Take me on a holiday that helps

Lie around in the sun? That's boring. Today's travellers want to help restore the beach. In fact, our interest in trips that put something back has doubled in just a year. Mark Rowe reports

More professionals are giving up their holidays to pursue altruistic activities, according to a survey by Opodo, the online travel company. The survey found that the number of British travellers interested in taking part in humanitarian or environmental holidays has risen by 50 per cent in the past 12 months.

There are many reasons why travellers are now just as likely to be found restoring a polluted beach as simply lying on it. In addition to offering the "feel-good" factor of doing something useful, such trips can take you to areas where tourists cannot go.

A further incentive is that you do not require a scientific specialism, and that you can attend projects for just two weeks rather than make a long-term commitment that requires packing in a job.

Bookings with i-to-i, an organisation that runs volunteering trips to 500 projects in 26 countries with an emphasis on conservation, rose by 33 per cent last year. It offers 4,000 placements, with the most popular destinations being India, Costa Rica and South Africa. "People realise this isn't something that only students do and that it isn't a niche product," said Sarah Horner, a spokeswoman for i-to-i. "People had their consciences pricked by the tsunami and events such as Live Eight. I suspect a lot of people have been to areas affected and realise it's no big deal to get on a plane to go back and help."

Earthwatch has offered similar trips, with an emphasis on scientific research, for 35 years and operates 140 projects in 51 countries. "We've seen an increase in industry competition," said Sabrina Bhangoo, a spokeswoman for Earthwatch.

"More people seem disillusioned with the package holiday market. They have a general desire to give something back but don't want to give up their jobs. Earthwatch is ideal in that people can use their holiday time to participate as expeditions last from three days to three weeks."

The general deal is that you pay for your flights and a sum on top to cover the research costs, and in return receive free board and lodging. Helping an Earthwatch project to monitor crocodiles in the Okavango Delta costs from £1,470 for two weeks, while working at a panda conservation centre in China with i-to-i will cost £1,600 for four weeks. International flights are usually extra.

However, travellers should be judicious about which organisations they sign up with. Tricia Barnett, the director of Tourism Concern, said many holidays created a feeling of well-being for individuals but did not necessarily benefit the destination. "You need to make sure projects benefit local communities," she said.

She singled out sponsored charity challenges for the criticism that they fail to bring real benefits to destinations they visited. "People climb up Mount Kilimanjaro or cycle across Jordan but they are, in effect, replicating a mainstream holiday," she said. "You are paying for your holiday in the UK and the tour operator creams off a lot of the money. In that sense, it's no different from a package hotel.

"Obviously, the charity benefits or else they wouldn't do it, but will local people benefit from such trips? You are in a group, so your focus is on that group and you don't meet local people. There's nothing equitable in your worthiness so it is a rather unbalanced way of putting your altruism into practice."

Tourism Concern supports an ethical charity challenge that involves a sponsored trek to Tanzania, run by the charity African Initiatives. It allows visitors to walk with and meet local hunter-gatherers. Funds raised will fund campaigns for land rights, women's rights and girls' education. "If you take this approach, locals will get much more out of your stay - and so will you," said Ms Barnett.

For more information contact opodo.co.uk, earthwatch.org, i-to-i.com, african-initiatives.org.uk/ and tourismconcern.org.uk

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