Having a soft spot for furry creatures, I couldn’t not follow up with tour company Inside/Out’s founder, Zoe Katsulos, about an upcoming “humanitourism” trip to Greece to tackle the animal welfare crisis there.
Inside/Out puts together trips around the world that couple humanitarian volunteer work with sustainable eco-adventures. The ten-day June trip (June 12-22) to Ioannina allows a group of 12 travelers to help cats and dogs in Zagoria, a little-visited mountainous region of northern Greece. In Greece, as in many parts of the world, cats and dogs suffer starvation, neglect, abuse, abandonment, poisoning, and overpopulation. There’s no SPCA to provide shelters and neutering and spaying are infrequent. Volunteers will help local animal activists construct and maintain feeding stations for the strays, and inform local people about animal rights and welfare issues. After five days of humanitarian work, the humanitourists embark on their well-deserved eco-adventure, trekking, rafting, sea kayaking, and enjoying Greek culture, history, and food. I asked Zoe Katsulos about how it all works.
What’s “humanitourism” all about? How did you develop this concept?
Humanitourism is designed to provide an intimate connection with the people, the culture and the land through various channels; it balances volunteer work with guided adventure travel. Humanitourism fulfills on both the volunteer humanitarian and tourism ends, because people get that additional connection to the land and the culture by participating in adventure activities that are local or indigenous. Our adventures are also fully guided and planned, not just add-on options. We also have built-in photo workshops that help participants document and share the causes we are helping in a compelling way.
I developed the concept to fill a void that was missing between voluntourism and adventure travel. Since then, I’ve noticed several companies also trying to jump in and capitalize on this niche but they are either voluntourism companies that offer some add-on adventure or adventure companies that offer add-on volunteer options. Our organization has combined the two from the very beginning.
Tell us about Inside/Out. How long have you been developing and leading trips? Where do the ideas for the trips come from?
Inside/Out is a fairly new entity. I developed it in 2007 and did a lot of research and legwork to get things off the ground. I’ve personally been leading or teaching outdoor trips for about 10 years. The trip ideas originate in the projects, first and foremost. I have a broad network around the world with a constant watch out for small under-served or under-recognized projects. Sometimes I come across new projects in talking with other travelers or people who are involved in humanitarian work. Sometimes they occur as a result of something else I am doing. For example, the Greece trip idea came about from some pro bono work I was doing photographing some dogs that had been rescued from Greece and needed homes. When I found out what was behind it, I decided it would be a great project for Inside/Out.
What’s the name of your company, Inside/Out all about? What’s the origin of the name?
The name Inside/Out represents many aspects of the organization. One is our slogan “journeys for your INner self in the OUTdoors.” That speaks to a number of things, including the personal growth and development one can achieve through our pursuits in the outdoors. Another part is that we believe in being healthy on the inside (physically) to do well in the outside. Yet another is that sometimes projects and problems can be solved from the inside out.
What’s your personal travel philosophy and how does it affect the trips you develop?
My personal travel philosophy is pretty much the same as my philosophy on life, which is to be open to whatever the world brings and take in the experience. I guess it affects the trips in a couple of ways. One obvious way is making all of our trips international, encompassing many different cultures, most of which would be new to people on the trips.
Another would be having the outdoor active adventure an integral part of the trips. I believe that we have a different experience in life not only when we are physically participating in it, but also when we push our physical boundaries, which can really show us who we are. While our adventures are meant to be moderate and within the capabilities of the average “fit” person, some activities may be more challenging for some than others. For example, rafting or zip-lining might really push someone’s physical and mental boundaries and lead to personal growth and development.
We also provide a combination of structure and freedom, so that people can be comfortable in a foreign environment but will also have some flexibility to explore on their own if they desire. This allows for different travel philosophies, and that way people aren’t bound to my personal philosophy.
What’s a trip with Inside/Out like? I volunteered with Youth Action for Peace in Romania in 2004, before I even knew I was a “voluntourist.” How does Inside/Out compare/contrast with other similar organizations?
As I see it, there is no other organization like Inside/Out. We’ve created a unique business model with many layers of complexity. Our model is based on the concept of combining both volunteer work and active adventure travel in balance to provide a fuller, more immersive experience and connection to the land as well as the people and culture. Voluntourism is usually just volunteer work in another location or country, sometimes with the option to tack on some sightseeing or active adventure but generally not built in as an integral part of it. I think that, especially in the economic environment we are in now, providing the opportunity for people to have fun and have a physical adventure as well as a rewarding volunteer opportunity all in one vacation is a very valuable thing. And we do it in a time-frame (usually trips are about two weeks total) that is workable for most people, especially Americans, who often have less vacation time than those in other countries.
Our volunteer projects are created especially for a specific trip, so most are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We don’t cycle groups of volunteers through the same project like some organizations do. The projects are needed and welcomed by the community. We do not determine what they need, we listen to what they want. We also try to create projects that have a tangible or visible reward for travelers so that they have a grasp of how they have helped when they leave.
We also train our local in-country guides to become business people and develop their local businesses. This not only keeps money in the community, but it also serves to bring additional money in by helping these guides to develop other tour options. We have a philanthropic mission as well.
Part of the trip cost each participant pays goes toward the project or community we are working with.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
How do you select your local partners? In the case of the upcoming trip to Greece, I see you’re working with Mary O’Connor, a resident of Ioannina where the volunteering part of the trip is based. How do you establish those relationships?
Our partners are selected for various reasons. One important element is that they speak English for the comfort of our travelers as well as for planning and logistics reasons. Another is their ability to get things done on their end. We establish partnerships through networking and careful communication. It is important that our partners understand what we are about and that we are unlike any other tour operators. They must grasp the impact we want to have with both our travelers and the communities we are serving. We outline very clearly our goals for the trip, our emphasis on sustainability, social responsibility and sensitivity to the environment.
How many trips a year do you put together? How many individuals do you lead on trips annually?
This year we have three trips, possibly four. We hope to have six next year and continue to increase that every year. Our goal is to develop some of our local tour guides into full-fledged tour leaders so that they can continue to lead our trips for us. We will be able to plan and implement more trips that way and help more people.
It seems to me that the aim of the upcoming trip to Greece, “tackling [the] Greek animal welfare crisis,” will attract a lot of animal lovers. I see on your site some guidelines regarding physical preparations for the adventure aspect of your tours. What about the emotional preparation needed to join a trip like that to Greece to help ameliorate the inhumane conditions faced by many cats and dogs in Greece?
You bring up a good question. We try to prepare our clients for what they will see and experience but we do not want to deny their emotional response, because that is what makes them the compassionate human beings compelled to help. People who care about animals cannot stop caring about animals. We will be there to support them with any emotional experiences they may have.
It has also been my experience that when I am in action helping, my emotions somewhat diminish because I am doing something. People ask me all the time, “how do you handle it?” because I’ve been there, shared it and even adopted a street dog from Greece, and I usually just respond “Which can my conscience better handle: to go and help and deal with the emotion or to know there is an agonizing problem and do nothing about it?”
Photos: Top, with dogs in Greece, courtesy of Inside/Out; Middle, courtesy of Native African Expeditions for Africa