Vacation for the Cause

Red Ribbon Adventures offers exotic fun and good deeds.

By Marene Gustin • Photo by Yvonne Feece

Tired of too much fun? How about a little voluntourism?

Sash Carl’s of Red Ribbon Tours

 That’s the buzzword for a new trend in travel. It started around 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and has been gaining steam with travel agencies ever since. The concept is to book a getaway that offers fun in a faraway place with a component of volunteer work. According to a 2008 survey by Condé Nast Traveler, 55 percent of the respondents expressed an interest in taking a volunteer vacation.

While many folks opt for building homes, working with children, and teaching English, one local travel agency is targeting vacationers who want to support awareness, relief, and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

 “As far as we know, we’re the only agency doing this,” says Sash Carl of Red Ribbon Adventures, part of Houston’s Planet One Travel Management Group. Carl, an avid traveler, saw an Oprah segment on voluntourism and wanted to create packages for the gay community. But the appeal reaches farther. Planet One’s president, Antonio Salman-Alonso says, “The response has been great from everyone.”

Red Ribbon started with individual tours, and this year is booking groups for voluntours to Puerto Vallarta, Rio de Janeiro, China, and Amsterdam (for Gay Pride Day).

 “I went to Romania a few years ago,” Carl says, “and visited a group home for AIDS teens. They were in the fourth grade because they had been left behind. No one wanted to school them because they had AIDS.”

 Whether working with HIV/AIDS children, educating gay prostitutes in Spain, or working with leaders and activists, vacationers have several options for do-gooding and for accommodations. You can choose from staying with local families or in four-star hotels. Prices range from about $600 to several thousand dollars. Both Carl and Salman-Alonso think the current economic climate will be offset by the new administration in Washington, D.C., and are hoping to book about 200 travelers this year. “There’s a feeling of optimism,” says Carl. “People are really wanting to start to do something and give back.”

 And it’s not just a way for travel agencies to make money. Red Ribbon and Planet One are planning to give a portion of the tour prices to AIDS Foundation Houston (AFH). “It’s a good way to give back to the community here,” says Lee Zacharias, special events manager at AFH, “while doing good work from over there.”

 “The relationship piece is very important,” says Dr. Brandon Doubek, who has been on a Red Ribbon tour and is now an investor in the company. “The people there are so willing to help you discover their culture. Just hanging out with the people and finding out what you can do to help is amazing.”

 This year travelers can venture to Mexico for sea kayaking and work with Vallarta Enfrenta el SIDA; work with HIV children in Rio while hiking Sugarloaf Mountain; volunteer at an AIDS clinic in Africa and cruise the Zambia River; serve AIDS patients at Beijing’s You An Hospital and hike the Great Wall of China; or take an evening canal cruise in Amsterdam and help educate workers in the Red Light District.

 “I want, number one, for people to have an amazing adventure,” says Carl. “It’s going to be fun. But I also want them to not forget about HIV and AIDS. Whether they are passing out flyers or giving shots, they are making a difference in the lives of people who are affected by the disease. And those people will know that they are not forgotten.”

 Details: Red Ribbon Adventures • 713/627-7568 • www.Redribbonadventures.com.

 Marene Gustine is freelance writer and a frequent contributor to OutSmart .


Globe-trotting do-gooders. Sash Carl’s   of Red Ribbon Tours provide travelers not only with an enjoyable vacation experience, but also a sense of accomplishment.


Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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