Thoughts from Holly Masek of Cotton Tree Lodge – happy Monday everyone!
When Cotton Tree Lodge opened in January of 2007, the goal was to share the natural and cultural treasures of the Toledo District with our guests in a sustainable way. Our utilities were off the grid, our employees were local hires, and our tours sent money into nearby communities. We knew our guests were a ‘green’-thinking set, but also assumed they wanted a traditional vacation where they could relax in hammocks, drink piña coladas, and jump into a few waterfalls. Then we started getting inquiries for opportunities to give back.
We discovered a proactive way to deal with these inquiries through our existing partnership with Sustainable Harvest International, an NGO that had established an organic demonstration farm on the CTL property in 2007. Working with farmers all over Central America, SHI teaches sustainable agriculture techniques and assists with various reforestation and nutrition initiatives. SHI began allowing our guests to volunteer for a day or more on stove-building, tree-planting, or other local projects, requesting a small donation from the volunteers to cover staff time and materials. The guest feedback was always positive, with most participants saying their service project was the best thing they did in Belize.
While our guests’ labor certainly helps SHI in the short term, we hope that their experiences will reach further than that. Many guests will go back and tell their friends, families, and colleagues about what they did and learned on their vacation. Younger volunteers have started Facebook groups to spread the word. Several volunteers have become long-term donors to SHI.
We plan to continue working with SHI to develop voluntourism as a way to bring people and tourist dollars to Belize without negatively impacting the Toledo District. We have seen what cruise ship tourism has done to the northern part of the country (a shopping ‘village’ in Belize City where native Belizeans are often unwelcome, negative environmental impact from the influx of passengers on giant ships, etc.) and we are unwilling to let that happen in Toledo. While voluntourism is just a part of what we do at Cotton Tree Lodge, we have been delighted to see the positive response we have had from guests, the host communities, and SHI.
So what have we learned from what we’ve done so far?
Be realistic, be respectful, and don’t offer services and gifts that aren’t needed. When guests ask if they can bring school supplies or toys, we suggest items that don’t require batteries or replacement parts. If guests would like to deliver their donations to a school themselves, we need to gauge whether or that that will be disruptive to a class.
If you are an established a hotel or tour company looking to incorporate some aspect of voluntourism into your business, look around for non-profits or organizations who are already doing something good in the area and see if you can collaborate.
Plan the best way for guests to offer long-term assistance and be ready to suggest it. Many guests will be inspired by the projects they work on and will want to stay involved. Be ready with information if they want to become long-term donors.
Never promise or plan anything with a local community unless you are sure you can follow through.
Any questions please contact Holly Masek, firstname.lastname@example.org, 917-439-5192