Elevate Destinations: Giving Back while on Vacation

By Dian Hasan | July 9, 2009

Elevate Destinations_Lewa Downs Conservancy_Lakipia_Kenya_photo_Dominique Callimanopulos_Masai-thumb-500x374

Working with the Masai tribe at Lela Downs Conservancy, Lakipia, Kenya. Photo: Dominique Callimanopulos

Growing affluence across the globe and rising awareness of the dire need to do more for the earth and for fellow mankind, has provided the impetus of Voluntourism, also known as “do-good” travel. There are many of us, seasoned travelers and travelers who are wet behind the ears alike, who’d want to do more when traveling and seek unique travel experiences, but we often lack the information on the “how” of vacations of this nature. Here’s an idea from Elevate Destinations through an interview with their founder & CEO, Dominique Callimanopulos.

We recently touched base with Dominique Callimanopulos, founder and CEO of Elevate Destinations, a boutique travel services company specializing in high-quality, environmentally responsible travel and philanthropy, to learn more about her company, their trips, and the good work they do in the communities they visit.

What is Elevate Destinations?
Elevate Destinations is a philanthropic travel company that gives back to the communities we visit. We donate five percent of the net costs of all our trips to vetted NGOs active in conservation and community development in the destination countries. Wherever possible, we select eco-hotels and sustainable lodges that also give back to community. We incorporate community engagement and service elements into our customized itineraries. We have become specialists in the area of donor travel: bringing board members and donors from A-list international organizations to visit projects in the field. We’ve designed trips for Direct Relief International, EcoLogic, KickStart, The Global Fund for Children, and WaterPartners International, among others.

I see you offer trips in Latin America, Africa, India and Bhutan, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Which trips/regions are the most popular?
African safaris are very popular. Central America is on the rise, because it is easy to travel to. We are also getting a lot of requests for Southeast Asia and Bhutan is emerging as a compelling destination as well. This month we will also be introducing trips to Mongolia.

What distinguishes Elevate Destinations from other philanthropic travel companies? I’ve blogged about Inside/Out’s Humanitourism trips and African Impact. These two outfitters seem to emphasize the service aspect of their trips whereas Elevate Destinations seems to be more about the charitable portion of trip fees it donates to local communities. Is this the primary difference?

We tend to serve more high-end clients and have the expertise, flexibility, and scope to truly customize our trips to the interests of each traveling party. Some clients just like to donate, others want to do service or volunteer work, others would prefer an education but nothing too hands on. We don’t do too many set-departure trips. We have just launched an initiative for independent philanthropists who want to explore firsthand how to make the most impact on global issues in emerging nations.

I see that Elevate Destinations contributes five percent of trip costs to a local nonprofit in the area its travelers visit. How does this five percent contribution compare to other philanthropic travel facilitators making similar contributions? Is it more or less than what your competitors contribute, generally?

Our closest competitor gives 10 percent of their profits, which is considerably less than 5 percent of the total net cost of the trip.

I read that you were inspired to start Elevate Destinations in part due to your study of the impact of tourism in the Seychelles. What sort of things was going on in Seychelles and how was tourism affecting the islands?

I did my thesis in the Seychelles in the early ’80s. At the time, the airport had just opened, and tourism was just beginning. The country had a socialist government and yet they were courting multinational investment. I was especially interested in the cultural and psychological impact of the hospitality/tourism sector on local inhabitants, looking at the effect becoming part of that labor force had on their emotional authenticity and self-identity; i.e., what happens when local people have to start behaving in ways that are acceptable to tourists? How do they commodify themselves? This issue remains an interest of mine to this day.

What sort of nonprofits and causes do you support? (in terms of the focus of their work; the environment, education, health, etc.)

NGOs that are active in land and marine conservation, community development, poverty alleviation, youth education and family assistance, women’s rights and economic betterment, micro-credit and health care, among others. We also support very local projects that are not on our site.

[I asked Dominique how Elevate Destinations evaluates the nonprofits it supports and she sent me a series of two questionnaires it has potential beneficiaries complete that ask about the organization, what its goals and mission are, how it’s funded, what its needs are, how it measures its impact, how sustainable its projects are, and how cost-effective its operations are.]

How many of your travelers elect also to do some community-based volunteer work while on an Elevate Destinations trip?

A growing number. This year, I would say over half. We have recently received a lot of interest in service trips for university alumni groups. Younger alums are demanding sustainability and a service element.

I notice on your site that Elevate Destinations has received a good amount of favorable press coverage. What hasn’t yet been said about your company and the innovative work you do?

We are currently launching two new initiatives: Our Philanthropic Travel and Advisory Services for companies to connect employees at home with communities in their supply chain and our Independent Donor Travel Programs to create customized theme-based trips for philanthropists to explore how best to make an impact on certain global issues. We also recently minted the idea of a Service Destination Wedding, for couples who want to involve their wedding party in community projects. Green weddings are on the rise!

Read More: Dominique also mentioned that even travelers who don’t travel with Elevate Destinations can donate directly to NGOs in countries they visit independently through their Travel Matters Giving Program. Pretty cool! And, if you’re still hungry for more, be sure to check out Elevate Destinations’ “Responsive Travel” blog.

Source: Meg Weaver | National Geographic Blog | May 21, 2009

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