Tourists go extra mile to do good

Times Staff Writer

Blame Angelina and Brad and their do-gooding, orphanage-visiting ways. Or maybe it’s all the hurricanes, tsunamis and tornadoes.

Whatever the reason, more tourists -- such as college students on spring break, jet-setting luxury travelers and retiring baby boomers -- are using their vacations to volunteer.

In the latest example of the growth of “voluntourism,” United Way, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community service organizations, and will unveil a website today to link travelers with volunteer work.


“You always had some college kids who go with their church ministry and they build roofs somewhere, but now it’s really something where the industry has taken notice,” said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Assn. of America. “It’s come a long way from the idea that it’s all crunchy-granola people.”

Recent surveys by online travel company Orbitz, competitor Travelocity and the travel industry group all show increasing interest in volunteer vacations. An even stronger indicator of the interest, Keefe said, is that more travel agencies and tour companies are offering specific volunteer opportunities. In some cases, people can add a day to their trips to focus on a specific cause.

The website doesn’t require visitors to book a vacation with CheapTickets or donate to United Way -- but both options are a click away. Still, the site is mostly a way to link tourists with United Way’s 1,300 local chapters by logging on to CheapTickets .com, said Randy Punley, United Way’s director of corporate partnerships.

After travelers decide on their destinations, they can go to the site ( to pick the specific location for their volunteer work and then select their particular social issue, such as homelessness, domestic violence and drug abuse.

To attract the travelers who might be interested in mixing a good time with good deeds, Punley said, “we’re on MTV, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube.”

Last year, about 100 college students volunteered in Biloxi, Miss., and Foley, Ala., as part of United Way’s inaugural Alternative Spring Break program. This month, more than 300 18-to-24-year-olds -- more than 40% of them repeat volunteers -- will head to Louisiana for more post-hurricane relief work.

Baltimore resident Brian Pham, 21, saw one of United Way’s ads on MTV last spring and ended up in Biloxi, roofing and framing homes for hurricane victims still stuck in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In June, he went on a vacation to New York, where he donated time at a day-care center, a home for the elderly and a women’s shelter. Now, he’s in Louisiana for a month as one of United Way’s project managers.

“I don’t even know what words to describe it. Fulfillment, I guess,” said Pham, who took time off from his family’s real estate company to volunteer. “You just feel like you’re doing so much to save the world.”

And it’s not just young idealists helping out. Richard Degnan, a senior executive for Williams-Sonoma Inc., took a four-week jaunt to Africa last year. On his trip, the 40-year-old San Francisco resident visited four countries and took two high-priced safaris. He also spent two days at three orphanages, where he played with children and dropped off suitcases full of clothes. It just didn’t seem right, he said, to go to Africa and not do any volunteer work.

“I know this is going to sound a bit silly, but to be honest, I think it’s because of people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” said Degnan, referring to the celebrity couple’s globe-hopping visits to orphanages and refugee camps. “They’ve glamorized it.”

The orphanages were not what he expected. They were clean and the kids seemed happy and well cared for. But the children were still needy.

“They all craved physical attention -- especially little kids want to be held, picked up,” Degnan said. “There’s just not enough people to give them enough attention.

“Now that I’ve done this once, wherever I go, I will always do this.”

Melissa Thornley, 35, spent last Christmas break in Honduras, building homes for the poor. She caught a truck every day at 7 a.m. that took her into the mountains, where she worked four or five hours.

“I was doing physical work, but in a way, it was relaxing,” said Thornley, managing director for a film editing company in Chicago that produces commercials. “When you’re in advertising, we’re not really contributing very much.... I wanted it to feel like I was doing something good over the holidays.”

She booked her trip through, a British company that allows tourists to book specific volunteer travel. Among the choices: panda conservation in China, coaching baseball in the Dominican Republic and saving sea turtles in Costa Rica.

Although has been around since 1994, North American bookings increased more than 300% from 2002 to 2005. Last year, the company arranged 5,000 volunteer vacations worldwide, spokeswoman Amy Kaplan said.

“Vacation travel is all about recharging our batteries,” said Randy Wagner, chief marketing officer for Orbitz Worldwide, which owns CheapTickets. “The traditional way is to go to the beach, recharge and you feel great. Now people are telling us that they feel just as great when they give back.”