It may seem like a bit of an oxymoron — luxury voluntourism. The volunteer trips we have experienced would most certainly not qualify as luxury. Comfortable, safe? Yes. But luxurious? Um,no.  It certainly sounds intriguing and a great way to balance a desire to give back while also enjoying a luxury vacation.

Hands Up Holidays offers just that and is a unique hybrid in the volunteer travel industry. They combine tailor-made luxury travel experiences with philanthropic opportunities to interact with the local people of a destination in meaningful ways.  They have trips for singles, couples and families.  They also have a separate division for corporate incentive travel.

Recently, we had a chance to interview Hands Up founder Christopher Hill

 So first up — what makes Hands Up Holidays a “luxury” volunteer travel experience?

The main way our trips are luxury is the obvious way: in terms of accommodation. We focus on eco-luxury hotels, e.g. those luxury hotels that have high standards of environmental and social responsibility wherever possible.  Also, the fact that all our trips are tailor-made in order to ensure that the trip perfectly fits our clients’ requirements adds to the luxury feel.  Last, but not least, our personal, highly qualified guides for the sightseeing portion of the trip also make for a premium experience.

Could you tell us a little bit about how HandsUp got started?

My background was a degree in law and in finance, and after university I spent 6 years working in Corporate Finance here in London. I learned a lot of skills, but continually felt like there was more to life, and on a trip to South Africa in 2002 I found my calling! On that trip, I indulged in all the usual aspects of a luxury trip to Africa: incredible safari experiences, and enjoying all that gorgeous Cape Town and surrounds have to offer. But what was pivotal was the time I spent helping build a house for a family in Khayaletsha township, just outside Cape Town. This enriched the whole experience, as I got to interact meaningfully with the local people, gain insights into their lives, share stories, and also ,make a positive difference in their lives, tangibly, with a house they can call their own.  For me it was the perfect vacation: luxury hotels, amazing sights, and time to give back and go deeper. And I reasoned that I was not alone, that other people would like to travel this way, so I decided to leave my career and start up Hands Up Holidays to enable others to have similar experiences to me.

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 How did you develop your mission?

After South Africa, and leaving my job and deciding to set up a luxury voluntourism company, I spent the next 2.5 years travelling the world, building relationships with communities and local partners, before we were ready to launch in early 2006.

What are some of your signature trips? Our most popular destinations are:

– India (sights such as Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Kerala, combined with teaching or renovation work in the slums of Delhi)

– Costa Rica (sights such as Arenal vacation, nature reserves, gorgeous beaches, combined with wildlife conservation)

– South Africa (sights such as safari, Cape Town, Cape peninsula, winelands, combined with orphanage renovation)

– Belize (sights such as Mayan ruins, waterfalls, chocolate making, diving and snorkeling, combined with installing energy efficient stoves in the homes of those who can’t afford them)

– Guatemala (sights such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, combined with building a house for an impoverished family)

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I’m curious about how you build relationships within the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?

It is more the latter, but the guiding principle is consultation, asking lots of questions, and never imposing what we think should be done.

Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry?

There is a trend for companies to get involved, either as part of an off-site meeting, an incentive trip, or as a dedicated team building event. For this we have opened a separate division Hands Up Incentives

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What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?

I imagine it will be more “niched” in that there will be organizations specializing in a particular voluntourist, such as retirees, or particular type of volunteering, such as archeology.

What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted both personally and in general?

I would say this varies with each client, and the most dramatic ripple effects would be cases where our clients have been so impacted by their voluntourism experience that they have relocated to live in that destination and give back on a permanent/long-term basis. This happens more with retirees, but has also happened with families.

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