BeachCorps: Turning Sustainable Travel on Its Head

By David Searby

Sometimes familiarity blinds us to the beauty we know best. That insight led me to an improbable career shift from bureaucrat to entrepreneur.

In 2016, I retired from the United States Foreign Service after 27 wonderful years wandering the world serving my country, mostly in Latin America. In 2008, the idea bulb for my company flashed as I was being interviewed on a radio station while serving my second tour in the Dominican Republic. I had started my diplomatic career in 1989 stamping visas in Santo Domingo and years later returned to this country I loved dearly, this time as the Embassy Press Attaché.

The radio host asked me: “So what do you like about the Dominican Republic?” I began with the obvious: “Well, of course I love the lovely beaches and hotels.” The radio show in Puerto Plata was a few minutes away from world-famous “Kite Beach” of Cabarete, where windsurfers and kite surfers criss-cross the waves daily in soaring, gravity-defying lines.

A short walk from Kite Beach, I had also just seen first-hand the inspiring educational work of an American nonprofit where a friend of mine worked. The DREAM Project wasn’t just providing education to kids from poor backgrounds. DREAM was providing hope. It was fun to watch. As the kids played and learned, I realized that Dominican tourism authorities were undervaluing one precious national resource: their own people.

The “Aha!” Moment

So, in response to my radio host, I added: “But I also love some of the great nonprofits that are active here. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get some of the tourists who come to your hotels to support the great nonprofits nearby?” After that lightning bolt moment, I lost focus on the interview as my mind raced ahead.

Flash forward 10 years, and two years after I retired, and the BeachCorps concept is starting to take shape in beautiful Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. BeachCorps is a new kind of impact travel that combines a great beach vacation with an excursion from the hotel to support a real nonprofit cause. BeachCorps is the only impact travel that finds the best local nonprofits, not some “cause” invented to please a tourist. In this Beta phase, I encourage folks to help me develop and improve a kind of tourism that doesn’t exist in the world. If this tourism model works in the Dominican Republic as BeachCorps, it can work anywhere in the world under a thousand different names.

BeachCorps’ half-day excursions include learning about a great nonprofit cause and cross-cultural engagement designed to build global citizens all around. Locals and tourists team up for garbage trash pick-up and recycling to address the terrible problem of trash, especially plastic, entering landfills, rivers and oceans. They also have fun putting on shows and playing a little whiffle ball. Our only limitation is our imagination.

The Beach Bum Gets a Little Help from His Friends

My chief assistant in this crazy venture is the BeachCorps Beach Bum, a.k.a. the Chief Inanimate Object/Recycling Promoter. The Beach Bum, made by a local Haitian artisan, has become a popular local symbol for enjoying sustainable travel. The Bum has starred in “Sustainability Nights” at local bars and restaurants. I plan to clone the Beach Bum again and again so local nonprofits can use their own copy of the Bum to spread the sustainability message.

Don’t worry: I’ll be hiring some living, breathing staff soon. And for the last two years I’ve been getting more than a little help from my friends. I am blessed to be partnering with the top excursion provider in the Dominican Republic, Runners Adventures, to handle hotel transport. I am working closely with the Puntacana Group Foundation, the Dominican granddaddy of sustainable tourism, with English teaching excursions all of summer 2019.

As a Rotarian, I am honored that our initiative with the Puntacana Group Foundation was accepted as an official club project in the 2018 Rotary Global Conference in Toronto, Canada, with the support of the Punta Cana-Bavaro Rotary Club and the MetroBethesda Rotary Club near Washington, DC. I am excited to be working to support the kids of the Interact Club of Punta Cana-Bavaro, Rotary’s program for young people aged 12-18, to develop their community service projects and support their education. You have to meet this scrappy group of kids!

Other great nonprofit friends of the Beach Bum include the previously mentioned DREAM Project, the Responsible Ecotourism Foundation (FECOTUR), a Dominican nonprofit that promotes recycling, and Rescatame and Dogs and Cats of the Dominican Republic, two nonprofits that help stray dogs and cats and the communities that love them.

Beyond supporting great nonprofits, we have to look at the travel industry as a whole to promote more sustainable travel in all tourism sectors. If we rely only on backpackers and eco-tourists to save the planet, we soon won’t have a planet to save. Those who book a BeachCorps volunteer excursion get a discount if they stay in sustainable lodging like Chic Royalton Punta Cana and the Punta Cana Resort and Club. The BeachCorps model also gives a discount for staying with AirBnB hosts who are giving back to their community.

A Little Grain of Sand for Local Heroes

The BeachCorps model also flips the “hero” volunteer model on its head. After years studying what is wrong in “voluntourism,” I believe a short-term, unskilled volunteer is not a hero but just “a little grain of sand.” A little grain of sand by itself is nothing. It takes a lot of sand properly placed to create something beautiful, and even a little sand in the wrong place can cause a lot of harm. Anyone can be an effective volunteer by contributing time for people-to-people engagement, a donation and enlisting 500 Facebook friends on behalf of a worthy cause. No work or language skills are needed. By making the role of the volunteer more versatile and humble, BeachCorps is better able to focus on local heroes fighting to improve their communities.

I am betting that a growing number of millennials, students, couples, friends, businesses, baby boomers and families are going to want to relax sustainably at the beach, while taking a day or two to pay it forward. In a world increasingly dominated by a de-humanizing internet, more and more people crave real human interaction. I am 100% certain that along the way I’m going to have a lot of fun turning sustainable travel on its head.

David Searby is President and Founder of BeachCorps and splits his time between the Dominican Republic and his family in Washington, DC. Searby retired in 2016 from the U.S. Foreign Service after a 27-year career that included extensive work supporting multi-sector partnerships, including Super Chef Panama, a reality TV cooking show that gives underserved youth in Panama a chance to compete to be great chefs.

David Searby
President and Founder