One of the things I sometimes struggle with when enjoying luxury hotels and the nice things of life, is not knowing how best to support the devastating poverty that can sometimes greet you when you leave the bubble-world of your 5* hotel.
This especially plagued me when we were staying in a gorgeous luxury hotel in Siem Reap, because Cambodia has very high poverty levels. It’s really very sad when you see all the children dressed in rags trying to sell cigarettes and almost everyone I know who visits wants to help when they come back. Cambodia is not as blessed in natural resources as its richer neighbours are like Thailand and Vietnam, and they went through terrible genocide and a civil war in the 1980s that robbed most citizens of everything they owned.
My first customer who returned said he was moved so much by it he is now sponsoring a child through education and he hopes to get them into university.
So how best to support the country you are visiting? Apart from obviously spending hundreds of pounds in its tourist industry, that is. Well, my boyfriend (Matty) has adopted a great policy of choosing a charity from every country he visits and making a donation. That way, you don’t need to give dollars directly to people who are begging or buy wares from children, which does not necessarily help break the cycle of poverty but worse still, may actually encourage mothers to send their children into the tourist areas or others to depend on passing visitors.
At my travel agency Fleewinter, I have now picked a charity in Vietnam and Cambodia to support and invite all customers to make a donation to that charity when they book their holiday to Cambodia or Vietnam – and we match that donation.
In Cambodia we are delighted to support Riverkids, a tremendous charity based in Phnom Penh that works with some of the capital’s most vulnerable children and seeks to give them one of the greatest gifts of life – an education.
The charity sets up community centres near some of the city’s biggest slums, where they run after school tuition programmes led by a ‘housemother’ (who is recruited from the community), and a teacher and social worker. As the children gain confidence and skills, the charity then enrols them into a nearby state school. The charity runs a range of other projects all aimed at educating Cambodia’s poorest children.
Through their work, Riverkids is able to find the most troubled families, and has become a lifeline for many. With the growing trust of the community, the charity is informed of planned child trafficking and exploitation, and can intervene before a child is harmed.
But for customers who actually want to learn more about the country’s poverty and about the work of the charity, we can arrange for you to join a Riverkids advocacy walk in Phnom Penh, which will will take you to the places and people surviving in Phnom Penh’s slums.
In Vietnam, we now support Hue Help, a charity that works with disadvantaged children in central Vietnam to improve their health, education and future prospects.
Vietnam is a country that is developing fast but some children from poorer backgrounds are being left behind. Hue Help supports two important projects; a children’s centre and life-saving swimming lessons. Hue Children’s Shelter is currently home to thirty eight children, who have either no parents, or parents that are too poor or sick to care for them. The shelter provides a home, education and friendship to the children it supports. In 2007, the shelter faced financial difficulty and the possibility of closure – now Hue Help is the main sponsor for this home in a bid to keep it open in co-operation with the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs of Thua Thien Hue (DOLISA).
Hue Help also funds life-saving swimming lessons. In Hue city and throughout the province flooding is extremely common, yet many adults and children are unable to swim. Approximately 30 children drown each day in Vietnam making it a leading cause of death for children. By providing free swimming lessons for the most disadvantaged children – who are also those most likely to be living in precarious housing in flood prone areas – we can help limit the human cost of extreme weather conditions.
Supporting a local charity is an important part of travel for me. There is no right or wrong answer about how best to give back to the countries that have given you a two-week idyllic break from the real world, but for me it is important to know I am not just taking. So, if you are booking a luxury holiday in Asia, take a look at the travel agency’s ‘giving back’ policy because that might just give you a slightly better insight into the company you are about to give thousands of pounds to.