- Special Projects
On a windsurfing trip to Mauritius off the coast of east Africa a few years ago, part-time Oahu resident Thomas Kohler and his friends enjoyed a spree of steady winds and clear, emerald seas.
The local kids on the beach gawked at the group of foreigners gliding on water. They didn’t have the means to windsurf, yet they were living in one of the sport’s storied meccas.
Realizing this, Kohler and his friends decided to teach them how to windsurf. Before boarding their homebound flights, they handed off some of their equipment to the kids and other coastal residents so they would be able to continue their exploration of the sport.
The unexpected pang of discomfort Kohler had felt as a tourist whose travel offered little benefit to the resident population of the remote island country inspired a vision: What if there were an easy way for travelers to pursue whatever it is they want to enjoy — golfing, architecture or, in Kohler’s case, windsurfing — while simultaneously giving back to the host community in a way that doesn’t feel like a sacrifice?
Kohler was familiar with service trips, where people travel to places like Haiti to build a school. Had he taken the time on that trip to Mauritius, a quick Google search probably would have presented him with a neat listing of volunteer opportunities he and his buddies could have signed up for.
But what Kohler was beginning to design in his mind was something entirely different — a catalogue of activities, vetted for fun, that also managed to net a positive impact on the local people, environment or culture.
Fast-forward a few years. Kohler, an Austrian-born professor of marketing at Hawaii Pacific University, is the founder of travel2change, an Oahu-based voluntourism vehicle launched in 2015 that piggybacks off the sharing economy to pair tourists with unique experiences that benefit the local community.
With new outposts on Maui and Kauai, the non-profit provides 30 hosts on three islands with a venue to invite travelers to surf with physically disabled military veterans or snorkel a pristine barrier reef and then replant a native forest in the park fronting the water.
It’s sort of like Airbnb for morally conscious travel adventures. Rather than contribute to the depletion of a travel destination, travel2change’s 2,000 annual users want to enrich the place and its people while having a fun and memorable experience.
These are the kind of travelers who don’t want to solicit a guidebook for ideas on how to fill the days of a Hawaii vacation. They want to participate in off-the-beaten path adventures. They want to interact with local people and culture. Primarily, they are millennials.
And very often they are on a tight budget. That’s why so many of the travel2change experiences are discounted or free. Unlike sites like Airbnb, travel2change does not collect a fee from the hosts or participants who use the platform. Travel2change is not the middleman, it is the matchmaker.
“We exist in the space where fun meets impact,” says Dusty Loffarelli, a travel2change board member on Oahu. “We aren’t a crowdsourcing campaign for volunteers, we are trying to change the way people travel. We are the connector for local hosts who offer these valuable experiences and the kind of travelers seeking them.”
The goal, Loffarelli says, is to tap into the rising consumer demand for social impact travel by growing travel2change with chapters around the globe. Worldwide, 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending about $2 billion annually. In Hawaii, the fledgling enterprise has found an ideal testing ground.
“We’re travelers ourselves who want this for ourselves as much as we want to create it for other people to use,” Loffarelli says. “We want to be pure about it. Then we all sort of win.”
Among the feel-good travel facilitator’s most popular activities is an hour-long yoga class under the full moon (free with a food pantry donation). In an island state saturated with yoga instructors, a free class can help a new teacher build a business and gain a following. Taught in exchange for nonperishable food donations or participation in a 30-minute beach cleanup, Travel2change’s outdoor yoga classes typically garner up to 80 participants, Loffarelli says.
Another increasingly popular travel2change experience affords tourists the opportunity to hop in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe with local paddlers ($10 suggested donation). For Honolulu’s Lokahi Canoe Club, the chance to invite vacationers to train in outrigger canoe paddling helps the organization achieve its mission to perpetuate the historical and cultural legacy of this uniquely Hawaiian sport.
While many participants offer the canoe club a small donation for the hour-long paddle down the Ala Wai canal, the host’s benefit extends beyond the monetary.
For other hosts, there are financial gains to be had. Jeremiah Felsen is a new travel2change host on Kauai who offers guided coastal hiking and snorkeling adventures through Kauai Hiking Tours, his eco-tourism company. Each of his offerings is fused with either a marine debris cleanup or invasive plant species removal.
Felsen gives travel2change users a 20 percent discount off his normal private hiking tour rates. He says the benefit of soliciting his tours for less money with travel2change is twofold: Increased exposure for his business and increased exposure of the mission that extends beyond his business — inspiring people to tread lightly on the environment while traveling. His travel2change listing also helps him make his appeal to a sect of traveler that is sympathetic to his cause.
“My goal with these tours isn’t just to make a profit, it’s to encourage people to think about giving back while they have a good time and relax,” Felsen says. “Part of operating a hiking business here is doing things to give back to the island because, on a hiking tour, the island is the real star.”