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September 02, 2009

Globetrotting for Good: The First Condé Nast Traveler Challenge

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Sharon Virtue, winner of the first Condé Nast Traveler Challenge, working with children in Mozambique to build the Casa de Paz e Luz.

by Kathryn Maier

This spring, Condé Nast Traveler partnered with Ashoka Changemakers, an organization that unites philanthropy initiatives with mentors and financial supporters. The collaboration aims to create a yearlong series of online challenges to drum up ideas for maximizing the positive impact of travel. The first challenge, launched in April, was a call for suggestions on encouraging global citizenship through travel: How can travelers contribute meaningfully to the lives of local people and how can travel companies encourage guests to engage with communities?

Of the 55 inspiring entries submitted, Sharon Virtue received the most votes for her "global art expeditions." Her plan? Small groups of volunteers will spend a few weeks working on art projects within a foreign communities, and upon their return to their home countries, create "sister" art projects and share with local participants what they learned abroad. 

An artist from San Francisco, Virtue has been working on projects around the world since 2001. She had traveled copiously before that, and began thinking about how she could give back to the communities she was visiting. "I didn't want to join the Peace Corps," she says. "I wasn't interested in building toilets and teaching English." But she wanted to do something useful, and thought she could make use of her background as an artist.

Her inspiration? Practical projects--building, renovation, beautification, creating gardens--that are also art. She worked with a group of boys to build a classroom for homeless children in Mozambique. She renovated an orphanage in Uganda, working with the children to clean and paint all the rooms and then paint a mural on the side of the building. She led art workshops for children in Brazil, many of whom were of African descent, making sculpture self-portraits and discussing identity and perception. At home in California, she built a mosaic on the front of the San Francisco Boys & Girls Club, and put those children in touch with the ones she had worked with in Uganda as pen pals.

"When you look for funding to do projects around the world, arts are on the bottom of the list," Virtue says. "But I discovered while working with people, thats the fastest way to earn their trust. The arts get an immediate response from people and are a great way to include everyone--little tiny kids as well as adults." Next up: continuing her work, in New Zealand, Mozambique, and Ghana.

Following close behind in number of votes was Australia-based whl.travel, a global network of grassroots tour operators. Serving 75 countries, this company provides an online booking facility for small local travel providers (such as hotels and tour guides) who hadn't previously been able to reach the global market online. Whl.travel's local partners own and operate the booking business, ensuring most income stays in the destination to support the local community. John Brandon Bethea received the third-most votes for his proposed Miles of Miracles Foundation. In memory of his mother, who died of cancer before she was able to take her dream trip to Australia, Bethea intends to partner with airlines, hotel companies, and cancer groups to make cancer patients' dream trips possible, providing therapeutic benefits and raising cancer awareness globally. And our final winner was Ross Holzman, with his idea for the Peace Pals Global Exchange, which proposes to partner 5,000 students in the San Francisco Bay area with 5,000 students in Kampala, Uganda. The children will exchange art and messages of peace, and project leaders will deliver arts-for-peace workshops in Uganda, facilitating a cross-cultural dialogue. Holzman hopes this project will eventually spread across six continents and involve hundreds of thousands of children.

We've now launched our third challenge: Imagine you are the minister of tourism responsible for one of the World Heritage sites. What green technologies--real and futuristic--do you need to protect and preserve your site for future generations? What kinds of conservation projects can you dream up to keep one or all of these destinations intact forever? Post your ideas in our forum with the social entrepreneurs of Ashoka.

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