Young social entrepreneurs like Rita Marques are sitting in the eye of a perfect storm in Portugal.

For starters, her Lisbon-based company (called Impactrip) is riding the momentum of volunteer travel, or "voluntourism."

In addition, Portugal has emerged as a go-to destination in Europe, thanks in part to a vibrant cultural scene and a young, well-educated, and multi-lingual work force.

A final factor is the upward-trending desire of tourists to authentically experience a community "like a local."

All of which sets the stage for Marques and other social entrepreneurs like her to bring their idealism to life, whether that idealism means cleaning up the environment, protecting wildlife, preserving their own cultural heritage, or all of the above and more.

Given such favorable conditions, there is every reason for young Portuguese startups to try. There are also many reasons that they are succeeding.

For example, Marques and her team link "voluntourists" with a network of some 200+ NGOs [non-government organizations] that are already active in Portugal, and lets those NGOs do what they do best: coordinate food rescue operations, for example, or collect data at a wolf sanctuary, or train homeless people to lead tours of neighborhoods that enable socially conscious visitors to see their destination through a lens they likely would never otherwise access.

In the past year Impactrip has logged more than 6,500 volunteer hours, and is aiming for at least 10,000 this year, most of which will happen during the busy summer season.

The work of the NGO who hosts the voluntourists is bolstered by the hours that the visitors commit, and often by a donation to their cause as well. The work itself, meanwhile, helps the partner organizations (who are mainly non-profit initiatives) understand how they can begin to generate positive revenue streams that support their mission and their bottom line.

One of Impactrip's partners, for example, is a local scuba diving company who, together with voluntourists, collects trash and debris while they are diving off of Portugal's coast. The debris they collect could include anything from rope, bottles, diving goggles and tangled nets discarded by fishermen far out at sea, or it could also include typical household trash that accumulates closer to piers and docked boats, where people carelessly litter by throwing those items overboard.

Divers then sort and log the items back on shore, and the information is gathered into an annual report that Impactrip shares with relevant municipalities and organizations.

Marques sees that link, and that closure of the voluntourist loop, as part of their work also: to raise awareness and momentum around the issues that the partner organizations and NGOs address with the help of visitors who have also contributed to the local economy.

Have you traveled as a voluntourist? What has been your experience?

Published on: Jun 14, 2017
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