Time has come to re-think Travel Philanthropy


Leadership of mainstream tourism has long promoted travel as a force for good. The objective was threefold:

  1. for tourism to be taken seriously and inbound investment encouraged by politicians, policy makers, leading economic institutions, investors and economic development decision makers;
  2. to attract more subsidies, tax breaks and funds for marketing; and
  3. to reduce taxes and restrictions affecting the free movement of people.

The arguments were mostly economic (income, jobs, foreign exchange and taxes) but not necessarily complete. Dr. Rebecca Hawkins’ discussion Measuring What Matters In Tourism is more generous in her summation of the tourism promise. Discussion of the wide range of costs associated with this economic activity has been left largely to academics, consultants, NGOs, journalists, bloggers and film makers. Attempts by third parties to insist that mainstream tourism contain or reduce the costs, pay for externalities (emissions, pollution, congestion) and increase net benefit to host communities have generally been resisted or even framed as anti growth. The task of filling the yawning gap between cost and benefit has been relegated to philanthropy, the “third sector” and government.

Such a stance went unquestioned when society shared an understanding of how the world and the economy works – namely that “the planet is a material object replete with resources (including people) available for those with the capital to exploit for the purpose of maximizing their shareholders’ wealth.”   In my experience, the vast majority of tourism “operators” regardless of the size of operation, have, until recently, subscribed to the position so clearly promulgated by the Nobel prize wining economist Milton Friedman who, as early as 1969, wrote:

Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for shareholders as possible.

Philanthropy in Tourism 2001-2015

traveler's philanthropy handbook


The term Traveler’s Philanthropy emerged from the responsible/sustainable travel movement. Michael Seltzer coined the term in 2001 in a series of meetings convened by what is now CREST, the Centre for Responsible Travel. Since then, two major publications, The Travel Philanthropy Handbook published by CREST in 2011 andAdvances in Travel Philanthropy, a report prepared for the WTM World Responsible Tourism Day in 2009 by Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes confirm that tourism has applied the original approach to philanthropy by positioning it as outside normal business; involving donations of time, money and resources by the privileged to the poor.

…Traveler’s Philanthropy is tourism businesses and travelers making concrete contributions of “time, talent, or treasure‟ to local projects that is beyond what is generated through normal tourism business transactions. Michael Seltzer, 2001

Travel Philanthropy refers to the donating of money, in-kind resources (office equipment, flights and accommodation) or time (mentoring or volunteering) occasioned or facilitated by travel. Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes, 2009

In short, both reports define that philanthropy is an act of charity, of giving from a privileged donor (the tourist) to a less privileged recipient, possibly (but not necessarily) enabled, encouraged and sometimes matched by the host enterprise (business).

The context in which the first definition of Traveler’s Philanthropy was presented has changed dramatically. The definition pre-dated the diffusion of mobile phones and social media, the full impact of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, widespread awareness of climate change, the spread of globalization, recognition of wealth disparity as an economic and social risk, distrust of business, the rise and maturation of Corporate Social Responsibility, the demand for greater transparency and a growing rejection of the point of view expressed by Milton Friedman.

Furthermore, Travel Philanthropy was introduced when the very first members of the Millennial Generation were just entering post secondary education or taking a gap year before doing so and their youngest counterparts were barely four years old. In response to this demographic surge, Educational-youth travel, Millennial Travel, and Voluntourism literally “ took off like a rocket”. According to the World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation.

the youth, student and educational travel market now accounts for over 20% of all international arrivals (equals to 207 million arrivals and US$194 billion in 2012 and is expected to grow to 300 million arrivals by 2020 when it will represent US$320 billion in market value.

Young people throughout the world increasingly see participating in international travel as both a right and a rite of passage and as essential preparation for participation in a globalized economy with multi-ethnic work forces. If travel experience embellishes a resume, then time spent volunteering looks even better.


While “voluntourism,” the subset of the youth market that can be identified as specifically “philanthropic,” is relatively small (see graph ) it has stimulated huge controversy and has attracted considerable media coverage. The mainstream industry (tourism operators and destinations) simply weren’t prepared for the demand by a sub segment of the youth market to want to “give back” nor for the immediate appearance of tour operators willing to “exploit” this fledgling and totally unregulated market.

Areas Needing a Re-think

The controversy does, however, point to an urgent need to understand why this aspect of travel philanthropy has, in many cases, done more harm than good, so that we can start to deliver real net benefit in the future. For that to happen, regulations or restrictions won’t be enough – we need a complete re-think:

  1. Acknowledge that the mainstream industrial model of tourism currently relies on an imbalance of economic power based on the notion of separation between origin and destination, guest and host, investor with capital and a resource to be exploited. Where philanthropy is concerned, the power play is between donor and recipient – volunteers feel good by being seen to do good to or donate to another in “need.” Travel philanthropy like most CSR practices is a “bolt on” activity “outside normal business transactions” that provides a “feel good” outcome but does little to redress the imbalance of power, and may well accentuate it by upholding “business as usual.”
  2. Recognize that mainstream tourism is currently an extractive industry. By promising so many benefits (jobs, income, foreign exchange and, in some cases, even peace) but failing to count or mitigate the costs (over use of resources, degradation of culture and environment; poor wages) and assuming that profits can and should accrue to those with capital over those offering labour, tourism has been able to exploit places and people without their full assent.
  3. Stop using CSR and philanthropic practices  to justify ignoring some of the structural and systemic flaws of the current system. A tourism economy can only be considered a community success if the social impact – in terms of community wellbeing, welfare and the net benefit improves in concert with growth. A far better philanthropic outcome will only occur when success is re-defined from the growth of enterprises and volume of visitors to enhanced qualitative social, environmental and personal development. A new definition will necessitate the development of new metrics. See Dr. Hawkins post on this subject here.
  4. Allow and empower destination communities to shape the scale, scope and type of tourism they wish to support. Much is made of the human right to travel and turn up on another’s door step unannounced or without adequate preparation for the consequences, yet very little is said of the right of a destination community to say either “No thanks” or to try to shape the kind of visitation that ensues. Similarly while youth are encouraged to travel to see the world from a different perspective, many of its economic leaders and mainstream media within and outside tourism continue to insist that there is no alternative to business as usual.

    Travel Philanthropy is currently demand driven; oriented to the needs of the donor/volunteer; and is not need directed

    The infrastructure of the visitor economy comprises enterprises and destinations focused more or less exclusively on demand generation and the capacity for destination development, capacity building, community engagement, forming linkages between sub sectors, mitigating negative impacts and anticipating external shocks is seriously under-developed.

  5. Adjust to the fundamental changes taking place in values and attitudes regarding the role of business. Many leading businesses, which are not only the most innovative but also the most profitable, are finding ways to embed sustainability and philanthropy into their DNA by aligning their business purpose with the challenge of solving societal and biophysical challenges. For example, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) is a coalition of CEOs united in the belief that societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance. Founded in 1999, CECP has grown to a movement of more than 150 CEOs of the world’s largest companies across all industries whose combined gross revenues exceed $7 trillion annually. CECP’s CEO has this to say:

    The corporate world has undergone a profound and exciting transformation in recent years. As we have moved from the industrial era to the information age, missions and markets have come into new alignment. Never since the dawn of capitalism have purpose and profit been in greater sync for so many companies.

    It’s not that members of the C-suite have suddenly discovered altruism. Rather, today’s instantaneous, transparent, and hyper-connected exchange of data has spawned a new reality. In a world where all stakeholders—customers, neighbors, regulators, and shareholders—can see inside the enterprise, leaders in the corporate sector have committed to an enlightened self-interest in societal investment.

    Conceiving and executing a “giving” strategy need not entail a zero-sum construct that opposes “making money.” Indeed, when corporate societal investment harmonizes with a company’s business strategy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In one of the CECP publications, Business at its Best: Driving Sustainable Value Creation co-written with Accenture, the authors observe:

a business at its best is a company that has overcome the traditional strategic and operational divisions between advancing the performance of the enterprise and promoting the wellbeing of citizens and communities. It’s a company that recognizes an opportunity to 
play a positive role in addressing fundamental societal issues—seeing those issues not merely as problems to be addressed through charity alone, but instead as the seeds of innovation and growth.

CECP is one of many different initiatives within the business community that includes Sustainable Brands, Plan B, Conscious Capitalism, Business as an Agent of World Benefit, Economics for the Common Good, The Next System Project, Inclusive Capitalism. and Blueprint for a Better Business (UK) that are united by a common focus –to find ways in which business can generate profits by creating products and services that address fundamental societal needs. A handful (less than 10) major tourism companies are currently involved in these initiatives.

But it is not big business that is likely to make the difference in tourism although it can send strong signals to the marketplace for others to follow. Tourism is comprised mostly (95-99%) of place-based small to medium sized enterprises and change will most effectively take place from the bottom up as these players assume greater control over their own destiny and as different organizational structures, such as social enterprises, cooperatives and not-for-profits, which can deliver benefits throughout a community, are encouraged to flourish.

We know that many travelers want to help. Tourism Cares recently commissioned Phocuswright to scope the Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler:

  • 55% of all travelers have given back to a leisure destination, either with their time (volunteer work) or through cash or in-kind donations.
  • Nearly half of all travelers attach a very high degree of importance to having their travel spend and donations make a positive difference to local communities in their vacation locations.

We are also witnessing the rise of social impact investing. The Chairman of the UK Government’s Social Impact Investment Taskforce, Sir Richard Cohen, stated in the opening words of the report Impact Investment: The Invisible Heart of Markets:

The world is on the brink of
a revolution in how we solve society’s toughest problems. The force capable of driving this revolution is ‘social impact investing’, which harnesses entrepreneurship, innovation and capital to power social improvement.

Impact investment is growing fast. The amount invested by the 125 leading impact investors is forecast to grow by nearly 20% this year, according to the latest study by the Global Impact Investment Network (GIIN) and JP Morgan. Given that $45 trillion are in mainstream investment funds that have publicly committed to incorporate environmental, social and governance factors into their investment decisions, it would only need a small fraction of this money to start moving into impact investment for it to expand rapidly along the growth path to the mainstream previously taken by venture capital and private equity.

The serious question that now needs addressing is – how do we ensure that this huge demand to “do good, ” “give back” and invest for a social as well as a financial return, truly meets the needs of the host communities in the places they visit. The tourism industry has known for over a decade just how little money spent in a destination has really trickled down – A UNEP sponsored web page (un-dated) estimated that only 5 cents in every dollar spent by a visitor staying in an all inclusive resort, for example, stays in the destination to be shared by the host community. Surely a real philanthropic achievement will occur when we have collectively found a way to improve significantly on that simple measure?

This article was first published under a Creative Commons license by Anna Pollock on the Conscious Travel website. You can read the original article here: Time has come to re-think Travel Philanthropy | Conscious.Travel

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