Eco-Voluntourism is growing.
The word “voluntourism” is probably self-explanatory to most; it’s simply the combination of the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism.’ But if it’s an unfamiliar concept then here’s a brief definition: travel that includes volunteering for some charitable cause. Voluntourism includes a variety of benevolent activities from rebuilding houses in a community devastated by a natural disaster to rescuing and helping raise orphaned animals that are otherwise becoming scarce through loss of habitat, overconsumption or illegal poaching. And while it may seem ironic to devote part of one’s hard-earned vacation days to pounding nails or preparing food, it’s rewarding to know that those nails are holding up an impoverished family’s new roof and that that food is helping an endangered species bounce back from looming extinction. In most cases, voluntourism occurs in exotic, developing nations, many of which happen to be the very places that tourists love to spend vacations days. So, while there, why not give a little back? And for us eco-minded tourists who would like to erase at least part of our carbon footprint (caused by, say, that jet fuel spent on getting to a destination in the first place), signing up for some kind of ecological restoration activity might be just the ticket – as in, some kind of eco-tourism. Fortunately, a growing number of resorts are providing exactly the kind of ecological volunteer programs that benefit both tourist and environment alike. For the sake of brevity – and to help promote a term – let’s call it “eco-voluntourism.” Below are just a few examples of what’s going on.
Replant a rainforest in parrot paradise
For many, helping erase our carbon footprint immediately brings to mind images of planting trees. And at Los Sueños Marriott Costa Rica, planting trees is exactly what the resort invites its guests to do. The Reforest The Rainforest program at Los Sueños Marriott Costa Rica is part of The Scarlet Macaw Reinsertion Project, the property’s ongoing initiative to preserve the rainforest while creating a habitat for the area’s more than 150 species of birds and other local wildlife, specifically the endangered scarlet macaw (Ara macao).
Guests can participate in the reforestation program by planting a native tonka bean tree (Dipteryx panamensis) along the property’s La Iguana Golf Course, adjacent to a 1,100-acre rainforest preserve overlooking Herradura Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The rainforest has several distinct microclimates that guests are also encouraged to explore. Guests planting the trees help to sustain the property’s native habitat that is home to macaws, as well as monkeys, iguanas, sloths, ocelots, toucans, and a variety of other species, including many endemic plants and invertebrates found nowhere else. The tonka tree promotes the preservation of scarlet macaws by providing ideal nesting sites for the birds as well as producing fruit that’s an essential part of the bird’s diet. Tonka trees also grow large, rounded treetops and produce thousands of pink blossoms, forming an astoundingly beautiful crown of flowers at certain times of year.
Guests planting the tonka trees help strengthen the property’s ongoing initiative for sustaining the local natural environment and can even request to receive photo updates on the growth of their trees in following years. The Reforest The Rainforest program is offered year-round and can be booked upon arrival. Check out an in-depth description of the program here.
Spa, sand and sea turtles
If digging in the dirt to plant trees doesn’t sound like an agenda topper, then digging in beach sand to save sea turtles might seem more appealing. For the past 11 years, the CasaMagna Resort and Spa Puerto Vallarta’s Sea Turtle Rescue protection initiative has been part of the resort’s “Secretos de la Familia” cultural immersion program and has become very popular among resort guests. The beachfront resort receives approximately 30% of the turtles that nest in and around Puerto Vallarta and guests have the opportunity to comb the beach and go “turtle-spotting” with resort biologists or on their own. Once a nest is found, guests can assist the staff in collecting the eggs and transplanting them to protected areas where the eggs can gestate in safety away from predators and poachers.
Approximately 45 days after the eggs are laid, hatchlings emerge from the sand and are ready to head into the wild. At which point guests are invited to choose a baby turtle to name, wish it luck, and hand-deliver it into the ocean send on its way. Because sea turtles return to dig new nests on the same beach where they were born, the beach at CasaMagna Puerto Vallarta works as a natural safe haven for hatchlings and their future progeny year after year, ensuring many generations to come.
Sea turtle hatchling season runs from June through December, opening the doors to guest-participation for at least half the year and allowing plenty of time to plan ahead and make a reservation to participate in their inspiring program.
[Note: I profiled programs wherein tourists can participate in sea turtle conservation efforts at several different upscale resorts (including the one mentioned here) in two previous publications; one highlighted resorts throughout the US and Caribbean and can be read here, the other focused on a particular resort in Cancun, Mexico and can be read here.]
Horsing around in the British Virgin Islands
Horses are not native to the Americas, but they have become naturalized in many areas of the continental US and various Caribbean islands. Unfortunately, horses often cause serious destruction to their adopted homes by outcompeting native wildlife for food and water. However, at Biras Creek Resort on Virgin Gorda (BVI), guests are invited to help reign in the issue by participating in a year-round grooming program for a herd of rescued Paso Fino horses that now live onsite. And quite happily so.
Biras Creek Resort has launched an interactive horse program to provide guests with an unforgettable learning experience while giving their rehabilitated majestic beauties an active and fulfilling second chance. Guests are invited to visit and help groom the horses throughout their stay. The continued exposure to people helps reinforce trust and calmness for the horses and it’s an amazing experience for guests who otherwise would not have contact with horses back home. And for nominal extra costs, the resort also offers a few onsite classes that bring guests even closer to the horses. One teaches children the general anatomy and behavior of horses and includes an instructor-led ride. Other courses are geared towards even more intimate experiences wherein guests learn the intricacies of horses’ natural body language and non-vocal communications that they use with fellow herd-members and their keepers.
Yes, friends, eco-voluntourism is on a healthy rise and resorts the world over are constantly crafting new and imaginative opportunities for guests to get involved with helping preserve nature and having a good time doing it. Whatever the program one chooses, the upshot is the same; helping nature means helping the planet to be (or get back to being) a better place in which to live for everything and everyone. In a local sense, it’s a great way to give back to those small communities that themselves often make sacrifices for the sake of attracting tourism. In the big picture, it’s a way of giving back to the global community that we all share. And after all, most of us feel much better when we know that the impact we’ve made on the environment is a positive one.