Maltese people travelling to Kenya tend to fall into two broad categories: tourists, often seeking the thrills of safari rides and the pampering of luxury resorts, and volunteers looking to make a difference. So what happens when you combine the two?
Travel agency Rocs is doing just that, offering a “life-changing experience in Kenya” combining a stay in an all-inclusive four- or five-star resort and volunteer work with hearing-impaired children in the region.
Organised in collaboration with Friends of Kenya, an NGO that has been working in the East African country since 2009, the trip promises travellers the chance to “experience a fantastic exotic destination and at the same time help kids in need”.
This form of commercial volunteer travel, or voluntourism as it is sometimes known, is new to Malta but a burgeoning industry worldwide.
Despite its evident appeal, however, the practice draws criticism over whether it truly benefits the communities it claims to help, and if it is more about providing a feel-good factor for wealthy tourists on short trips than developing the skills needed for lasting change.
Simona Pagano, from Friends of Kenya, which is organising the trips with Rocs, said the idea behind combining the group’s work – which includes teaching children useful skills, funding their schooling and donating educational supplies and medicine – with a luxury trip was to entice people who would might otherwise be put off.
“We realised there are many people who would like to try an experience like this but at the same do not want to live in uncomfortable conditions. Organising it as part of a normal holiday could help to bring in new people,” she said.
Ms Pagano said volunteers would primarily be helping to teach the children important skills – from hygiene to tree planting, tailoring and construction – and donating supplies.
Asked whether people who signed up for the trip were likely to have the necessary skills themselves, she said many were easily learned and passed on, and that what mattered more than expertise was a willingness to teach.
She added that the volunteer trips also had an “awareness raising” function, creating a ripple effect that could lead to more help for the region in future, and supported the country’s economy by providing employment for locals.
Nevertheless, the trips still raised questions among others who spoke to the Times of Malta.
“On the surface, I can completely understand the pull, the sense of adventure, of doing a ‘good’ thing,” said Maria Pisani, an academic and director of the Integra Foundation, an NGO working with refugees and asylum seekers.
“The question is, who really stands to gain? If the voluntary work is to fulfil your own sense of self-worth, then you should probably not go,” she said.
“If it’s to appreciate what you have, then there’s no need to travel – you can stay closer to home, just step outside your front door and go make a difference. And if that’s not nearly as enticing, then ask yourself why.
“Before you embark on such an experience, think long and hard – what difference will your brief presence make? Do you possess the knowledge and skills to really make a difference? Are you in it for the long haul, or just to fill your vacation?”
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