Realchina: Volunteer vacations the travel guides don't know about
October holiday is here again and the perennial vacation dilemma occurs. Do we indulge in one of Asia’s famous beaches or put our money (and miles) where our hearts are and volunteer at some remote locale?
One new local company just might have a fix for our travel-conscience conundrum.
The company, Realchina, is a volunteer vacation company with a simple goal: offer travelers the opportunity to contribute to local economies and visit exotic places that they won’t find flipping through a Lonely Planet.
A China travel idea is born
After working on an eco-tourism project in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake, McKinsey exec and travel enthusiast Victor Zhao saw how China’s booming tourism industry was depleting both the environment and traditional culture.
"I saw people in China with plenty of needs and innumerable travel companies, but nothing combining the two," says Zhao. He decided to put his MBA to work, and Realchina was born.
Although Zhao’s crew of local guides have extensive experience across China, they specialize in tours across the this-needs-to-be-a-postcard landscapes of Western China.
Trips range from long weekends to 40-day excursions with each itinerary tailored to just about any travel whim, from punishing treks to remote communities (penance for Shanghai indulgence doesn't come easy), to themed trips -- think animal photography or architecture -- for those who can’t leave their hobbies behind.
For Bonnie Cheung, an experienced traveler, Realchina was her first trip with a guide in a decade.
Cheung and friends did their research, but she says, “We were really nicely surprised with one of the places they came up with, Mount Genie. I had trouble even finding it on the Internet. They were extremely resourceful and knew the local people there. There weren’t even any tourist buses.”
All of the stakeholders win through this business model -- the local community, the environment, the tourists, the wildlife and us, the service provider.— Victor Zhao, RealChina founder
Hard to believe -- but a welcome idea -- for anyone who has traveled in China and tried to avoid the flag-following tourist masses.
Making a difference
Realchina says its destinations are chosen using five criteria: scenery, culture, accommodations, communities in need of aid and local government support.
Zhao and his team keep in touch with people in the rural areas where they travel, as well as local governments, and through these relationships, Realchina is able to respond to the needs of local communities while matching these requirements with trips planned for those who want to see China beyond Shanghai’s skyscrapers.
Depending on a group’s interest, skill set and availability, travelers do everything from teaching a class on environmental sustainability at a rural school (and playing with the kids, of course) to talking over business plans with farmers.
Zhao says, “All of the stakeholders win through this business model -- the local community, the environment, the tourists, the wildlife and us, the service provider.”
If your heart’s in the right place but your hands aren't, you can still do a RealChina trip but opt out of volunteering. Ten percent of the cost for every trip is invested into the rural areas, allowing you to travel in good conscience.
It also helps move one step towards ensuring the “real” China is around much longer after you leave.
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