Abercrombie & Kent Offers Luxury Voluntourism

First the Ritz, now Abercrombie & Kent – ‘luxury’ voluntourism seems to be on the rise, but is the phrase an oxymoron in itself? How do you successfully merge giving back while charging a high price tag? The Ritz has been criticized but A&K seem to be making the most responsible shot at it that i’ve seen – what do you think? $9,995 for 11 days in East Africa, 4 projects and a safari.

Here is an excerpt from their recent press release:

“It began with a commitment to preserve whatever we found, wherever we went.”  Thus begins the introduction to a new Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy web site (www.akphilanthropy.org), which showcases opportunities for travellers to become involved with 50 pioneering projects worldwide.

“As travel increasingly becomes about the things money cannot buy – shared experiences and treasured memories – more and more of our guests want to make a personal connection and a positive contribution to the places they visit,” says Abercrombie & Kent Vice Chairman Jorie Butler Kent, who guides Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy. “We hope to use this new web site to multiply the impact of what our guests have started.”

Working through A&K’s offices around the world, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy identifies and supports proven grassroots organizations. Guests who want to give something back can contribute to one of these local projects with a tax-deductible donation which can be made directly through the secure AKP web site. 100% of all donations go directly to the chosen project.  Guests travelling on many of A&K’s small group escorted journeys, private Signature itineraries or Tailor Made programs can visit projects in person, learning more about their destination through the work of its most dedicated people

http://abercrombieandkent.com/press/press_releases/How-Travel-Can-Make-a-Difference.cfm

7 thoughts on “Abercrombie & Kent Offers Luxury Voluntourism

  1. OK. Let’s debunk a couple of things and then end with something meaningful. 🙂

    1. Volunteering is volunteering is volunteering. All of us….ALL OF US have to rid ourselves of this notion that unless you live in a tent, eat mush, walk around in the mud and get dirty you aren’t really volunteering. Volunteering for even an hour to help a neighbor do some heavy lifting is volunteering. If I pay $500 for an experience abroad and live in a tent and someone else at AK pays $10,000 and lives in a 5-star hotel but also volunteers…we’re both volunteering. It is NOT the volunteers responsibility to make certain what he does is sustainable. It is the project’s responsibility. If I volunteer for a month, does that make me 30 times more responsible that what I’m doing is 30 times more sustainable? No…it means I need to make sure, 30 times over, that the project is a sustainable project. And if it is…even a day contributes to a sustainable project. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to SELL a month long volunteer project. They can’t make a living selling a day. But AK can. And they will. Please, already, leave them alone about this.

    2. People who can afford a $10,000 vacation with AK and do a little observing or volunteering during that can do pretty much what they damned well please. If you can’t afford a $9000 first class ticket to London to ride up front for 6 hours from Boston…you are not in their league. And probably, unless you win the lottery, you never will be. You are not going to change their minds and you most certainly are not going to get them to live in a tent or in a communal volunteer house. Take care of yourself. Take care of your own budget. Leave those other guys alone. They are not like you. They don’t WANT to be like you. If they do some volunteering now, maybe they will do it later when they get home. If they do, great. If they don’t, congratulations to AK for at least making it available to them.

    My disappointment with the press release you kindly shared is this: “Guests who want to give something back can contribute to one of these local projects with a tax-deductible donation which can be made directly through the secure AKP web site.” That for me, personally, is disappointing and insulting. I’m not certain how you combine travel, first class travel, volunteering and making a cash contribution…but apparently AK thinks they can and that there is nothing wrong with that. I think all of us in this field have seen, first-hand, that volunteering for a day is one thing. Throwing money at a project is something entirely different. That is NOT volunteering. And I’d love to see AK change their policy on that.

    If I need a first class seat, I can toss $9000 to Virgin Atlantic and I’ll get a limo too. If I need someone to handle my bags, get them to the hotel, to my room and in my closet…I can toss some money to the bellman and that solves my issue. If I need a table for dinner and the restaurant is full, I can throw some money at the Concierge and the restaurant and a table will appear. Problem solved. If I’m used to tossing money at a problem and used to that problem then being solved…AK is tapping into that mentality that they will showcase their 50-projects and the AK traveler will toss money towards them with the idea: problem solved. That is on AK’s heads and that’s too bad.

    A very long-winded comment to say if someone pays $10,000 for a vacation and volunteers a day…I’m OK with that. If they pay $10,000 and AK drives them by a few projects and plays some sad songs and the traveler tosses money at it…I have a problem with that. I see it as two distinctly different issues raised in the AK press release.

    If you look hard at the Carlton Group and what they are doing vs. this site you provided in your Blog from AKP you will see two distinct philosophies. I would suggest Jorie Kent hire the Voluntourism Gal to help him with his market research and the vast sustainability research out there right now. AK might make some needed adjustments.

    Sorry for this very long comment.

    Randy LeGrant
    Executive Director
    GeoVisions

  2. While I don’t publish my opinions on my own site…I’ll post a comment here🙂

    Abercrombie & Kent completely disgusts me. I researched them after reading that NYT article this spring, touting them as a “philanthropic voluntourism group.”

    What I saw when reading through their tour agendas was appalling. They’re not “philanthropic” and they can’t be called “volunteering.” People go on community tours, take in shows and sights, and spend two hours of one (or maybe two!) days out of nine in an orphanage or similar. It doesn’t say what they DO in the orphanage aside from “Play with children.”

    Playing with children in an orphanage for two hours is where they get their tax write-off for their nine-day tour.

    While I’m all for volunteering in its many forms, I’m completely disgusted by what groups like Abercrombie & Kent do — they should call it what it is: a vacation!

  3. The key part of volunteering is that you do it regardless of the “reward”. Seeing the work to completion is a reward. In my expose blog post about this issue, I noticed but did not write about A&K, however one has to wonder how much is really getting done by these vacationers. If you really want to do something for Africa, INVEST, BUILD.. work cooperatively WITH people on targeted projects. Live in that “Dirty Boarding House”, Eat local food, learn the damn language.

    No wonder we’re called the Ugly Americans, because we create our own waste and excess at the expense of others so we can have luxury travels, hug a child, and feel good about ourselves. What a shame..

  4. Just got this from Pamela Lassers of Abercrombie and Kent clarifying a few things.

    Alexia, I think this is an issue of semantics. We do not describe our trips as volunteering, but rather as a way for our guests to give something back to the communities they visit. While many who travel are thrilled to simply be in a foreign country, our guests seek a deeper knowledge and appreciation, an experience of a more profound nature that expands their understanding of the world. They want travel that does more than just provide a rest and a getaway. They are experience seekers; educated, active, accomplished. The majority are professionals and entrepreneurs with an intense curiosity about the world. (Important when you consider that less than 25% of Americans have passports)

    Through our local offices, we identify grassroots projects where we can make a difference. In many cases that means bringing a worthwhile project to the attention of people with the financial means to make a significant contribution. It is the experience of a place and meeting the people that often motivates charitable donations.

    If you can devote the space, I’d like to share one example of which we are especially proud because it was organized entirely by our local staff…at their own initiative. It demonstrates what a company with “feet on the ground” — and experience in transportation and logistics — can do in an emergency.

    Abercrombie & Kent has 16 employees who live and work in Myanmar. Immediately after Cyclone Nargis raced across the Irrawaddy Delta, they began gathering essential supplies such as rice, drinking water, cooking oil, medicines and clothing for delivery by truck to the devastated Delta region that was struck by 120 mph winds and a 12 ft wall of water.
    • Our first supply run with $5,000 worth of water, rice, medicine and clothing was among the first shipments to arrive in Pathein, where thousands of refugees gathered after the storm. A&K Staff members accompanied the shipment to personally deliver the aid. Although the homes of many were seriously damaged, they felt compelled to first deliver aid to people who had lost everything…family members, homes and their livelihoods.
    • Abercrombie & Kent, USA donated an additional $10,000 to support this initial effort and sent out appeals to travel agents and past travellers.
    • Within the week, four large trucks had delivered supplies to the towns of Pathein, Myaungmya and Bogalay.
    Each shipment contained:
    Water Purification Liquid to purify 200,000 litres of drinking water
    Rice and Other Food Items: potatoes, cooking oil, salt, beans, onions, garlic, chili powder
    Packets of Dried food (cereal, biscuits, cookies)
    Blankets
    Mosquito nets
    Rehydration Salts and antibiotic tablets
    Basic Medical Supplies (antiseptic, bandages)
    Loungyis (Burmese sarong) & clothes donated by people in Yangon
    Currency to buy diesel for boats to collect villagers in outlying rural areas
    • The following day the A&K team ventured some four hours by boat to outlying areas surrounding Bogalay.
    Many villages were totally destroyed. The volunteers saw bodies, old and young, floating in the water, bloated and rotting, along with livestock. The situation in the villages they reached was harrowing:

    Khit San 80 alive 80 dead
    Yua Thit 120 alive 80 dead
    Kyig Chaung 300 alive 250 dead
    Kwin Sa Khan 100 alive 100 dead
    • They discovered 270 survivors in a church, the only building left standing in Ta Pyan Gyi Village. The A&K team was the first to reach them – 10 days after the storm — with food, blankets, medicine, mosquito nets and re-hydration salts. The next day they temporarily relocated 41 women and children from this village to a church in Yangon, and 67 additional women and children arrived in Yangon later that week. The men remained behind to start to rebuild the village and replant rice.
    • By sharing first-hand accounts like this with our travel agent partners and past travellers we were able to raise the funds needed to purchase rice seed for planting, tractors and diesel fuel that enabled 120 farmers to produce 300,000 sacks of rice, food that generated more than $1,305,000 worth of income in some of the hardest hit communities. We donated 35 boats for local river fishing and transportation and 2 larger boats to ferry the rice to market.

    • Today we are continuing to help rebuild schools that were destroyed and support orphanages for the children who lost their families in the storm. With 140,000 people killed by the cyclone, existing orphanages were overwhelmed by the numbers.
    – Through the Sarah Ferguson Foundation, $20,000 went directly to benefit the Hpu Saw Bu orphanage in Maung Mya. Pre-cyclone, the orphanage housed nine children. Today there are 92 children, including 33 girls and 59 boys ranging from 4 to 20 years old.
    – $10,000 was allocated to aid Grace’s Orphanage, an orphanage A&K has supported for many years. This week we received an additional $3,000 from someone who had travelled to Myanmar with us and visited the home.
    – A recent visitor donated $50,000 which is being used to provide additional land and a new house for the Mingilar Children’s Home in Yangon, in addition to outfitting the home with everything it needs – bedding, appliances, furniture, etc.

    Through our own donations – and those of our travel industry partners and past travellers – Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy has raised more than $545,000 to date to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

  5. Thank you Abercrombie & Kent for outlining what you do. As a former traveler with you, I can honestly say you were fabulous, utilized locally owned businesses, and if I could afford it, I would be using you for all my trips. With the economic downturn, I’m having to be more budget minded, but kudos to you and your travelers who are willing to pay top price, donate days of travel to good causes, and even donate additional funds on top of that to make the world a better place!

  6. Oh so much to say…. I started this a few days ago but didn’t have time to finish and now my post is WAY to long to add here as a comment. For the full version of what I have to say in regards to A&K’s philanthropy marketing, Randy/Sarah/other’s comments, read here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/travel-operators-development-work/ Even this edited version is still very long (10 points if you get to the end).

    Overall, my thoughts are that:
    1) Volunteer program operators need to be better educated on development best practices.
    2) Operators need to act on that education, not just in line with consumer demands.
    3) Consumers need to be educated about effective development practices.
    4) Potential volunteers need to start asking the right questions and demanding responsible volunteer opportunities.

    If this happens, the paradigm will shift, demand will decrease as travelers stop looking for things like “pet the children” orphanage visits (which Sarah was complaining about), the less responsible projects which were used to getting volunteers like the fake orphanages I see here in Cambodia will cease to exists as the profit-seeking owners will have moved onto other more lucrative endeavors, and the groups looking to offer support to the development sector will have found a better way to do so.

    Here are the key points:

    A) See 1&2 above: Randy, I agree with you that “It is NOT the volunteers responsibility to make certain what he does is sustainable.” It is the OPERATORS responsibility to research, plan, and monitor their programs responsibly and ensure that they are not causing harm…

    A team of us (including Alexia here at voluntourismgal) have contributed to this self-check tool to help operators consider their impact: http://www.voluntourism101.com/guide … (Operators, please add stories and reflections in the comments section before we officially launch the site if you like!)

    … For me, one of the red lights I saw on the A&K website was the fact that they equated “providing wells” with “providing clean water”. As many people working in Cambodia (the place where this A&K program http://www.akphilanthropy.org/projects/sams_brothers.cfm is listed) will tell you, “wells” provide access to water, but they do not necessarily provide clean water as this post seems to claim…. (Read about how UNICEF was blamed for causing arsenic poisoning through untested wells in Bangledesh, and this is a big problem in Cambodia still today http://www.uswaternews.com/archives/arcglobal/tarspoi4.html.) … Minerals, bacteria, viruses, arsenic: So much to know about! How is a tour operator, whose number one goal is to take people on fabulous trips, who probably spends little time in the areas they are looking to support, supposed to know all of these things? And how are they supposed to have the time to do it right? …

    B) Length of stay doesn’t matter if the trips are not responsible in the first place! I also agree with Randy that it is absolutely RIDICULOUS that so many critics of voluntourism deem length of stay as a determinant of positive impact. Sadly, the LONG-term volunteers working “in the field” that I have seen in Cambodia are usually the ones doing the most harm! They would only do a little bit of harm if they stayed for a day, but instead they aid corruption, fund irresponsible programs, and displace the potential for local labor development for 60 days rather than one because their agent or operator was trying to sell them the experience they were demanding, and perhaps make more money off of the exchange.… (Here is an article in WorldChanging http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010362.html which highlights a lot of my thoughts on this topic.)

    C) Plus, who are we to say that people who would have just gone to the beach for the week because they needed a vacation from their busy lives are bad because they only gave one day of their trip instead of all to some project?! I think that is a backwards way to look at things – we want people to IMPROVE their tourism impact – and if trips are designed well then who cares how long it is for!…

    D) Funding IS important. …Which aids education more: thirty foreigners painting a school poorly using $150 worth of paint or a $150 teacher training course taught by a skilled local educator?… So why cut out the funding part, if that, if applied in the right ways, IS what can help cause a more long-term change? Back to part A) if we choose the right partners, we should WANT to fund them and their work, as we should have picked them for their responsible decisions in the first place. Plus, having us there, skilled or not, does take their time and resources. (Note: Tour operators who don’t do Step A…. should of course avoid giving money away…. but I would argue that they shouldn’t be sending volunteers to those places then in the first place!)

    I like Roberts point, that many of “the world’s elite” already think they can buy anything they want: fame, love, anything… and he doesn’t want them to think they can “buy” clean consciousness or a chance to change the world (I hear you Robert, don’t even get me started on ‘carbon offsetting’.) But this attitude is once again focused on the travelers, not the projects… I got into a discussion once with one of the heads of one of your big short-term volunteer placement companies who said to me “but we don’t give funds to these groups! That could aid corruption!” PLEEEEEEEEASE people, recognize that you are aiding corruption PERIOD if you send your guests to places you haven’t vetted, who are not doing responsible work, and who are not putting community needs first! Your guests will give money, even if you don’t, and once again, I blame the operator for that poor choice…. because something costs $ does NOT make something “not sustainable”. Where and how that money is used is what makes that distinction….


    G) Tour operators should not be development agents, unless they have the right people, skills, and time to learn how to do it right. … When tour operators start to think they need to implement projects on their own, for whatever reason from wanting to “brand” it to being too lazy to find a partner, to thinking “development is easy – anyone can do it!”, that is when there are problems.

    H) Community input and empowerment is important in development work. …If a tour operator is trying to identify community needs and implement programs on their own, why would they want to admit that they are doing something wrong and change it when they find out that they have, if they are selling their trips 6 months or one year out?…

    I) If operators design their trips simply by what is ‘in demand’ we will continue to have a problem unless we 1) change how operators act and think or b) educate travelers to demand responsible interactions on their tours. … Unfortunately, we all know that there will always be people looking to make money who don’t care about doing something right and as such, in order for this to change, it has to come from both ends: travelers need to stop demanding things like orphanage visits, as Sarah pointed out, and operators and agents need to get their heads out of their bank accounts and wake up to the fact that if they are not designing their programs well they are causing more harm in the world than good.… Unfortunately, the demand for what people are willing to pay for is not usually in line with what is needed to support development work.

    Go here for the full version of these thoughts: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/travel-operators-development-work/ Thanks, Alexia, for asking for our feedback. I appreciate the chance to reflect on this.

  7. From Daniela Papi of PEPY Ride – some how it wasnt working for her to comment.

    Oh so much to say…. I started this a few days ago but didn’t have time to finish and now my post is WAY to long to add here as a comment. For the full version of what I have to say in regards to A&K’s philanthropy marketing, Randy/Sarah/other’s comments, read here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/travel-operators-development-work/ Even this edited version is still very long (10 points if you get to the end).

    Overall, my thoughts are that:
    1) Volunteer program operators need to be better educated on development best practices.
    2) Operators need to act on that education, not just in line with consumer demands.
    3) Consumers need to be educated about effective development practices.
    4) Potential volunteers need to start asking the right questions and demanding responsible volunteer opportunities.

    If this happens, the paradigm will shift, demand will decrease as travelers stop looking for things like “pet the children” orphanage visits (which Sarah was complaining about), the less responsible projects which were used to getting volunteers like the fake orphanages I see here in Cambodia will cease to exists as the profit-seeking owners will have moved onto other more lucrative endeavors, and the groups looking to offer support to the development sector will have found a better way to do so.

    Here are the key points:

    A) See 1&2 above: Randy, I agree with you that “It is NOT the volunteers responsibility to make certain what he does is sustainable.” It is the OPERATORS responsibility to research, plan, and monitor their programs responsibly and ensure that they are not causing harm…

    A team of us (including Alexia here at voluntourismgal) have contributed to this self-check tool to help operators consider their impact: http://www.voluntourism101.com/guide … (Operators, please add stories and reflections in the comments section before we officially launch the site if you like!)

    … For me, one of the red lights I saw on the A&K website was the fact that they equated “providing wells” with “providing clean water”. As many people working in Cambodia (the place where this A&K program http://www.akphilanthropy.org/projects/sams_brothers.cfm is listed) will tell you, “wells” provide access to water, but they do not necessarily provide clean water as this post seems to claim…. (Read about how UNICEF was blamed for causing arsenic poisoning through untested wells in Bangledesh, and this is a big problem in Cambodia still today http://www.uswaternews.com/archives/arcglobal/tarspoi4.html.) … Minerals, bacteria, viruses, arsenic: So much to know about! How is a tour operator, whose number one goal is to take people on fabulous trips, who probably spends little time in the areas they are looking to support, supposed to know all of these things? And how are they supposed to have the time to do it right? …

    B) Length of stay doesn’t matter if the trips are not responsible in the first place! I also agree with Randy that it is absolutely RIDICULOUS that so many critics of voluntourism deem length of stay as a determinant of positive impact. Sadly, the LONG-term volunteers working “in the field” that I have seen in Cambodia are usually the ones doing the most harm! They would only do a little bit of harm if they stayed for a day, but instead they aid corruption, fund irresponsible programs, and displace the potential for local labor development for 60 days rather than one because their agent or operator was trying to sell them the experience they were demanding, and perhaps make more money off of the exchange.… (Here is an article in WorldChanging http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010362.html which highlights a lot of my thoughts on this topic.)

    C) Plus, who are we to say that people who would have just gone to the beach for the week because they needed a vacation from their busy lives are bad because they only gave one day of their trip instead of all to some project?! I think that is a backwards way to look at things – we want people to IMPROVE their tourism impact – and if trips are designed well then who cares how long it is for!…

    D) Funding IS important. …Which aids education more: thirty foreigners painting a school poorly using $150 worth of paint or a $150 teacher training course taught by a skilled local educator?… So why cut out the funding part, if that, if applied in the right ways, IS what can help cause a more long-term change? Back to part A) if we choose the right partners, we should WANT to fund them and their work, as we should have picked them for their responsible decisions in the first place. Plus, having us there, skilled or not, does take their time and resources. (Note: Tour operators who don’t do Step A…. should of course avoid giving money away…. but I would argue that they shouldn’t be sending volunteers to those places then in the first place!)

    I like Roberts point, that many of “the world’s elite” already think they can buy anything they want: fame, love, anything… and he doesn’t want them to think they can “buy” clean consciousness or a chance to change the world (I hear you Robert, don’t even get me started on ‘carbon offsetting’.) But this attitude is once again focused on the travelers, not the projects… I got into a discussion once with one of the heads of one of your big short-term volunteer placement companies who said to me “but we don’t give funds to these groups! That could aid corruption!” PLEEEEEEEEASE people, recognize that you are aiding corruption PERIOD if you send your guests to places you haven’t vetted, who are not doing responsible work, and who are not putting community needs first! Your guests will give money, even if you don’t, and once again, I blame the operator for that poor choice…. because something costs $ does NOT make something “not sustainable”. Where and how that money is used is what makes that distinction….


    G) Tour operators should not be development agents, unless they have the right people, skills, and time to learn how to do it right. … When tour operators start to think they need to implement projects on their own, for whatever reason from wanting to “brand” it to being too lazy to find a partner, to thinking “development is easy – anyone can do it!”, that is when there are problems.

    H) Community input and empowerment is important in development work. …If a tour operator is trying to identify community needs and implement programs on their own, why would they want to admit that they are doing something wrong and change it when they find out that they have, if they are selling their trips 6 months or one year out?…

    I) If operators design their trips simply by what is ‘in demand’ we will continue to have a problem unless we 1) change how operators act and think or b) educate travelers to demand responsible interactions on their tours. … Unfortunately, we all know that there will always be people looking to make money who don’t care about doing something right and as such, in order for this to change, it has to come from both ends: travelers need to stop demanding things like orphanage visits, as Sarah pointed out, and operators and agents need to get their heads out of their bank accounts and wake up to the fact that if they are not designing their programs well they are causing more harm in the world than good.… Unfortunately, the demand for what people are willing to pay for is not usually in line with what is needed to support development work.

    Go here for the full version of these thoughts: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/travel-operators-development-work/ Thanks, Alexia, for asking for our feedback. I appreciate the chance to reflect on this.

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