REPORT #118 Oct 1999

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Volunteer vacations and short term adventures in Belize are a small missing tourist package niche in the repetoire of Belizean Travel Agents.

While eco-tourism is a familiar term to Belizean Tourist Operators, the Volunteer Vacation Adventure Package is missing from local advertising vocabulary.

There are some volunteer vacation packages in Belize. Raleigh International, and several Religious sects that promote working vacations. But the idea and working vacation business is much wider than that.

What is a Volunteer Vacation Adventure Package?

In short, it is people who want a local cultural experience found outside of the restaurant and regular hotel package. 50% or more of this travel package niche caters to people who are 60 years old and over. Many of them are either ex-Peace Corps volunteers, Overseas Volunteers of different countries, or non- religious types who want the privilege of being a missionary without the religious mumbo jumbo trappings. Do they go sightseeing? Sometimes, mostly on weekends. What is the average length of stay? From two weeks to one month.

How can you, a Belizean Travel Agent sell a Volunteer Vacation? Well firstly, you need contacts with some remote community, like a Mayan village in the Toledo Hills, or a village in the Stann Creek District, or some small fishing community on the outer Cayes and Atolls.

What you have to organize is a place for a small family to stay for the two weeks, to one month period in the village with which you are going to send them. Make sure they have mosquito netting and a dry place to sleep. The outhouse, primitive bed, or hammock, mud and rain will not really bother them that much; if they have interaction with a village community family, or Village Council. They want the personal cultural contact. Most importantly, you must arrange some SORT OF PROJECT on which they can work, whether it is building a room on a school house, mixing cement, painting the building, teaching English, teaching computers, helping a school, building an airplane in Corozal, or anything else you can think of.

These people are looking to contribute to a community and in their life's experience they have found that in giving to others, they receive more than they give, in personal feelings. They get more than they give, which is food for the soul.

To such volunteers, slugging along a jungle trail through knee deep mud, or taking a dory to the plantation down stream, or riding a mule is food for their seeking of the exotic experience. People will pay to enjoy such a useful working vacation abroad.

You as the travel agent need to organize the work project, community interaction, arrange for them to sleep someplace and their meals, internal transport and tote up all the costs to yourself for organizing it and reimbursing hosts and cooks and others involved locally for any financial outlays. You then bill the Working Vacationer, for these costs, include a 10% margin for error and $200 or $300 for your commission for the arrangements and supervision. If you go through a travel wholesaler in the USA then you will probably have to include $200 or $330 for that Travel Wholesaler's commission. The working vacationer will pay their own return airfare, though in some places travel agents will arrange that also. You are better with a total cost package though.

For example: Elizabeth Clark of Ft. Lauderdale spent a month's vacation in February repairing and painting in bright pink and blue, a nursery school in Ecuador, and she is scheduled to return soon from another working vacation- this one in India doing "whatever is needed of her". Marshall Bloom of Pembroke Pines helped a small farming community in Costa Rica with construction projects. Lawyers Alan and Shoshanna Ehrlich of Plantation taught English and took their 11 year old son with them, to remote China. The trip to China cost them $3000. They flew from Miami to Hong Kong, took local regional flights and train trips to get to the countryside. In order to get more from the month, they studied Chinese at the Language Labs in the local Broward County Community College before they left. They even bought multi-media software floppy discs to practice Chinese on their home computer. They arrived at a school in Baoji, near Xia'n in Central China. Here they taught English for the month. Inside the gates of the school when they arrived were lines of children applauding their arrival, the local Chinese Army band playing for them. "To them, it was a once in a lifetime experience."

Older people are jaded with conventional tourism. People are looking for other ways to engage with the local foreign culture.

There are 275 organizations that offer volunteer-vacation programs. There is a book VOLUNTEER VACATIONS:SHORT TERM ADVENTURES THAT WILL BENEFIT YOU AND OTHERS, authored by Bill McMillon. College graduates love the experience. Instead of two years in the Peace Corps, they spend one month overseas and can add it as experience on their job hunting resumes.

Usually, the lodging, the work project, the local transportation, meals are the responsibility of the local organizing travel agent.

For example, Bloom a federal immigration inspector carried bags of cement in the hot and humid climate of Costa Rica to help with the expansion of a health clinic in Canitas, a rural mountain community. Bloom is 55 years old and a former Peace Corps Volunteer. The trip gave him an opportunity to sharpen his Spanish language skills. Besides, people develop strong friendships with the people in the villages where they work. Those that go on working vacations have similar attitudes and character. They know by giving of themselves they receive something intangible back that is worth more. They also believe you only go around once in life and for them, this is important to feel they did their bit in leaving the world a little better place.

You are the Belizean Travel Agent, you have the knowledge now, it is up to you to hone your organizing and selling skills and put the packages together. With the internet all things are now possible.

I think this is a good suggestion, Ray

It may be difficult for commission-focused travel agents per se to try to handle -- it's more something that in-bound tour operators would get involved with. And of course it's a big organizational chore to set up something like this, with relatively small return if you're doing it on a for-profit basis compared with booking a tour group into an upscale jungle lodge or dive resort.

But I would say that actually Belize has an above-average amount of volunteer travel already. For example, lots of people go to Belize on archeological digs, something that, say Costa Rica doesn't have. There are dig programs in Blue Creek, Cayo, Toledo and elsewhere.

Then there are all the medical volunteer groups, many of which go year after year, often staying at the same hotel (I'm always running into people who come back to Tony's in Corozal Town every year on medical volunteer programs.)

As you say, religious groups are big in volunteer travel. I happen to know three people here in Asheville alone who have been to Belize in the past year on volunteer trips to build churches and schools. There also are many educational programs in Belize in the summer, and most of these have an educational component. Just among my small group of local acquaintances I know at least two people who have gone to Belize in the past year on summer education programs.

--Lan Sluder

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