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The Rise in Voluntourism

Even traditional travel providers such as Hilton Hotels are beginning to respond to consumer demand. Three years ago, Hilton's Caribbean group launched an effort to raise money for poor island communities and encourage its staff to volunteer—the hotels never intended to involve guests. But in Nassau, when a group of guests spotted hotel employees filling backpacks with school supplies for kids, they asked if they could help; Hilton staffers across the region began to report similar requests. "We weren't prepared for it," admits Danny Hughes, the company's Caribbean vice president of operations. "You're going into some unpleasant areas. What if a guest is attacked?What about liability insurance?That's when we said, We've got to get serious about this."

Now Hughes is preparing to introduce formal volunteer opportunities for guests; he hopes an airline partnership might provide discount fares to travelers willing to set aside part of their stay for public service. "In Kingston, we're helping to renovate an orphanage. We're thinking: What if we create an option for guests to come and help?" he says. "In Puerto Rico, we visit sick children in hospitals and bring them books. We've done some reading classes. That could be a great thing for guests if they wanted to come along."

Hughes is frank about his doubts. The for-profit tourism industry, he says, sells escapism. A company like Hilton has little incentive to advertise that just down the postcard-perfect beach, there are some desperately poor communities. Nevertheless, most travelers are better educated these days about economic underdevelopment wherever they go, and most of them know perfectly well what lies at the end of the beach. A little volunteer work can help many feel better about their luxury island vacation, in part by assuaging pangs of liberal guilt. Of course, it's a complex balance. But complexity seems to define this kind of travel for everyone involved.

The Red Cross building in Dharmsala rises high above a quiet, crumbling street. It is dark inside. Two "inmates," as the rehab clinic calls them, look up listlessly from a row of hospital beds as we pass. Ann fusses with the purple scarf that accompanies her cream-colored salwar with flowers embroidered around the neckline. She didn't want to wear it, but CCS encourages volunteers to adopt as many local customs as they can. Melanie walks along quietly in a pink salwar, her hair pulled back into a ponytail.

The local Red Cross director, Harsh Vardhar, and his deputy, Sandeep Parmar, debrief us in a small office. The inmates, Karsh explains, have a full day, beginning with a yoga class (led by a pair of college-age CCS volunteers), followed by doctors' appointments, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and individual counseling sessions. Melanie, he says, will loosen them up in the morning with games and activities, helping them to feel comfortable talking to strangers and to one another. Ann, meanwhile, will work downstairs, at a tutoring facility for mentally disabled children. (Saul, a retired periodontist, is across town, working in the local hospital's dentistry ward.)

That is as far as the guidance goes. To prepare, Melanie studies a schedule and diary left by her predecessor, a CCS volunteer who has just returned home. It is a chronicle of earnest guesswork. "Music was played and the men were encouraged to dance," one entry reads. "Even those who we thought would not dance were dancing." Another session, involving animal masks, seemed to fail badly. "The men put the masks on and were asked to walk around like the animal...they didn't understand how it applied to their life in any way, and they didn't like it."

Melanie is tough-minded and versatile, and she adapts quickly to her assignment. Trying an icebreaker she learned during a Goldman Sachs retreat, she passes a box of toothpicks to the 15 inmates who file in and gather in a circle before her. "Take as many as you think you will need for the game," she explains through a CCS translator. When everyone has a small clutch of toothpicks, she continues. "For each toothpick, you have to tell the group one thing about yourself." The men talk about family, work, and the neighborhoods where they grew up. Later, she puts on a New Agey CD and asks everyone to write or draw in a journal for 10 minutes without stopping. A few minutes in, two burly, middle-aged men put down their pens and begin to chat. "You're supposed to be writing," she scolds. They smile sheepishly and return to their journals.

Downstairs, Ann is having a more difficult time. Two teachers sit at a table with a tiny girl in a green sari. One teacher says in English that the girl, Pooja, is 17, though we assume she means seven until a translator corrects us. Pooja is severely disabled. For more than a week, she has been tracing the numbers one and two on sheets of paper.

The teachers turn to Ann and, through the translator, ask how she plans to work with Pooja. Ann, taken aback, produces a stack of exercises she brought from home (CCS staff had let her know she would be working with children in a pre-departure phone call they schedule with every volunteer). She spreads out pages with blank faces for coloring, worksheets on feelings, and a few issues of the kids' magazine Highlights. Then she settles on the idea of making puppets. But when the teachers balk at the supplies she expects, Ann grows impatient. "You need tinfoil, feathers, glitter! I would have brought this stuff from home. They told me, 'Don't bring!'" she huffs. "I have everything, and I could have brought it!" The teachers try to change the subject, but Ann talks over them. "At home, I have a room full of puppets. I have finger puppets, I have hand puppets, I have big puppets. I have so much stuff. They said, 'Nooooo, it won't fit in with the culture.' " CCS discourages vacationers from bringing anything more than books for the communities they work in, urging them instead to buy supplies at local markets.

"I've seen this a lot with some of the older volunteers," Melanie confesses when I join her in a foyer outside the classroom. Ann's voice rises again, loud and bossy, and Melanie cringes. "They've traveled all over the world, but they're also very set in their ways."

It seems as if it should be easy to do good when you travel, if that's what you set out to do. Cross Cultural Solutions' Rosenthal knows better. "It's really hard," he says.

Travelers and community organizations can have incompatible ideas about volunteer work, so tour organizers must watch the relationship carefully. "Our misconception on this side is that volunteers are needed to dig ditches and paint fences," Rosenthal says. That was what he had in mind when he first started CCS, until he met with community leaders in New Delhi. "They said, 'You're kidding, right?First of all, there's no shortage of manual labor. And second of all, we don't think your people are going to work as well.'"

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