s environmental, socio-cultural and economic needs.


I spoke with Elevate Destinations’ founder and president, Dominique Callimanopulos, who has worked to create an organization that considers itself a designer of “responsive travel,” travel that directly works to make a difference to visited countries. Responsive travel is a term that has arisen out of interests in sustainable and philanthropic travel.

Dominique explained the differences of the terms that blossom out of new concepts, “Philanthropic travel seeks to directly benefit a community financially, while responsible travel means not only benefiting financially, but in more and more aspects. We coined responsive travel because it seems to allow for more spontaneity, in terms of how travelers are moved by what they see and how they choose to respond to it, over a phrase like “responsible tourism.’”

Partially inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the greening of the travel industry, the company began in 2005. “[Our] sector was one of the last sectors to green because people were going somewhere else, so they didn’t take ownership of the conditions in the places they were visiting. As we’re catching up in environmental consciousness, we realize that we’re really having an impact on countries whose main export is tourism,” expanded Dominique.

Elevate Destinations takes a two-pronged approach towards sustainability by creating a situation where tourism benefits local countries through NGO funding and fosters interaction with communities on a volunteer level. 5% of all trip profit is donated to NGOs in the host country, “NGOs that we review annually and that we feel secure giving to,” Dominique was quick to add.

Environmental awareness has also entered into the corporate travel sphere, as sustainable practices have become mandatory to accommodate rising costs and to enhance brands. This travel design firm has only begun its corporate initiatives, but one of their most popular services is their donor travel packages. One of their clients, KickStart, which provides poverty alleviation throughout Africa, visited Nairobi last year. They worked to provide families with low-cost innovative technology, such as pumps and irrigation systems. “Their project visit made a huge impact on families and communities, and after the donor trip they visited several farming families, and the trip then culminated in an eco-safari [in the Massai Mara].”

Dominique suggests the service as an alternative for organizations that are looking for something new and exciting to offer donors, adding, “A lot of donors would pay good money not to have to go to another fundraising dinner.” Such donor trips could encourage individuals as a reward (“a nice way to say thanks”) or provide incentive for smaller donors by using the trip as a way to raise capital.

The company’s itineraries, which can be further customized by clients, are intended to focus on the natural environment, like the Iguacu Falls in Argentina, and cultural aspects, such as a trip spent entirely in a private retreat in India. Travelers have also desired to learn more about their impact, as Elevate Destinations can assist individuals looking for a trip based wholly on volunteering.

Dominique continued, “[Volunteering] is becoming increasingly popular, due to the Obama factor and the economy, people are redefining value and value is translating more and more into something meaningful that people can feel good about doing.” During this frugal economic period, Elevate Destinations has noticed a trend towards service trips, especially from alumni affinity travel programs, where individuals are looking to help specific communities on their vacations.

“We’re providing for these non-profits a service that they would find very hard to do in-house. Most small to mid-size non-profits do not have the expertise to organize travel—it can take development staff an entire year to put stuff together.” Accommodations for the trips are eco-friendly lodges, such as one located in northwestern Belize in 130,000 acres of private nature reserve, where nearby architecture consists of Mayan ruins. “Most of the lodges we partner with give back to the community. We make sure that these places are eco-lodges, so that they can carbon offset all their costs.”

At the company's featured eco-lodgesthere is little sacrifice of comfort in carbon-sensitive accommodations, such as the luxurious Meridian Club on Pine Cay.

Originally, travel accommodation services received attention solely for cutting costs, now as we enter into a period of awareness where individuals are realizing that sustainable practices and cost-efficiency are often two peas in a pod.

Zaher KarptravelComment