The argument for them is that they raise millions of pounds for charity that would probably not be raised otherwise. One major argument against them is that they're a way of getting friends to pay for your fantastically adventurous, exotic holiday, sorry, "challenge".
"They're definitely not holidays," insists Erich Reich, ex-managing director for Thomas Cook and nowmanaging director for Classic Tours, which set up the first charity challenge trip in 1991 for Edinburgh Medical Mission Society and Ravenswood, a Jewish charity for children with learning difficulties. It now runs 59 trips a year for a variety of British charities, and has helped to raise pounds 20m as a result. "What you have to remember is that people have to train for a year and raise the funds, which is very hard work. People run fashion shows, hold parties, bingo nights... whatever they can think of. And at the end of cycling trips, for instance, they have very sore bums. Some don't complete the challenge, either. It is quite hard."
One charity that feels it has more than a passing experience of setting a challenge is Fairbridge, which works with disadvantaged inner-city youth in the UK, through setting practical challenges like abseiling, canoeing or sailing.
"We saw all these different charities raising money through organising the type of challenges we do as a central part of our everyday work," says Fairbridge's Jenny Butterworth, "so we knew that we could organise this sort of trip better than anybody."
Fairbridge has created a word-of-mouth-advertised set of challenges, including the Arctic Challenge (racing teams of husky dogs across the ice and learning survival techniques), the Cresta Challenge in St Moritz (Fairbridge's Jenny Butterworth calls it "a sort of rich man's laxative: you toboggan down a slope at 80 miles an hour with your nose inches from the ground") and the Jordan Desert Challenge (physical, intellectual and cultural challenges following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia). Preparation includes months of physical training, and in the case of the Jordan Desert Challenge, training sessions on first aid, jeep driving and survival techniques.
Most of Fairbridge's participants are upwardly mobile young professionals. Think fleece-clad thirty-somethings in Armani combats racing round the desert/Alps/Arctic Circle. Ironically, they're the antithesis of the young disadvantaged people they're raising money for. But they have friends and colleagues with cash to support them. Fairbridge raised around pounds 100,000 from trips last year.
But is it fair to get your mates to pay for your adventures - even if they are rich? Thirty-year-old Katherine De Ruig, a corporate relations executive with investment bank Salomon Smith Barney, was one of the 28 professionals who spent four days in Jordan this September, orienteering in the desert day and night, cycling 50km in two hours in the heat of the day, and chasing around the ancient city of Petra on a cultural treasure-hunt. Her all-female team felt that holding a party was the best way to tackle the fundraising dilemma. They held a ball for 350 friends and at Battersea Town Hall, raised their pounds 2,000 each, and their friends felt they'd got something for their money.
Dr Carl Brookes, who led the winning Jordan team, relied on friends and relatives to reach his target because of work pressures, something that he admits he would be uncomfortable with if he hadn't decided to pay the pounds 750 costs of the trip himself. "I did get a few wisecracks when I asked for donations, but when I said I was paying my way, people were much happier. They knew all their money was going straight to the charity."
This is the official tack taken by the NSPCC, which runs cycling challenges in Peru, Tanzania and Ireland, and charges a normal holiday fee. So pounds 200 per head is donated by the tour operator, Guerba Expeditions, and the NSPCC asks participants to fundraise whatever they can on top.
Some charities also encourage strong links between themselves and participants. Ravenswood does so by taking one or two of the children they work with on their cycling challenges, riding on tandems with their carers. I wonder if any young professionals would want to compete against Fairbridge's inner-city youth? Sort of Spike Lee and mates meet Ally McBeal and colleagues in the desert. Now there's a challenge.
Fairbridge (0171-928 1704); NSPCC (0171-825 2718); Ravenswood (0181- 954 4555)
Other ways of giving while you travel
ANYONE TRAVELLING with British Airways Holidays helps support four conservation charities: Survival for Tribal Peoples, 21st Century Tiger, Earthwatch and Friends of Conservation.
In the past three years, the company has donated pounds 250,000 to these good causes. A commendable move, but you might be surprised to find that only pounds 1 per booking goes to charity. For a family of four, that works out at just six pence per person to each charity, on a holiday that could total pounds 10,000 or more.
Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions (0171-381 8638) supports a range of conservation foundations, such as the World Pheasant Association and the Galapagos Trust, more generously. "We donate about pounds 10 per person," says the company's managing director, Nick van Gruisen.
The bird-watching and botanical holiday company Naturetrek (01962-733051) has come up with the most munificent scheme: its 2000 brochure has a programme of Fair Project Tours to places like the Danube Delta and the Polish Wetlands: "They combine both bird-watching and an in-depth focus on the conservation work being carried out in key habitats in Europe and elsewhere," says the company, which gives 10 per cent of your money to help conservation efforts in the area concerned.Reuse content