GARDINER, Maine — Paul Guthrie had spent some previous vacations on a medical mission to Africa and providing relief in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch.
So before he joined a seven-day, 410-mile bike ride through inland and coastal Maine, he made sure the money he paid for it would benefit the towns along the route.
If eco-tourism means doing no harm, the next step for Guthrie and a surge of vacationers like him is to do some good. And while there’s no consensus about what catchy name to give it — “Voluntourism”? “Altru-tourism”? — the idea is taking off with families and baby boomers who have free time and disposable income.
“They’re more independent, they can book their own travel much more easily, and they’re looking for different types of experiences,” said Jan Louise Jones, a professor of travel and tourism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, who studies this phenomenon. “And they’re becoming hyper-aware of where their money is going.”
Guthrie and about 260 other mostly 50-something cyclists from 34 states and five countries paid $875 apiece to ride and camp through Maine as part of BikeMaine, organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. The proceeds are split between the nonprofit coalition’s advocacy work and civic groups in the towns along the route.
Food for the meals largely comes from local farms, and the travelers spread their wealth at farmers’ markets and small-town shops. They stop at elementary schools to speak with students, some of whom also follow the ride on social media to learn about the state’s geography. Still other students from an alternative-education program come along to learn about and provide bicycle repairs and tuneups.
But a principal purpose is to provide a boost to the economy, especially in hard-up inland towns, said Nancy Grant, the cycling coalition’s executive director.
“It’s sort of that value-added piece, that you get to take a bike ride in a beautiful place but you’re part of this bigger thing, which is trying to help the state,” Grant said at a lunch break on the ride. “It makes you feel like you’re not just being self-indulgent.”
In few places was that as clear as in Gardiner, a onetime mill town of about 5,800 on the Kennebec River on the outskirts of Augusta that is struggling to revitalize a historic main street whose red brick buildings are as vacant as they are picturesque.
“This will have a great effect on our economy,” said Thom Harnett, Gardiner’s mayor, as the riders settled into their tent city in a newly redeveloped park beside the river and as local volunteers set up tables to serve them dinner down the middle of Water Street. “There’s a lot of eyeballs seeing our beautiful city that may not have seen it.”
The flutter of welcoming banners and the bustle of the BikeMaine camp brought the sleepy neighborhood to life as Harnett pointed to a stately but abandoned 19th-century riverside brick building he said the city hopes to someday convert into a boutique hotel — perhaps, he said, only half joking, where some of the cyclists might stay on a return visit.
“This type of tourism, if done well, really helps communities,” Jones said. “It’s not only a better experience for the tourists, but for the communities themselves.”
The people who do it, however, insist the pleasure is all theirs.
“You come away feeling more fulfilled, and so blessed,” said Karen Knuepfer of York, Pa., as she hung some clothes out to dry on the Gardiner riverfront after a hard day’s ride. “You can really make a difference,” said Michelle Manion, another rider and an environmental consultant who lives in Arlington. “You also roll into these tiny towns and you get to chat with people you wouldn’t encounter in a million years.”
Ray Watkins and his wife, Helga, of North Weymouth, have volunteered to clean up national parks and wildlife areas on their vacations — in one instance, helping clear a 3-mile stretch of trail in Arizona by moving giant boulders with a rudimentary winch.
“The payback is that we’ve already enjoyed the parks and here’s an opportunity for us to give back without committing to a 40-hour week,” Watkins said.
More than 246,000 people like the Watkinses last year donated a record 6.7 million hours to the National Park Service, spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said.
“Every one of them pretty much says they get more out of it than they give,” Kupper said. “They love that they can match their talents to the parks, and feel useful.”
It’s not only parks that are taking advantage of this unbridled enthusiasm. So are other nonprofits and private companies that are promoting “giving back” vacations.
Vacationers who book with Seattle-based African Safari Co., for instance, help researchers implant locator devices in the horns of rare black rhinoceroses to track poachers who kill the rhinos for the valuable material, and some of the money they spend on their trips helps pay for medical clinics and schools near the lodges where they stay.
“You do it because you realize how fortunate you are to be able to afford vacations like this, and the least you can do is give a little back,” said Lois Friedland, who traveled with the company to the Tongabezi Lodge in Zambia and gathered more than 100 flash drives when she got home to donate to a school she visited that had 300 students but only three computers. “It gives you a more in-depth idea of what people need. It’s richer. We spent three hours going through the schools, talking to the teachers.”
Watertown-based Thomson Safaris gives back, too, co-owner Judi Wineland said, by hiring locals for its African trips and supporting schools and other local causes.
“If you look at what’s happening with mantras out there right now like ‘buy local,’ people are becoming much more sophisticated about where and how they’re investing their money” — including when they’re on vacation — Wineland said.
The Sierra and Appalachian Mountain clubs also offer the chance for travelers to help maintain their trails and wilderness lands while they’re on vacation in New England, Hawaii, St. John, and other places; so popular has this become that the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club now has a waiting list for it, spokesman Rob Burbank said.
Even the Ritz-Carlton hotels now have “give-back getaways” for guests: In Boston, they can help out at a soup kitchen at the Arlington Street Church, in Washington they can spruce up the grounds around the Lincoln Memorial, and in Grand Cayman they can work with an organization trying to preserve the endangered blue iguana.
“We’re definitely seeing the millennial generation — not just from a traveler standpoint, but from an employee standpoint — wanting to be a force for good,” said Sue Stephenson, who runs the hotels’ program. “Even if guests can’t participate, they like to know about these opportunities, and maybe think about helping the next time they visit.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.