Newsweek - Giving Back
April 10, 2006

Hotels make it easier to make a difference.

When Bill Frew checked into the Hôtel de la Paix in Cambodia in January, he planned to eat, drink and relax in five-star luxury, as well as see Angkor Wat. Frew, an American senior executive of a multinational corporation who lives in Hong Kong, certainly accomplished that. But he also joined a community tour to help him better "experience the place." He was so moved by the impoverished living conditions that he signed up to support seven children, donated half a ton of rice and subsequently collected 10 boxes of toys from his Hong Kong office mates to send back--all for a few hundred dollars. "I didn't know the need was so compelling," he says. "People don't realize how much you can do with so little." Now Frew plans to return to Siem Reap in a few months to check on a sewing center the hotel introduced him to. "I want to stay involved," he says.

Tourists used to maintain their ties to the places they visited with photos and souvenirs. Now, as travelers grow both wealthier and more socially and environmentally aware, they are increasingly concerned with ensuring that their good times have a good impact. They are doing everything from sponsoring local families, to donating school supplies, to supporting conservation groups with cash. "There's definitely a growing market of discerning, globally caring tourists," says Andy Payne, director of Johannesburg-based Wilderness Safaris, which manages 29 African camps.

Many seek out resorts that help them find ways to give back. Ming Tan, head of the philanthropy arm of the COMO hospitality group, says that her resorts provide guests with detailed information about the causes they back, like programs to train disadvantaged women in skills like embroidery and print-making. The Four Seasons Tented Camp in Thailand promotes an elephant-rescue program. At the Hôtel de la Paix, guests--who pay as much as $750 per night--often sign up for hotel-sponsored packages that help poor families in the area. A $1,000 donation pays for a small house, $90 buys a well and vegetable seeds, and $20 provides 50 kilos of rice and six bottles of fish sauce. "Some wealthy people feel guilty about their money and enjoy giving back," says Joseph Polito, general manager of the hotel. "We give our guests options."

Tourists' growing concerns are inspiring new measures. One of the hottest new trends among hotels, airlines and tour operators is programs that help mitigate the effects of the carbon monoxide those businesses produce. British Airways now offers online customers a way to measure their flights' carbon emissions and calculate an appropriate donation to Climate Care, which funds sustainable energy projects. A round-trip flight from New York to London, for instance, creates 1.26 tonnes of carbon emissions, which can be offset by a $17 donation to reforestation projects. At the Soneva Gili resort in the Maldives, the final bill includes a space for a donation to CarbonNeutral, another company tackling climate change.

In many cases, going high end is the only way to make the do-gooder proposition viable. At the Seychelles' North Island resort, a 210-hectare private island with 11 villas that go nightly for $3,200 apiece, two resident environmentalists have re-introduced indigenous trees, plants and animals--including some 20 giant tortoises. By eradicating the rat population, they have also allowed the return of three endangered species of birds. "Our goal is rehabilitation," says general manager Bruce Simpson. "North Island has pegged itself at a very high market to pay for that." Charlie Saville doesn't mind. The 42-year-old Monaco-based entrepreneur says he didn't choose to vacation at North Island for its programs. "But it makes me feel better about the place and the money I'm spending there," he says. And giving back makes it more likely that he'll be able to come back.