Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Award-winning PEPY Tours is an educational travel company that aims to change the way people give, travel and live. It offers tranformational travel experiences in Cambodia and Nepal which explore the themes of social enterprise, development, service and global citizenship, as well as contemporary issues facing the countries in which it operates. Jeremy Smith spoke with Claire Bennet, who manages the operations for PEPY Tours as part of our interview series with the winners of Wild Asia’s 10th anniversary awards.

Jeremy: What makes PEPY’s approach to being a tour company different from the norm?

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy ToursClaire: PEPY Tours started out as a standard voluntourism company, offering the chance for visitors to come to Cambodia to support education programmes by sharing their skills. However, we quickly realised that the impact of the volunteer on the development issue was negligible, but the learning impact on the volunteer was huge. We started to see that the most important “contribution” of the volunteer was not what they did in Cambodia while they were volunteering, but what they went on to achieve as the result of their learning – their donations, their careers and their lifestyle choices.

We started to see that the most important “contribution” of the volunteer was not what they did in Cambodia while they were volunteering, but what they went on to achieve as the result of their learning

We also experienced voluntourism programmes that were having a damaging impact, such as orphanage volunteering. So we decided to move away from this model and instead move into development education. We now offer learning journeys, with tour leaders who are also educators and facilitators. Instead of offering tokenistic “help” in the short-term, we focus on the long term contribution that travelers can make by changing the way they “give, travel and live.”

Now PEPY Tours works in both Cambodia and Nepal. We tailor-make group experiences (usually for schools and universities) that focus on learning about the issues facing the country and meeting the NGOs, social entrepreneurs and community activists working to make change.

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Jeremy: Can you explain more about what you mean when you say that you are changing the way they “give, travel and live”?

Claire: Sure. For ‘Give’, we focus on exploring how international aid and development works by visiting local NGOs, activists and changemakers and asking for their candid view on what is effective (and what fails). Participants can go on to be more informed and educated donors, and develop their own evaluation criteria to try to ensure that they donate to causes and organisations that are actually having an impact

We aim to Travel “close to the ground” and put as much money back into the local economy as possible. We avoid hotel chains, internationally-owned companies, and backpacker areas, instead supporting family-run businesses, ecotourism initiatives and social enterprises. We eat local food, travel by bus and boats, and aim for a high level of cultural engagement through local language learning and homestays. We encourage trip participants to think about how they travel and where their tourist dollars go in the future

We see education and educational travel as an important stepping stone towards changing the world.

Finally as regards ‘Live’, PEPY Tours aims to inspire longer-term engagement in the issues participants learn about on a trip. As opposed to voluntourism, where the “contribution” of travellers is made on the trip itself, and is usually short term, we encourage participants to think about how their life and lifestyle choices interconnect with global issues such as climate change or poverty, or other issues that are visible in the country we are travelling in. We explore how our everyday actions in our lives back home can have an impact. This may be as simple as choosing ethical brands or reducing food waste. In other cases, we have had trip participants change their careers or get involved in activism. We see education and educational travel as an important stepping stone towards changing the world.

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Jeremy: Do you see your model as providing an alternative holiday type, while still seeing a place for others to successfully offer volunteering and voluntourism holidays, or do you think communities would be better off without volunteers coming from overseas?

Claire: We believe that volunteer travel can be a tremendous force for good when done right. However “doing it right” requires commitment, research and energy. One of our mantras is “you have to learn before you can help.” We think that much of the way that volunteer travel is currently practiced doesn’t involve enough learning before and throughout a volunteer experience. Unfortunately this can lead to volunteer efforts having negligible impact, or even doing harm (for example the worrying trend of orphanage voluntourism). PEPY Tours helped to launch the Learning Service movement to educate potential volunteers about how to make more informed decisions and try to ensure their good intentions create a good impact.

Instead of turning up in a country having already decided that your role is to help, with a “problem” and “solution” that is fixed before you get on the flight, why not come to a country open to learn about the problems and solutions first?

We see the trips that PEPY Tours lead as both an alternative to voluntourism, and as a part of the learning that can take place before an effective volunteer experience. Instead of turning up in a country having already decided that your role is to help, with a “problem” and “solution” that is fixed before you get on the flight (which is the model of most volunteer opportunities) why not come to a country open to learn about the problems and solutions first? Then you can decide if, where and how to volunteer, or whether a completely different option such as working in your own country might align better with your aims. So in this way, a PEPY Tour can both complement a volunteer trip, or be an alternative to one. Our Bridging the Gap programme in Cambodia, for example, is designed specifically for people considering volunteering.

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Jeremy: Could you tell me some more about the ‘Learning Service’ movement? It’s not a phrase a lot of people will be familiar with, and yet it is central to the shift in approach and perspective that you support.

Claire: Learning Service is a concept coined by our founder, Daniela Papi-Thornton. It is an inversion of “service learning”, recognising that learning is integral to service but that it has to come first and throughout, rather than the traditional learning-through-service models where the learning may be just a byproduct. So we say:

– You have to learn before you can help
– The people from whom you need to learn are those you intend to help
– Service is not something you can tick off the list on a two-week holiday – it is a lifelong commitment that may involve changing the way you live, travel and give

On the Learning Service website we have produced videos, resources and toolkits to help potential volunteers make ethical decisions. There is also a forthcoming book!

At PEPY Tours, Learning Service is one of the concepts we explore on our trips, as well as other global issues such as international development, aid, and global citizenship. Through discussions and activities we process the experiences we have had on the trip with participants, asking questions like “What is poverty?”, “Why are their child beggars in tourist areas?” and, crucially “What is my role in making the world a better place?”

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy Tours

Jeremy: So what do you think tourism’s role is in making the world a better place?

Claire: Tourism at its worst can be destructive to the environment and local cultures. At it’s best, tourism can support local livelihoods and build global citizenship. If we choose to be a tourist our responsibility is to do it mindfully. Firstly we should be aware of what our dollars are being used to support – for example, an international chain hotel that guzzles fossil fuels and pays local workers below minimum wage, or a social enterprise ecolodge that supports a rural empowerment program?

Our responsibility as tourists is first and foremost to do no harm, and for this we need to prioritise learning instead of rushing in trying to make changes.

We should consider where and how we are using our time – in the generic backpacker bars drinking cheap imported beer, or in a family-run restaurant mingling with local people? How are we learning about cultural differences and ensuring we respect them while travelling? How are we exposing ourselves to and understanding development issues in the places we travel to? Ultimately, “making the world a better place” through travel does not necessarily imply going overseas to “do something” – at least not at first.

Our responsibility as tourists is first and foremost to do no harm, and for this we need to prioritise learning instead of rushing in trying to make changes. Ultimately, making the world a better place is about individual tourists nurturing qualities such as humility and empathy, and continuing to contribute to the world as a global citizen for long after the trip ends.

Jeremy: Do you think the focus should be on the tourist to be more responsible (and so drive industry to make the changes demanded by paying travellers), or on industry to design its operations responsibly, so as to make it easy for tourists to make right choices in countries where they have little knowledge of conditions?

Reinventing voluntourism: interview with Claire Bennett from Pepy ToursClaire: I think in an ideal world, the onus would be more on the companies to design tourism offerings responsibly, and for all companies to see this as a standard part of their job. Ultimately travel companies are much better placed to ensure responsible practices than tourists who have maybe never even been to the country before. However, this is not the current situation, and we have a lot of irresponsible tourism all over the world. In this situation, tourists have to do their own research on which companies have practices in line with their own values.

Tourists have individual power not to participate in damaging activities, such as elephant riding or poverty porn, but they also have collective power by removing the demand for these things. At PEPY Tours we say “you vote with your money”, so putting money into things you want to see more of and avoiding those that you want to eliminate is a practical way to incentivize good practice in tourism. Ultimately, the more of us who do this, the more likely it is that irresponsible companies will be forced to change their ways.

To find out more about PEPY Tours, go to their website or connect with them on facebook or twitter. You can read the other interviews in the Wild Asia series here.

Jeremy Smithhttp://www.jmcsmith.com
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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