Retired British teacher Mel Tennant bends down and digs a hole in the white beach sand while urging onlookers to watch closely. Within ten seconds an extraordinary event occurs. Exactly 182 baby sea turtles (we count them all twice) emerge wiggling out of the sand, each the size of a potato chip.
“I want you to take these babies down to the ocean and wash them off,” he asks, “and then put them in this bucket. Then we tip it over, and they race down to the ocean. This will set their GPS for the next 100 years, and give them the strength to swim around the world. They will come back here to this exact spot in the sand in five years and the females will lay their eggs.”
The setting is gorgeous Oracabessa beach on the north shore of Jamaica, near Ocho Rios. Tennant is on a mission to save the rare Hawksbill turtle from extinction. His work with the turtles has raised their survival rate from five to 95 percent but this wouldn’t be possible without the help of hundreds of guests from nearby Sandals Beach Resort. It’s a new form of tourism encouraged by Sandals, along with many other resorts around the world looking to provide new and exciting experiences for their guests.
“Experiential travel” has proved highly successful in the tourist trade over the past few years. Instead of lounging around the beach and basking in the sun, guests are offered “experience excursions” into local culture. Instead of just going fishing, guests may visit their fishing guides home, assist with cooking, share recipes, and receive a video of their experience. However, “transformative travel” takes the cultural experience much deeper. As Sandals community representative Lyndsay Isaacs proves to surprised guests, such travel transforms not only the local community but often transforms the guests as well.
“Getting to watch baby sea turtles being born, and helping to save their species by guiding them into the sea, can be a very emotional moment for people,” she says, bringing the Sandals van into a parking spot at Seville Primary School in Ocho Rios, “but bringing guests to meet little kids at primary school can really get the tears flowing.”
If guests inquire with the Sandals concierge and ask for Lyndsay, she will take them on one of several destinations. In 2011, the Sandals Foundation launched the Reading Road Trip. Every Thursday, guests of Sandals and Beaches Resorts – in Jamaica, Antigua, the Turks and Caicos Islands, St. Lucia and Exuma in the Bahamas –can visit a Foundation-adopted school and lend literacy support to students.
Guests follow a structured program that addresses recognition of sight words, listening, comprehension and reading. The cost, which covers reading materials, transportation and a donation to the Sandals Foundation education fund, is only $20 U.S. per person. To date, the program has proved fabulously popular.
On my own visit I bring two colouring books, one for the boys and one for the girls, and magic markers. I make a little speech about “doing your homework” and give the books to the teacher. The kids act like I am Santa Claus who has suddenly fallen out of the sky. All in clean school uniforms and very polite, they are beyond appreciative, swamping me with hugs and kisses and endless thanks. I am overwhelmed by their reaction. It’s a memory to treasure.
Sandals resorts are all-inclusive with a focus on honeymoons, anniversaries and family reunions. Romance and emotion are already in the air, but when guests experience the chance to meet local children and “make a difference,” many claim that experience becomes the highlight of their holiday.
“My trip to Jamaica was a beautiful blend of nature, fun, revelry, and lavishness with a subtle touch of reality and humanity,” says Vancouver Flight Centre travel agent Dilu Kayani, “but my visit to the school made me realize that happiness lies in contentment, not abundance. That the tiniest gesture of kindness could generate such a shower of gratitude is the true joy of giving.”
There are 14 different restaurants at Sandals Ocho Rios, so guests never need to leave the lushly landscaped grounds, but after a generous serving of delicious local “jerk” chicken Lyndsay and I are off to Boscobel School to check out the computer lab for 8-10 year old kids. Schooling is not free in Jamaica. The children are serious, very polite and appreciative of the chance to learn computer skills. I task a group of 9-year old girls to ask Mr. Google a serious question: “What is the meaning of life?” They dutifully research the topic and quickly report the answer is: “To be happy.”
Few people seem to have heard yet of transformative travel but logging on to a website called Pack for a Purpose.org proves the concept is catching on worldwide. Founded by world traveler Rebecca Rothney, PFAP has expanded in a few short years from a handful of participating hotels to a global phenomenon. Since 2010 Pack for a Purpose travelers have delivered over 47,110 kgs (103,642 lbs) of school, medical and other supplies meeting essential needs to over 60 countries. “I really haven’t done much publicity,” says Rothney. “The resorts all contacted me and asked to be posted on the site. It’s all word of mouth.”
Sandals Foundation Director Heidi Clarke in Kingston reports that cruise lines have contacted her for permission to berth near Sandals Resorts so passengers can debark and enjoy the opportunity to get involved. Carnival’s new Fathom Line have partnered with Cruise Connections to offer exclusive discounts for “voluntourist” sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic or Cuba in 2016. The idea that thousands of people may soon offer their time, money and skills as part of their vacations is amazing to her. “When people get the chance to have this kind of experience,” says Clarke, “they tell all their friends. It can become the highlight of your vacation.”
In Kingston I choose to stay at the Courtleigh Hotel, sponsor of the Alpha Boys Institute. School public relations manager Charles Arumaiselvam says these teenage boys might otherwise be in gangs, prison or the morgue but instead are learning useful trades such as woodworking, barbering and music. The school has produced dozens of famous ska and reggae musicians. “Many of these boys don’t even have bus fare,” he says, “so they walk all the way here. They are well-behaved and very happy to have a chance at school.”
After hundreds of trips around the world over many years, I have found it’s not the museums, shopping, restaurants, fine hotels or food you remember most, it’s the wonderful people you meet along the way. It is quite possible to make a difference in this world, if you know how. Such experiences transform not only the people and communities you help, they also transform your own heart and soul.