By Emily Chugg
Every Year 12 student in Victoria is required to write a persuasive oral presentation, debating a controversial topic that they are passionate about. At the time, I was keen to talk about something I was interested in, so I turned to volunteer tourism and the detrimental impacts it often imposes on the very people it is supposed to help. Since then, I have turned my passion for this issue into an International Development degree at university. My third year at university culminated with a month-long development immersion experience in Cambodia, where we were given insights into the world of not-for-profit organisations, community development and sustainable tourism.
In search of a cultural immersion experience
After returning from this trip, I began to search for travel organisations that offered cultural immersion experiences without having to volunteer and cause potential harm to overseas communities. Unfortunately, I did not find many options. Despite this setback, all was not lost! I knew that my university’s immersion trip to Timor-Leste used to be run by Palms Australia, so I did some research and discovered that Palms have tours called Encounters, where they discuss development, sustainability and place an emphasis on experiencing real culture and meeting real people while travelling. I was excited by this discovery and having met Executive Director Roger O’Halloran at a volunteer meet up a few weeks before, I reached out to him, asking if there was any way I could explore immersion travel experiences with Palms. He was extremely generous and offered me the opportunity to intern with Palms for a short amount of time – the only catch being I would have to move from Melbourne.
My internship with Palms begins
Fast-forward to January 2020 and I trundle up the Hume Highway to my new home in Sydney, ready to take on the whirlwind of the 103rd Orientation Course. The Orientation Course was a great opportunity for me to meet the people taking up new placements overseas. The knowledge and expertise gained from undertaking a course like this is invaluable, and it was fantastic to see Palms’ mission and values come alive in people who would soon take their skills and knowledge to various corners of the world.
After the Orientation Course I began to settle in to life in the office, where everyone welcomed me into the fold like I was one of their own. The Palms office is not your conventional office (it looks like an art gallery!) and everyone is able to have a laugh while still continuing to get on with their work. There was always an abundance of interesting conversation at the small lunch table, and if you’re ever making a toasted sandwich for lunch you WILL set off the smoke alarm – whoops!
Focusing on Encounters vs volunteer tourism
My work was centred around Encounters, where a video highlighting the contrast between Encounters and volunteer tourism became my major focus. I’d never made a video or used video editing software before, so it was great to teach myself how to do this. Having been through a travel experience similar to an Encounter, I wanted to make sure other people knew the value of an Encounter experience for both traveller and host communities. Encounters give the traveller an authentic, learning experience without leaving behind a trail of destruction for communities to fix up later.
Developing the new challenge model for Encounters was another project for me to work on, which gave me insights into logistics and planning for international travel. Towards the end of my time with Palms when coronavirus began making its way around the world, my work monitoring travel restrictions, drafting press releases and making spreadsheets not only gave me insight into risk management but helped the team gain all the necessary information to take the next steps.
Thank you for the opportunity Palms
The Palms team are absolutely focused on supporting the partners overseas and ensuring that mutual learning is at the centre of their mission. I can never thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to gain such valuable insights into what goes on behind the scenes and what work is needed to achieve the desired outcomes. Many of the discussions I had with the staff helped shape my knowledge around development, marketing strategies and international travel operations. I am so lucky to have had this experience with an organisation that I know values the empowerment of communities, as well as long term sustainability and I hope I will be lucky enough to work for organisations that embody these same values in the future.
Featured image: Palms office in Petersham, NSW – Kevin Wilson, Cassandra Falson, Emily Chugg and Louise Kwok.