Traveling for good

Oct. 9, 2006
Airlines recently have suffered financial losses because of high fuel costs, low fares, and other problems, but terrorism and a flagging economy apparently haven’t yet reduced the number of passengers.

Airlines recently have suffered financial losses because of high fuel costs, low fares, and other problems, but terrorism and a flagging economy apparently haven’t yet reduced the number of passengers.

“In fact, it was a strong summer [for travel], as predicted,” said Amy Ziff for Travelocity, one of the largest online US travel agencies and part of Sabre Holdings Corp., Southlake, Tex. “However, industry reports are starting to indicate a fall in travel levels. Some drop is normal for the fall, so it remains to be seen if this will truly occur.”

To combine travel with public service, Travelocity launched its “Travel for Good” program with “three easy ways” to help the environment and other people while jetting about the globe.

Offset emissions

Travelers booking trips online can donate funds through the “Go Zero” program, in partnership with The Conservation Fund, Arlington, Va., to plant trees to offset carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The Conservation Fund has a web site calculator that can formulate donations based on home energy use, automobiles, and air travel. A family generating 39.77 tons/year of CO2 emissions can plant 30 trees in a “Carbon Zero” forest at a cost of $159.08, plus a $5 administration fee. “Over the next 70 years, these trees will sequester approximately 39.77 tons of carbon dioxide-one of the most potent greenhouse gases,” said fund officials. Since transportation is the biggest US source of CO2 emissions, they suggest ways to reduce fuel use. Not surprisingly, a backyard vacation is not one of the suggestions.

Travelocity also encouraged travelers to participate in the annual Public Lands Day Sept. 30, with volunteers building trails and bridges, planting trees and plants, and removing trash and invasive plants at designated sites across the US.

A “growing travel trend,” Travelocity said, is “to spend an entire trip or just a few hours” doing volunteer work among local inhabitants in some foreign country. It has teamed with Cross-Cultural Solutions, Earthwatch, and Globe Aware in such “voluntour” programs.

Cross-Cultural Solutions operates as a nongovernment “short-term alternative to the Peace Corps” in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand. It claims 10,000 participants since 1995 and offers three programs: Volunteer Abroad, the most popular, starts at $2,489/individual for 2 weeks; Intern Abroad for students seeking academic credit, work experience, or field research, $2,789 for 2 weeks; and Insight Abroad, a 1-week program “for people with limited vacation time” at $1,595. Those fees are tax-deductible for US residents, and Cross-Cultural Solutions can suggest fund-raising techniques to help finance trips.

No special skills are required, and, unlike the Peace Corps, no training is provided. It’s not necessary to speak the local language, although English is required to follow staff instructions. Minimum age is 18 for volunteers unaccompanied by an adult, but younger volunteers are welcome if they demonstrate “understanding and maturity.” The program welcomes volunteers “with special needs or disabilities,” including “physically challenged, deaf, visually impaired, and mentally challenged.” Diet restrictions “can be accommodated.” Lodging is in “a comfortable house in a safe, conveniently located neighborhood.” Medical, dental, and emergency insurance is included in the fee, and volunteers have free time for vacation fun “some afternoons, most evenings, and every weekend.”

The work

The work may include infant and child care, teaching educational games, arts, crafts, and sports. “Simply holding infants, sharing your affection, and providing individual attention is important to their future well-being,” said program officials. True, but one wonders how much more effective it might be if the caretaker could speak the child’s language. Volunteers may “shadow” health practitioners, “exchanging ideas and experiences,” officials said. Other programs include teaching English, as well as “science, music, sports, and drama,” an ambitious agenda for just 1-2 weeks.

These are all good programs, but one needn’t fly around the globe to be a volunteer. There are plenty of orphanages, hospitals, clinics, schools, and retirement homes seeking volunteer helpers in our own hometowns. Of course, there’s no way to estimate the value of personal connections among the people of different nations. But a cynical news reporter has to wonder if it might be more effective if “voluntourists” donated the price of airfares and fees to hire local workers who already know the languages and customs of those exotic locales and who will be on the job for more than 2 weeks.