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Heilwig Jones, Kaya Responsible Travel

After “the best four months of her life” volunteering in Thailand to help victims of the 2004 tsunami, Heilwig Jones returned to the UK to start a business inspiring others to do the same. Today the company, which focuses on sustainable volunteering and study abroad, has offices in the UK, Philippines and the US.

The PIE: How did you get Kaya off the ground?

"We have to be responsible in how we support through volunteers so it doesn’t become dependency"

HJ: When we first set out in 2008 Kaya was working alongside what was an already existing 10-year old organisation called ProWorld in the US. I came across them during my research and thought they had great projects and really loved what they were doing. It allowed me to set up quite quickly, combining all of the contacts I had in Asia with the ones they had in Latin America.

Then 18 months into it ProWorld was sold to Intrax and we went off on our own, which was fine because we’d been operating in those countries for time enough that I had coordinators that could quickly mobilise.

“Increasingly people are making sure that their travels are going to count, either credit-wise toward their degree or as work experience”

The PIE: You promote “responsible travel”, can you explain what that means?

HJ: We have a dual mission of promoting sustainable, social, environmental and economic development, empowering communities and cultivating educated, compassionate and global citizens through responsible travel. For me it is more than just volunteering, it also means opportunities to do service learning, language courses and cultural immersion.

The PIE: You’re on the periphery of the giant international student market. What role do you see responsible travel has in the industry?

HJ: The area of volunteering is becoming more and more important to the area of study abroad. In the last 18 months we’ve had a massive interest from the service-learning perspective, because we’re doing ‘real world’ work.  Whether it’s environmental science, health, international development, or construction using sustainable building methods, it all ties in with very specific majors within the university system.

Increasingly people are making sure that their travels are going to count, either credit-wise toward their degree or as work experience. If you’re looking to work with wildlife, where do you get access to work with big game or exotic animals? It’s all well and good to get theory, but without hands-on experience from an employability perspective it’s very limited.

The PIE: And does the education sector recognise it too?

Yes, universities are embracing it for example. We have an increasing number of faculty-led programmes that we receive over the course of a year combining volunteering with service-learning to gain practical experience. We recently had a biology department come do marine conservation in Belize and we’ve had nursing groups do healthcare programmes.

“The US market is growing fastest, but we have an increasing number of volunteers from emerging markets like China and the Middle East”

The PIE: Who are your clients and where do they come from?

HJ: We’re UK based so the majority of marketing and outreach to recruit is within the UK and Europe, but by virtue of being an online company we get people from all over the world. The area that’s been growing at the greatest speed has been the US. We also have an increasing number of volunteers coming from emerging markets like China, the Middle East and South Korea.

Students in a gap year or wanting to volunteer in the field they’re studying is a mainstay for us but we have a lot of career breakers and honeymooners or retirees. Our oldest volunteer has been 79.

The PIE: When I think of volunteering I think of donating my time, so why do I have to pay for it too?

HJ: That’s probably the most common question we get. But the easy response is you’re paying to be in the country and to be looked after. The majority of the costs tend to be accommodation, food, airport pick up and training. It’s important to us not to have a negative effect, so if any of these communities or projects have two spare pennies to rub together they shouldn’t be spending it on you. They should be hiring locals or buying resources to try to solve the problem they’re focused on.

The PIE: What is your business model?[More>>]

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