Room Service and a Shovel: The Rise of Voluntourism


Room Service and a Shovel: The Rise of Voluntourism

Picking up trash and pulling weeds may not sound terribly posh, but at a growing number of high-end resorts, where rooms often cost $400 or $500 a night, these activities are becoming yet another hotel amenity. One morning you can sleep in and order room service, and the next you can serve breakfast at a soup kitchen.

The trend is part of a larger movement toward voluntourism, i.e., trips with a heavy focus on volunteering. But unlike programs like Habitat for Humanity that pair weeklong projects with unglamorous accommodations, hotel-organized excursions generally take up no more than a day, and participants can cap off the experience back at the ranch with $15 cocktails and a night on high-thread-count sheets. Many of these short-term voluntourism projects involve hard work. The Mandarin Oriental in Miami, for instance, offers a two-night package in which guests spend a morning removing invasive plants and assisting with recycling programs in Everglades National Park. The Fairmont Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma, Calif., recently invited guests to help fix up a hiking trail. But perhaps no luxury-hotel brand has ventured as far into voluntourism as Ritz-Carlton. Since the company launched its “Give Back Getaways” in April 2008, more than 2,000 vacationers have signed up in dozens of locations around the globe. Sue Stephenson, vice president of the company’s “Community Footprints” initiative, says the half-day programs range from assisting local food banks to participating in music therapy for disabled kids. The excursions are designed to connect tourists with the communities they visit. “When done correctly, these programs can also help maintain the natural environments that are the draw for particular regions of the world,” says Kara Hurst, a top executive at Business for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit that develops corporate-social-responsibility initiatives. Silver-spoon voluntourism has its critics, of course. Christopher Elliott, a syndicated travel columnist and blogger in Orlando, Fla., thinks these efforts are aimed at wealthy guests “who want to soothe their guilty conscience by doing something that’s billed as ‘giving back.'” Still, it’s hard to find fault with hotels that link local charities to potential donors. And do guests get discounts for being do-gooders On the contrary, some hotels charge participants an extra $40 or more to cover transportation and other costs associated with their manual labor.

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