A long time ago when I lived in Myanmar I often spent Christmas Eve with the elderly and Catholic sisters at Yangon’s Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged Poor. Since my accident earlier this year my travelling activities have been very (and still are) limited, but I decided to travel to Yangon with family and friends to continue with this tradition.
Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged Poor is a retirement home in Yangon for the poorest of the poor – people who have absolutely nothing. It is very well looked after and managed by the Catholic sisters who devote their life taking care of people who are in the final years of their lives. The Home is open to people of every faith, and today houses over 150 male and female residents.
The residents are very happy to receive visitors and talk to them, particularly about their life experiences and their families. Many have amazing stories to tell and share them joyously with visitors. I cherish these moments with the sisters and residents very much.
The visit always makes me realise how lucky I am, to be born where I was, the privilege of receiving a good education, to have had my own chance at life, to be surrounded by caring family and friends, and to have a job that I love. Most residents at the Home for the Aged Poor never had such chances.
Asian Trails Myanmar organises small events for the residents from time to time. Father Christmas paid them a visit late last month. Sometimes we invite a magician to entertain them, and our managers and staff join them singing songs accompanied by a guitarist. We also set up a play and read from books, and we organise for the young chef association of the hearing impaired to bake cake and cookies for the residents.
Everyone is welcome to visit and share stories with the sisters and residents. Visits can be organised in advance, or guides can spontaneously arrange for one during visiting hours upon request. Today, we think we need to categorise such visits as CSR activities. They can be such, but they can also be just a simple spontaneous visit.
However, I feel that such activities are sometimes politicised. Of course, we don’t want to showcase an Old People’s Home as an entertainment venue. We want to take visitors who have a genuine interest to learn about other people and their cultures, and who want to share their stories with the underprivileged.
This is not voyeurism. It is not about spicing up a city tour. It’s about adding meaning to one’s life and the lives of others. It works both ways.
I am totally against masses of tourists visiting orphanages or similar institutions anywhere in the world, and having a competition to judge who takes the best child photo. But just walking past a village school and having a chat with the kids during their break time is a lot of fun for everyone. We need to keep things in perspective and maintain our common sense. There is nothing wrong with a school visit as long as the principals and teachers approve, and it doesn’t interrupt classes.
Not everything has to be categorised as a CSR activity. Just being out there in the countryside on a bike and learn how the local people live is already a CSR activity. Voluntourism is a different ball game and needs different considerations.
CSR activities are also not about marketing. They are about doing good. It drives me mad when some companies think they need to parade their managers and staff in front of underprivileged communities, the 10-minute give, take picture and leave event. Anyone thinking of doing CSR activities needs to show respect, needs to care about the feelings of those visited, needs to bring meaningful purpose, and to understand the consequences of their actions.
We love to work with local communities in all our countries. It’s part of our lives and part of what we do. We are happy to share our experiences with tourism professionals on what we can organise and what we cannot (or do not want to organise). We will always engage in activities that are beneficial to communities and will always treat them with respect.
The term ‘over tourism’ will ring a bell for all of us. There can be also be over tourism in CSR activities, which we should avoid at all costs. If tourism becomes a burden to communities it is our job to stop it and instead engage in other more suitable activities, or in those with communities in remote locations. Whatever you choose to involve us in, you can always be assured that our activities will be to the benefit of every community.
Let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a healthy and happy 2019. I look forward to seeing many of you at one of the trade shows in the new year. I am, unfortunately, still not in a physical condition to pursue my active travelling patterns but there will be many interesting stories coming your way from my Asian Trails colleagues.