Helping others might not be everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation, but many in Bluffton are choosing to do service work while traveling abroad this summer.
Called impact travel or volun-tourism, combining an international vacation with community service is a growing trend. Jennifer Lee, an agent at AAA Travel in Bluffton, says her office has seen an uptick in interest in this type of adventure.
Travelers who choose service vacations tend to be multi-generational families of “active grandparents who are still able to travel well, parents and teens or tweens,” Lee said.
“It brings them together,” she said.
International service travel began with mission trips organized by churches. And domestic community service has long been a staple of U.S. life. But now many travel vendors offer volunteering vacations without a religious affiliation.
Barry Kaufman, managing editor of Travelpulse.com, said travel industry statistics from 2015 show non-religious service trips made up about three percent of all vacations taken by U.S. residents (up from two percent the year before). These trips, he said, are often marketed to “millennial travelers” born in the 1980s and ’90s.
Kaufman, who lives in Bluffton, recently traveled aboard the world’s first impact travel cruise line, a division of Carnival Corporation. As passengers on the Fathom Adonia’s maiden voyage to the Dominican Republic, Kaufman and his daughter Sofia, 9, taught conversational English. Other passengers laid concrete floors.
The cross-cultural experiences on the trip “definitely gave [Sofia] some perspective on everything we have and how we live here,” Kaufman said.
Volunteer vacations generally are somewhat less expensive than traditional travel because lodging tends to be modest. “You’re not trying to pamper yourself,” Lee said.
Local churches and faith-based organizations remain the major players in service travel. John and Sue Eve of Bluffton are the founders of Christian non-profit Reaching Our World’s Kids (ROWKids), which works in the Billy White community of western Belize.
ROWKids partners with U.S. churches to bring groups of adults and young people to promote health and education and fight poverty.
Lee’s son, Bluffton High School student Drew Lee, 16, recently traveled to Belize as part of a ROWKids mission from Lowcountry Community Church. He helped build stairs leading to the future second floor of a simple school.
“It was pretty hard work,” he said. “It was hot.”
His favorite part of the trip was ministering to local children, which involved singing songs, doing crafts and putting on skits with them.
Building lasting relationships abroad was also the goal of a group from Live Oak Christian Church of Bluffton, led by pastor Eric Campbell. Six adults and three teenagers recently traveled to Thailand to assist a non-profit agency working with refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma).
A former Live Oak member is now on staff at the agency, and she invited the group to come help at two children’s homes. The trip cost $2,500 each, which included air travel and a donation to the local partner organization.
Campbell said he and the other volunteers cleaned out an area where the organization plans to open a teen center, painted part of a bike shop, played soccer with kids living at the children’s homes and organized an outing for them to visit a waterfall.
The Live Oak group also participated in worship services at the children’s homes and a teen youth group. Campbell said he was touched by his hosts’ hospitality and their enthusiasm for worship and prayer.
“They were so welcoming,” he said, adding that he hopes Live Oak will return to Thailand. “We’re looking for creative ways we can be of support.”
Carol Weir of Bluffton is a career journalist and teacher.