Hannah Stephenson heads to Jamaica to find out how tourists can give back, by getting involved in local community projects.
No sooner have I stepped off the tour bus into the brilliant Jamaican sunshine than two little arms gently wrap themselves around my waist from behind, giving me a welcome that would melt even the hardest heart.
Turning around, I look down to see the hugger beaming up at me, seven-year-old Shantavia Myres, a pupil at Ocho Rios Primary School, in a crisp white and navy school uniform, afro hair tightly tied back into two short stubs.
She’s quickly joined by her pal, Delesha McCarthy, another smartly-dressed, smiling cutie with fantastically braided hair, eager to welcome me to their school.
I’m on a ‘voluntourism’ reading road trip, off the regular tourist trail of well-worn excursions, such as Dunn’s River Falls and the Bob Marley Museum, to give back a little of my privileged life to local communities, in some small way.
It’s run from the luxury all-inclusive Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Ocho Rios on behalf of the Sandals Foundation, a non-profit offshoot of Sandals Resorts International, which funds initiatives to help local communities, describing itself as a true philanthropic extension of the brand.
You pay US $25 (around £18) for the ‘reading road trip’ which takes you to a local primary school, where you find out a bit about the Jamaican education system, meet the teachers and children, and spend a morning reading to a group of them.
Tourists are invited to bring in books and other essentials to donate to the school, and the cost of their excursion helps pay for other sundries, such as paper, pencils and even uniform and computer equipment.
The experience is magical. I sit at a table to read with a delightful group of six and seven-year-olds, all wide-eyed innocents, hungry to learn, hands constantly darting upwards, giggles never far away.
Apart from the cost of transport, the excursion money goes directly to the people who need it, as the Foundation’s running costs – including staff wages and administration – are paid for by Sandals Resorts International.
All-inclusive hotels once had a bad reputation, with accusations that they encouraged little local trade – because visitors were not encouraged to venture far – and paid local staff poor wages.
But things are changing. A security guard at the resort tells me that having a job there for a few years has enabled him to build his own house and that the wages are good.
Hotel groups including Sandals, the largest all-inclusive hotel group in the Caribbean, have now assumed at least some ethical responsibility, putting money back into impoverished local communities and inviting tourists to get involved along the way.
On another day, I venture inland from the northern coast of Ocho Rios, along a road carved through a dense canopy of rainforest, overhanging fronds of deep lush ferns stretching out over the road, the sky blocked by a leafy umbrella of logwood and cedar trees. This is Jamaica in the raw.
An hour later we arrive at the Village Academy, a school of agriculture for 16-18-year-olds who have either dropped out of school, or for whom school has just not been viable because of their social or economic circumstances.
Here, youngsters are taught how to grow their own crops and rear their own livestock – animal husbandry is big in Jamaica – and can gain sufficient qualifications to enable them to further their education at university.
Star pupil Kellicia Brown, 18, comes from Denham Town, one of the most notorious suburbs of Kingston, where gun crime is rife.
Initially, she travelled to the village by bus – two hours each way – arriving back when it was dark, in fear she might be attacked on her short walk from the bus stop to her home.
But last year, the Sandals Foundation funded the building of boarding accommodation, so she is now able to stay over during term time. Kellicia plans to go on to university and one day own her own farm.
While this is not on the current range of official excursions, Heidi Clarke, the foundation’s director of programs, says the aim is to encourage tourists to visit the Academy.
There are other voluntourism initiatives that may prove more difficult to market, such as the spasmodic beach clean-ups.
On the day I go, we are given rubber gloves and rubbish sacks to fill from a saltwater soup of discarded plastic bottles, take-away containers and even fake hair braids, washed down in a storm drain close to a local beach. Again, small communities, adults and children all get stuck in to ease the environmental burden, but we barely scratch the surface.
Visitors may be keener to see how the foundation is helping to fund a local sea turtle project at Oracabessa Bay, run by retired head teacher Melvyn Tennant, from Birmingham, known locally as ‘The Turtle Man’.
Tennant says the fact guests are on the beach to see the hatchlings make the journey to the open sea helps deter land predators such as crabs, herons, dogs and mongoose, who will eat them before they’ve reached the water.
“I call it ‘edutainment’,” he says. “Tourists want to look at and hold a baby turtle. But they will also go away with some knowledge and are supporting the message about environmental conservation.” The excursion costs $30 (about £22) through Island Routes (islandroutes.com) and the money goes into the project.
Voluntourism may not be for everyone – but there’s no better way to feel the culture and lifestyle of a country than by immersing yourself in its real communities for a few hours. I will remember those smiling ‘reading road trip’ faces long after I’ve forgotten the names of those all-inclusive holiday cocktails….
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