Last updated: 10:03 AM ET, Wed January 06 2016

Opinion Home | Magic of Mexico

  • Greg Custer | January 6, 2016 10:03 AM ET

    Giving Back: Voluntourism for Your Mexico Customers

    Giving Back: Voluntourism for Your Mexico Customers

    Photo courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board

    Travel agents selling Mexico wear many hats, none more important than the one that keeps them ahead of the competition across the web (or down the street). This means constantly reimagining how to best compete, while offering products your customers will embrace.

    PBS aired a segment recently about how more Americans are using their vacation days in search of more than suntans and souvenirs. Instead they're working in orphanages, building schools, teaching English, sheltering abandoned pets, and having a blast in the process.

    It's called volunteer tourism, or "voluntourism," and it's one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. According to PBS, more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year. The idea is to enrich the traveler’s experience while giving back to the local community. Ideally, folks hook up with a qualified non-profit organization. But there are less structured but equally rewarding opportunities to be found across Mexico.

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    Social and demographic trends are facilitating voluntourism in Mexico. As your clientele ages, their priorities change. Many clients now shun the sun (and bathing suits), while wanting to connect with local causes and communities. Trending ‘lifestyle migration’ is also playing a role. U.S. and Canadian expat residents are taking up local Mexico causes, and seeking visitor contributions via materials, time and expertise.

    A volunteer vacation (or a simple day of sweat equity) is one of the best ways for a “fly and flop” vacationer to make a difference. It's a safe, social and multicultural encounter with the Mexico that exists outside the all-inclusive resort walls. Savvy agents can stand out by offering these engagements, thanks to dozens of shovel-ready projects.

    Something as simple as a suitcase of school supplies (public schools do not supply student materials) or appropriate clothing (leave the ski masks at home) will always be welcome gifts. Millennial and multi-generational families are ideal targets for causes that address Mexico’s growing social and environmental needs. Another audience ideally suited for voluntourism is the corporate incentive and meetings sector.

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    The opportunities are almost endless, especially if you're fond of kids or animals. While volunteer options cover a wide array of causes, three “themes” are the most easily found: nature/conservation, child wellness/education, animal rehabilitation.

    International volunteer organizations

    If you're a Mexico veteran with a fondness for a particular area, ask locals you meet for suggestions. Check with the regional tourist board, get on the mailing list of local newsletters (expatriates, especially, tend to keep tabs on needy causes) and bookmark local message boards. Check the Mexico Report and its list of nonprofits for volunteer opportunities that appeal to you.

    Go Overseas: Its Mexico page lists popular volunteer projects in Mexico including environmental initiatives and work with poor communities.

    Go Voluntouring: Mexico programs include turtle research, horse and art therapy.

    Projects Abroad: Mexico programs are based in Guadalajara and nearby towns. The focus is on health care initiatives and include home-stay opportunities. Special two-week summer programs for teenagers combine Spanish lessons with turtle conservation.

    Global Vision International (GVI): Mexico programs opportunities include assisting local veterinarians on a variety of animal care projects; conservation of endangered sea turtles and marine conservation initiatives or spending time further inland on critical childcare and teaching projects.

    Volunteering in and around Los Cabos

    Los Cabos Humane Society

    Liga MAC (Mexican American and Canadian women helping in Cabo)

    Volunteering in and around Cancun and Playa del Carmen

    Travel Future

    Volunteering in and around Puerto Vallarta

    Other links worth checking out:

    International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ): wide range of projects around Cuernavaca.

    Volunteer Abroad: volunteer and internship programs throughout the country.

    Destination: PEACE: Five-day vacations combining volunteerism with wellness, cultural and adventure pursuits.

    United Planet: Emphasizes cultural immersion.

    Global Volunteers: teach English to Mexican university students in Dolores Hidalgo or Querétaro.

    ProWorld Service Corps: health, environment or economic development internships, primarily in Oaxaca.

    Pack for a Purpose: lets visitors respond to local needs by packing medical/school supplies, tools and other handy but hard to find resources.

    Yes, you'll spend a portion of your vacation untethered from the swim-up bar, and (in some cases) pay for the privilege. Whatever happens to be your motivation, most travelers volunteer for the most selfish of reasons: personal enrichment and connection with a cause.


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Greg Custer Magic of Mexico

Greg Custer Greg Custer is a California native with more than 35 years working in various international travel industry capacities. He spent 14 years in aviation (TWA, Mexicana, Aerocalifornia). With a love for studying all things Latin America, (BA/MA UCLA, Latin American Studies) he is a leading authority on travel agent educational programs for Latin American tourism boards. Greg is fluent in written and spoken Spanish and has conducted hundreds of training workshops for travel agents. He is an accomplished travel photographer and author (with wife Jane) of the “Magic of Mexico” travel agent study guide. He resides in Ajijic (Jalisco) Mexico, enjoying one foot in the modern world and the other in Mexican pueblo life.
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