Voluntourism, Sustainability and Travel in 2018

Last week, Valerie Wilson Travel hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony at its new New York City office. In addition to a tour, Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT) hosted a panel titled What Keeps You Up at Night: Travel Market Watch and Trends Discussion. Among the myriad of topics, was the role of voluntourism and sustainability in luxury travel.

“I think it’s something that is becoming ever-more apparent” in what the consumer wants, VWT co-owner and co-president Kimberly Wilson Wetty said. “They want to be able to have a more authentic experience, feel locally, but also really contribute and give back.”

Both Virtuoso and the CLIA said that voluntourism is among the top trends in luxury travel for 2018 and beyond. Voluntourism can range from improving the quality of life in underdeveloped destinations to doing your part to help rebuild a destination affected by a natural disaster.


Marett Taylor of Abercrombie & Kent says the tour operator uses four pillars when creating its voluntourism itineraries: education, health, conservation and enterprise. “I think that philanthropy is very, very personal for the luxury traveler,” Taylor says. “Some people want a day; some people want an entire voluntourism trip. We've made it possible on our Tailor Made journeys to have an element, or to actually preplan with an advisor an entire experience, for the family to do in every area of the world.”

Taylor says the “enterprise” option is her favorite, as it empowers people to continue building their community. Recently A&K opened a bike shop in Nakatindi, Zambia. It brought over hundreds of bicycles and helped the women open a shop. Marett says the women worked with the community to sell and repair the bikes. With the monkey they earned, the women were able to purchase more bikes. Another venture of A&K’s included opening a maternity ward, also in Nakatindi.

Kristian Anderson of Uniworld spoke about Me to We, a partner that Uniworld’s parent company, The Travel Corporation, works with. “It's a program that is set out to work with folks who are in underdeveloped or underprivileged areas in the world, be it India or Africa or what have you, and the whole mantra is that we believe in a hand up, not necessarily a hand out, so it's about sustainable growth and economic opportunity.”

VWT co-owner and co-president Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg says that while not all travelers want a full-on voluntourism trip, they might still want to educate their children if it’s a multi-gen trip.

“They, probably, would much rather have a well donated in their name than just another bottle of champagne.” Wilson-Buttigieg says. “They would rather know that a tree is being planted for them or have an experience. So, I would encourage many of our partners and suppliers to think differently.”

Anderson also says that Uniworld is moving away from plastics. It joins a growing list of companies that have pledged to remove plastics from its cruises or properties. Others include: Hurtigruten, Corinthis Hotels, the Monaco Government Tourist Office and more.

“The travel industry in general really does lead the way in so many different regards,” Anderson says. “We're setting the example on the environment, we're setting the example on sustainable growth, and we're setting the example in recovery.”

Aid and Recovery

Last year saw several destinations, most notably the Caribbean, hurt by natural disasters.

Alexis Romer from Marriott Luxury Brands says it has hotels in both the Caribbean and Hawaii, which were affected by the hurricanes and the recent volcano eruption. “We're really taking our time coming back in Puerto Rico. Durado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, and The St. Regis Bahia Beach did not really sustain a lot of physical damage; there was some damage to foliage and a lot of the grounds, but they're really taking their time coming back. They're not going to reopen until October.

“The teams that are in Puerto Rico have really concentrated on working to help get the island back up to par, get the infrastructure ready and make sure that they will be ready for the following season. They took a path this season, so they could work and be absolutely ready for the next season.”

Romer says Marriott is approaching the reopening of the hotels as relaunches of new hotels. The properties received renovations, but the team has created a plan in terms of how it’s going to come back onto the market. “But first and foremost, the teams that are on site are really engaged with ensuring that employees and community are taken care of and everybody just rises to the occasion to make sure people are taken care of,” she says.

Silversea’s Mark Conroy says that his guests, more than anything, have enjoyed the warm welcome from these destinations. He notes that some of the islands may have gotten used to the tourism, or even perhaps overcrowding, but were happy to have travelers visiting once again. “People were shocked by how well Puerto Rico worked in spite of the fact that they were running out of generators and everything else,” he says. “So, we're pretty optimistic about the Caribbean and about Puerto Rico coming back.”

Chuck Imhof of Delta says that the destination is rebounding very well. Last year, the airline added around 12,000 seats to the Caribbean, according to Imhof, to help evacuate the island. He also says that Delta donated time and money to the American Red Cross. By this fall, Delta will be up to 140 weekly flights to 16 destinations. New will be added flights to Nassau, Kingston and Port-au-Prince.

Wilson Wetty says that it seems like we’re still getting over the hurricanes, as we again approach hurricane season. It can cause angst among advisors: How far out should they book? Which partners can best make changes for their clients?


While sustainability in underdeveloped or struggling destinations is becoming a more popular type of travel—and a good thing for the industry and the global community—sustainability in existing and, now, over-crowded destinations has the potential to become a problem. Cities such as Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona are all suffering from over-tourism and are working on ways to combat the influx of travelers.

VWT founder Valerie Wilson says that one option is to really know a destination. “I go to Venice at least once a year,” she says, noting that it used to be as frequently as four times a year. Wilson will often take her group or clients through backroads or to nearby destinations to avoid crowds.

Not everyone, however, is an expert on every city, so, at that point, it’s about managing expectations. “I think it's about the expectations,” Wilson says. “You have to tell the client that on any given Sunday in Venice it will be overcrowded and so maybe that's the day you want to go out to Burano.”

Anderson offers the locals’ point of view: “It's daunting when you look at [a 6,000-passenger cruise ship] and I can see why the Venetians and people who believe in sustainable tourism and believe in minimizing our impact are concerned about the damage that's done at times.”

Wilson Wetty reiterated her mother’s idea. She says that we could see a shift to secondary markets. “I wouldn't be surprised if we fast forward five or ten years and those cities that were we perceive as overpopulated are trying to find ways to get guests to come back,” Wilson Wetty says. “I think there's often a cycle. But I continue to see this expansion going on. And I think the infrastructure that countries are putting in to secondary markets is something that's on the watch list, that I'd be curious about.”

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