Indonesia Expat

Travel Sparks: The New Age of Volunteer Travel

With its charitable spirit of ‘Travel with a Cause’, Travel Sparks has started a new wave in the Indonesian travel sector which involves travelling while contributing to local communities. Here is how it all started.

The idea of volunteer travel has long been applied by numerous NGOs across the globe to attract travellers looking for a once in a lifetime travel opportunity that also gives something back. Volunteers tend to want to socialize with new people, and most importantly share their skills and knowledge with locals. Sharing this view is none other than Nila Tanzil, founder of Travel Sparks, a social enterprise built out of her wish to have a job involving her two main passions: travelling and helping people.

At the start of her journey in 2010, Tanzil set up Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), an NGO working to build children’s libraries in remote areas around Eastern Indonesia, which include regions like West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, Sumbawa Besar and West Papua. Tanzil’s work in developing the literacy of children in these poorer areas of Indonesia has earned her accolades from a variety of institutions, including the University of Amsterdam, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment & Child Protection of Indonesia, and the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology of Indonesia. Tanzil has even received the title of Inspiring Woman in ICT for Community Development.

Following the success of her work in Taman Bacaan Pelangi, Tanzil became motivated to establish Travel Sparks. This travel initiative was born four years later with the purpose of supporting her NGO through business:

“Through Travel Sparks, I want to encourage people to not only have a great holiday in beautiful places, but also contribute and make a positive impact in the local community where they travel.”

In addition to gaining much-needed funds to continue the good work done at Taman Bacaan Pelangi, Tanzil believes that this kind of travel activity will give more meaning and experience to participants, which in turn could help improve the lives of locals, for instance through providing more books for unfortunate children whom the NGO seeks to support.

Travel Sparks works through offering customized trips for travellers based on their interests, types of activity – liveaboard dive trips, trekking and island hopping – and the number of people joining. Furthermore, they can choose where they would like to stay:

“All of our trips are customized specially for each of our clients, so it’s very personalized. Clients can choose to stay in a five-star resort or at a local person’s house to experience the local lifestyle.”

Travellers can enjoy sights like this during their stay in Labuan Bajo while volunteering at children's reading rooms through Travel Sparks | Photo Travel Sparks
Travellers can enjoy sights like this during their stay in Labuan Bajo while volunteering at children’s reading rooms through Travel Sparks | Photo Travel Sparks


But what really makes Travel Sparks’ trips special is the volunteering projects. Currently, Travel Sparks focuses on opening trips in Flores, the Komodo Islands, Labuan Bajo and regions around Eastern Indonesia, where volunteers can take part first-hand in social work like teaching English to children, reading stories or distributing books to several libraries.

Benefitting from these volunteering projects, Tanzil thinks that her clients can interact with the local community directly while experiencing what it is like to make a difference. Aside from the clients whom she considers to be a priority, Tanzil has also found that the staff have also gained from Travel Sparks. Hoping to empower local people, she hires Indonesians to work at Travel Sparks; from the tour guides, boat crew, captains, to boat owners. Not only that, she makes sure that they are paid higher than most travel agencies in order for them to provide for their families.

Speaking of the Indonesian tourism sector, Tanzil is convinced that with the progress made thus far, it will be “quite promising” since travelling has grown to become more of a necessity for people who feel the need to escape from the chores of their busy working lives. And with over 17,000 islands constituting the archipelago, Indonesia has even greater potential to feed hungry travellers with ultimate travel experiences.

Regardless, she thinks that the nation still needs to improve infrastructure in every tourist destination:

“We have to make every tourist who comes to Indonesia feel at ease to travel to anywhere in the country. Transportation, cleanliness (hygiene), information, and hospitality (the human capital in each area) are some of the areas that we need to improve.”

Although at the moment Travel Sparks mainly operates in areas around Eastern Indonesia, Tanzil admits that she will start focusing on opening trips in other regions as soon as the government turns their attention to building infrastructure in these lesser known places. But in the meantime, Tanzil hopes to expand Travel Sparks’ market to lure more travellers into booking their holiday trips with the social enterprise so that more children in Eastern Indonesia will have access to high-quality books. This would also lead to the building of more libraries under Taman Bacaan Pelangi.

Asked what message she could give to travellers, she immediately turned to her four magic words: travel with a cause. “Travellers can actually make a positive impact in the local community during their travel,” she said. “Talk to the local people while you travel. Get to know them better. Touch their lives. Make a difference.” 

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