PEPY:Educational Volunteer Tourism changing attitudes in Cambodia & funding over $1 million for NGOs

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PEPY:Educational Volunteer Tourism changing attitudes in Cambodia & funding over $1 million for NGOs

Siem Reap, Camboya
Project Summary
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For travelers seeking socially and environmentally responsible adventures, PEPY Tours provides educational and volunteer opportunities that allow participants to learn from and support ongoing social development projects in Cambodia. PEPY Tours combines adventure travel with hands-on volunteer projects operated by its partner non-profit organization, The PEPY Ride, and other locally based non-governmental organizations.

Adventure volunteer tours range from riding in environmental education bike treks to building rainwater collection units and collaborating in cultural exchange activities in rural schools. Participants have the opportunity to visit the programs of partner nonprofit ...

About You
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Your job title


Name of your organization


Organization type

NGO and Tour Operator

Annual budget/currency

$350,000 (NGO) $65,000 (Tours)

Mailing address

PEPY, PO Box 93220, GPO Siem Reap, CAMBODIA

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Street Address



Siem Reap

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Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourist experience and educational benefit to tourists , Quality of benefit to residents for the destination , Quality of tourism management by destination leadership .

Organization size

Small (1 to 100 employees)

Indicate sector in which you principally work

Tourism-related business

Year innovation began


Indicate sector in which you principally work

Living culture, Adventure, Education, General tourism.

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What is the goal of your innovation? Please describe in one sentence the kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

To offer responsible voluntourism adventures, designed with community input, providing substantial funding for educational programs in rural Cambodia & inspiring life changes in travelers who join us

Please write an overview of your project. Include how your approach supports or embodies geotourism or destination stewardship. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the map located on the competition homepage.

For travelers seeking socially and environmentally responsible adventures, PEPY Tours provides educational and volunteer opportunities that allow participants to learn from and support ongoing social development projects in Cambodia. PEPY Tours combines adventure travel with hands-on volunteer projects operated by its partner non-profit organization, The PEPY Ride, and other locally based non-governmental organizations.

Adventure volunteer tours range from riding in environmental education bike treks to building rainwater collection units and collaborating in cultural exchange activities in rural schools. Participants have the opportunity to visit the programs of partner nonprofit organizations during their tour and contribute to PEPY’s overall goal: improving education in rural Cambodia. Each tour participant contributes a fundraising or donation minimum, all of which directly supports the educational programs of PEPY Ride or its partners.

Explain in detail why your approach is innovative

PEPY has established long-term relationships with host communities and partner organizations and is therefore able to provide insightful perspectives and unique experiences for its participants. PEPY strives to be a model in the industry by continually reassessing its own operations and analyzing the benefits that its tours bring to local communities and its participants. PEPY is committed to self-reflection, constant monitoring through a full-time presence in target program areas and a willingness to put community concerns before traveler wishes.

Learning from its early experiences, PEPY Tours have evolved to collaborate more seamlessly with development projects. Visits to schools, for example, are planned well in advance and the number of school visits is limited to three annually so as not to disrupt school learning. The focus of the tours has also changed over time from ‘giving’ to ‘learning’, emphasizing the need for participants to learn about social development before they can responsibly give. Reciprocally, because participants are financially invested in long-term projects, they have further incentive to learn about the projects they contribute to and experience them first-hand, and can thus hold PEPY more accountable.

Describe the degree of success you have had to date. How do you measure, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the impact on sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How has it transformed or contributed to the power of place or demonstrated the sustainability of tourism? How does your approach minimize negative impacts?

Before PEPY: Chanleas Dai’s Library sat locked, rat infested, and unused
In December 2006: PEPY and visiting volunteers refurbished the library and added 3000 volumes of books. Soon, over 70 books per month were being checked out of the library.
Today: Over 2,500 books are checked out of the same library each month.

This example of the changes we have seen through our programs are the types of change we are looking to affect here at PEPY: catalytic changes in attitudes. The community of Chanleas Dai has an entirely different attitude towards books, reading, and libraries as does the librarian, the teachers, and the students themselves. This did not happen because we brought a few volunteer groups into a village. This happened because we have long term staff, a commitment to and a relationship with this community, and because we focused on long-term changes, not short-term results. Volunteers were able to start the ball rolling and thereby increasing the impact of their work long after they leave.

The same types of changes are visible in those who travel with us. Entire shifts in mindsets – 2 people currently doing PhDs and many doing masters research on Cambodia, sustainable tourism, education – things inspired from their trip with PEPY. People who traveled with us and painted a mural on the wall of a school highlighting the need to use a filter, not the water pump, did not see changes in behavior after their week visit to Cambodia. We didn’t really see changes 2 months later either. But one year later, not a single person in the village was drinking directly from the pump. Those changes take time, but the travelers able to contribute, through their actions, funding, and public support for the projects, and sometimes even start these long-term changes during their time with PEPY. We are here, so we can make changes when we do something wrong. We keep people informed about the impact of their work. And that keeps them coming back.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your work, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

PEPY conducted a Participatory Rural Assessment in the 11 villages of Chanleas Dai Commune in order to focus efforts on the community’s wants and needs. Now, many of the initiatives funded by PEPY Tours, like the Child-to-Child Program and the Eco-Club Program, are driven by local residents. Many of our staff are from the villages we work in. PEPY looks first to the community for employees and builds capacity in local residents. For example, PEPY employed and trained a team of local cooks who prepare meals for tour participants and school uniforms are made in the community. Travelers are taken to visit and support local sites and programs. The direct beneficiaries of PEPY initiatives are some 775 students and more than 40 Cambodian staff who manage our programs.

In addition, PEPY uses only local accommodation, tour operators and transportation. "Volunteering" is great, but we know that where we spend our money has even more potential to effect change in the areas we visit.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

PEPY Tours’ guests are required to fundraise for our programs before they arrive, so they hit the ground running, already having had to learn about our work and Cambodia. They want to go where their money is going and have an incentive to establish local connections that flourish beyond the duration of their trip as they serve as ambassadors for all those who have donated in their name.

PEPY Tours incorporates a wide variety of activities, including visits to development projects, cultural discovery, adventure sports, and volunteering that connects participants with local residents. PEPY’s local staff help lead all tours, articles on relevant topics are presented throughout the trip, and the topics are discussed among the team of visitors and Cambodian-based staff. Guests are encouraged to ask tough questions and step out of their comfort zones, challenging them to learn more than they thought they could. Many guests have become long-term supporters of PEPY.

Describe how your work helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area's cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues.

During trips, participants visit a range of development projects, as well as cultural sites and events and therefore have the opportunity to interact with rural and urban Khmers alike, learning about Cambodia’s past and present. PEPY trip leaders hold nightly discussion groups, focused around articles or the days experiences, to engage guests in conversations about responsible tourism, development programs, and current issues affecting the visited regions. Finally, guests often participate in volunteer activities, such as the construction of classroom buildings and rainwater collection units that make local issues real and emphasize the importance of responsible travel. PEPY keeps guests informed through a detailed website, a team journal, an online community, an articles exchange list-serve, and much more. One motto is "PEPY for life." We want people to open their eyes to new issues and then embrace and incorporate those lessons learned into their daily lives.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

PEPY Tours has a two-part fee structure: each participant pays a tour fee and a required donation minimum. The tour fee covers all costs to the tour company and residual profits are used to offset additional administrative costs of partnering non-profit organizations. One hundred percent of the donation requirement is given to PEPY Tours’ partner non-profit, PEPY Ride in support of educational programs in rural Cambodia.

PEPY has 4-7 foreign volunteer staff at any given time that generally work on 6-month volunteer contracts. PEPY Tours has two Cambodian employees and The PEPY Ride has 40 local staff employed in their educational programs. With the help of PEPY Tours and the on-going donations of past tour participants, The PEPY Ride brings in over $300,000 per year in donations for educational development programs and has raised over $1 million since it began operations in 2005.

Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? Is there a potential demand for your innovation?

Trip fees from PEPY Tours participants covers all of the costs of operating PEPY Tours as well as generating residual income to help cover some of the overhead for The PEPY Ride (NGO). PEPY also get support from unpaid volunteers who support our programs and our local staff. Additional overhead costs for the NGO are covered by family foundations who donate specifically for those costs. This means that 100% OF THE FUNDS RAISED BY PEPY TOURS GO TO SUPPORT THE PROGRAMS PEPY OPERATES IN RURAL CAMBODIA. If PEPY Tours can attract more participants per trip or operate more trips per year, the funding model will be able to reach its full potential and cover ALL of the overhead costs of the NGO. With more/smarter marketing, the potential demand for PEPY Tours would be much greater. Visible in the growth of the voluntourism industry, even given the current economic situation, it seems that there is a large demand for humanitarian tourism and life-changing travel experiences . PEPY offers both.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

Awareness. We have a restricted marketing budget as we aim to keep as much of our funds as possible for our educational programs. As such, we need to be more innovative with how we get the word out about our tours.

One would think that, within the struggling economy of Cambodia, it would be quite easy to find places for volunteers to add value. With a goal of following development best practices and only supporting programs that are designed with long-term results in mind, for the communities rather than a focus on the volunteers, finding appropriate projects takes more time than just repeating a cookie-cutter tour. As such, to supplement our voluntourism options, and to focus on LEARNING, not just giving in developing areas, PEPY has offered more educational tours and opportunities for travelers to learn about the programs, people, and communities their funds are supporting.

What is your plan to expand or further develop your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

PEPY plans to launch Cambodia’s first “Bike and Boat” tours in the coming months as well as focus on community based tourism options in more remote regions throughout Cambodia. Our plan is to bring on more local staff for PEPY Tours and begin to operate more regular educational tours and biking adventures, which can be repeated with increased positive impact on the communities we visit. PEPY will continue to work to increase the funds delivered directly to the communities we work in, not just through the required donation portion of our tours, but by continuing to promote only locally owned or socially responsible hotels, restaurants, and partners.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.

While I was working as a teacher in Japan, a country with one of the most well-funded education systems in the world, I visited Cambodia, with one of the least well-funded systems. I was struck by the contrast. As a teacher, I had grown to believe that education is the key to change in nearly all issues of global concern: environmental, health, social, governmental, etc. I wanted to support a swelling of enthusiasm for positive development in Cambodia and wanted to be a part of the bright hope for the future many Cambodians had shared with me, which contrasted the much darker recent past.

I also wanted to explore more of the country outside of the main tourist towns and a bicycle seemed the best way to travel at the pace I was looking for. Some friends and I organized the first PEPY Ride in 2005 as a 5-week journey creating a zig-zag pattern across the country. As people began finding our website, we recognized that there were others out there looking to affect positive change through their travel in Cambodia. If those people were willing to fundraise as well as pay for the cost of their tour, then we would have a way to fund educational programs without relying on grants. Friends in the business world told us, “So, you expect people to sign up to pay a competitive price for their tour, AND fundraise money? Why would they do that?” and our response was “People sign up BECAUSE they are being asked to fundraise money.” And it is true.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Daniela Papi is the founder of PEPY and serves as the director for PEPY’s educational non-profit and tour programs with a team of 40 local Cambodian staff. PEPY has won the University of Notre Dame's Social Venture Business Plan competition and the CIMPA Humanitarian Travel Award. Daniela has been recognized for her work in education and social entrepreneurship through receipt of three consecutive grants from the Suruga Institute, the Delaying the Real World Fellowship, and as a finalist for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.

Daniela is active in the Voluntourism industry, speaking regularly on both the negative and positive impacts of this growing trend in tourism. She wants to use PEPY's failures and lessons learned to help others avoid the same mistakes and is working to create an industry self-checking tool for use by voluntourism operators. She currently manages PEPY from her Cambodian office in Siem Reap.

Describe some unique tourist experiences that your approach provides. Be specific; give illustrative examples.

We see PEPY as unique in that we are here, on the ground, full time. As we operate and support community driven education programs year-round, we are able to plug travelers in to fill specific needs at the time when they arrive, rather than selling the opportunity to “build a fence in six months” while the community waits a half of a year for the tourist to arrive to build the fence. Instead, we have a dedicated team of over 30 full-time Cambodian staff who operate both formal and non-formal education projects in one of the most impoverished regions in Cambodia. They are working to change attitudes about education, health, and the environment every day, and PEPY allows people to get involved in that, partner in our work and further increase our impact. Our trips are designed as experiential and educational tours that provide hands-on volunteer opportunities as well as channeling participant funding into the programs they visit, helping their support to last far longer than their visit.

We are the only cycling tour company in Cambodia that provides opportunities to support a variety of education programs, while also providing a thorough introduction to development via experiential education opportunities throughout the journey. PEPY also provides non-cycling tours; these consist of experiential education opportunities centered around hands-on volunteer projects. PEPY’s tours are designed to translate short-term impact into long-term results by partnering exclusively with organizations that have on-going relationships with the projects served.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

Marketing partnerships are our first need. We believe that we have a very unique product and extremely high guest satisfaction from our tours but as we work with a minimal marketing budget. Creating awareness about our programs in our target markets is our biggest need. Professional development in marketing would be useful as well as support for the development of voluntourism101, a site PEPY intends to launch to spread lessons learns and effective practices in the volunteer tourism industry. By sharing our failures and mistakes with others, we believe we can help prevent further negative results from poorly planned volunteer tourism initiatives.