Prospects for Service Travel Contributing to Sustainable Tourism and Development in the Dominican Republic

Guest blogger David Searby, President and Founder of BeachCorps (www.beachcorps.com), a volunteer vacation opening operations in the Dominican Republic in 2017.

village Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic

I had the great pleasure to participate in the launch of the latest publication by the Fellows Program of the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD) titled ‘Challenges for Sustainable Growth through Tourism in the Dominican Republic’ at GFDD headquarters in Washington, D.C. on August 31, 2016.  During that event, I argued that the Dominican Republic is uniquely positioned to become the world leader in a new and better kind of service travel/volunteer vacation.  Since that time, my travel and work developing service vacations in the Dominican Republic confirm this to be true.

Volunteer vacations or service travel is a niche market in the US travel industry with enormous room for growth.  A September 2015 study by the tourism nonprofit “Tourism Cares” on philanthropic travel shows high unmet demand for volunteer vacations, especially for wealthy travelers, families, and millennials.

Already numerous for profit and nonprofit volunteer vacation companies serve the Dominican Republic.  Many of them do excellent work.  They help travelers meet locals, have real engagement, and support worthy projects.  However, the cost of these trips is often high in part because the low volume of the vacations requires a high fee per trip to cover costs.  A typical 8-day volunteer vacation in the Dominican Republic can cost between $ 2,200 and $3,000.

Luxury YachtIn April 2016, Carnival Cruises launched it’s line of volunteer cruises on the “fathom” line out on the Adonia liner docking in Puerto Plata, greatly reducing the cost of volunteering.  However, on November 23, Carnival announced that it was ending cruises on the Adonia in May 2017, though the fathom name will live on through volunteer activities as shore excursions on other cruise lines.  The fathom trips to Cuba for cultural visits were popular, while the trips to Puerto Plata were not successful.  Carnival failed in particular in creating demand in church groups, millennials, and other target customers.  Carnival’s failed fathom experiment shows that an entire cruise ship may not be ready for volunteer vacations.  However, smaller projects based in the Dominican Republic’s robust hotel network still hold great potential.

Volunteer vacations in the Dominican Republic face some of the same problems and criticisms of volunteer vacations elsewhere in the world.  Many projects are poorly planned and have no long-term focus on sustainability.  Sometimes these projects even cause harm, such as by perpetuating a culture of dependency in communities.  Volunteering in orphanages is particularly problematic in this regard.

Most important, volunteer vacations in general suffer from a conflict that arises from their marketing strategies.  To sell the trip, firms portray the volunteer as the hero and design trips to gratify the ego of the volunteers.  Instead, the focus should be on local heroes and local causes if there is any hope of promoting local empowerment.

In addition, volunteer vacations need to redefine how volunteers can contribute to move away from only traditional activities like painting and manual labor, which often doesn’t really help the cause.  As one friend who works for a great nonprofit lamented to me, “I am getting tired of painting the same wall for the 10th time.”  Often volunteers can have a great impact simply by engaging with locals in a respectful manner, doing any kind of activity that helps show the cause and how it works.  That means a successful volunteer program could involve nothing more than playing baseball if it succeeds in promoting the cause.

Another way to ensure that volunteer vacations produce the proper positive results is to only work with recognized, established causes.  All too often the cause supported by a volunteer vacation is really a “Poverty Potemkin Village” where tourists come and look at poor people, leave a few bucks and book bags, and then pile back into their air-conditioned vans.  To avoid this problem, many volunteer vacationers to try to work with a recognized cause that is linked to an official US 501c3 charity to improve the chances of sustainability.

beach of Catalina island in Dominican republicFinally, a new model of volunteer vacations can be developed that develops ties with the private sector, particularly hotels.  Hotels can be part of a network that promotes volunteer opportunities on social media in ways that create win-win situations for everyone.  Airlines and other private companies can be part of the picture, too.  Finally, if the government removes barriers to projects and actually supports them, there is enormous potential for rapid expansion, particularly in broader initiatives like reforestation.

The truth is that there is still enormous potential for developing a new kind of volunteer vacation in the Dominican Republic.  No other country has the potential of combining a great beach vacation with fun, simple and meaningful activities nearby.  It is no exaggeration to say that the Dominican Republic has the potential to become the leader in service travel worldwide the way Costa Rica leads in ecotourism.

Caribbean sunset

David Searby is the President and Founder of BeachCorps (www.beachcorps.com), a volunteer vacation opening operations in the Dominican Republic in 2017.

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