How tourists can save lives on their travels

CNN  — 

Vacationing in developing countries can sometimes leave travelers feeling uneasy, particularly if they’re concerned that tourism may be doing more harm than good.

But giving back doesn’t necessarily have to mean months of volunteer work.

In fact, tourists can help to make a difference in the country they’re visiting by simply bringing along an extra suitcase with them.

Organization Not Just Tourists provides a service that allows travelers potentially to save lives by taking much-needed medical supplies to isolated foreign clinics.

“It’s kind of a small way for travelers to say thank you for the hospitality,” says Avi D’Souza, founder of the Not Just Tourists (NJT) Toronto branch.

The beginning

The medical supplies are packed up in suitcases by volunteers during regular "packing parties."

The NJT movement began in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1990, when doctor Ken Taylor and his wife Denise started personally delivering medical supplies to remote areas of Cuba after noticing a lack of provisions during a bike trip to the country.

The couple were soon approached by others who wanted to get involved, and began contacting local hospitals, pharmacies and drug companies for contributions.

D’Souza decided to set up a branch in Toronto after seeing a suitcase being brought to a small island off the coast of Honduras.

“I thought it was such a good idea,” he says. “I started it [the Toronto chapter] in my parent’s garage. It began with nothing and we’ve grown to now having over 1,000 volunteers, sending to 63 different countries.”

Over the years, the organization has stretched across Canada, with branches in Ottawa, Niagara, Waterloo, Barrie, Calgary, Manitoba, London and Halifax. It now distributes to various countries across the world, including Syria and Peru.


Not Just Tourists' volunteers have delivered thousands of suitcases to less-developed countries.

The donations, which come from hospitals, clinics, medical suppliers and individuals, are packed up in suitcases by volunteers during “packing parties” and passed on to travelers who’ve signed up to bring them to a location in need of medical provisions (NJT provides a list of all the clinics it delivers to on its website.)

“In Canada there’s oceans and oceans of medical supplies, so a lot of the donations come from home care patients,” explains D’Souza.

“Families will often have supplies left over if their relative either gets better or passes away.”

Volunteers are required to unpack the suitcase they’ll be delivering and inspect its contents, which usually consists of bandages, masks, latex gloves, IV and blood testing kits, before repacking them in order to meet security requirements.

They’re also provided with a letter detailing exactly what’s inside and advising customs officials that they’re transporting the supplies to a particular medical facility.

“Everything is packaged up clearly so you can see exactly what you’re carrying when you repack,” says volunteer Claudia Hon, a general practitioner previously based in Canada, who took a suitcase of supplies from Toronto to Peru in 2016.

“You are also given a letter signed by a health care professional.”

The donations are classed as humanitarian aid and do not contain any medicines, so the process is entirely legal, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee travelers will always have a painless experience at customs.

“The worst-case scenario is they confiscate the suitcase and send you on your way,” explains D’Souza. “That’s probably only happened around eight times with us.”

While NJT doesn’t cover baggage-fee costs, many airlines won’t charge for an extra case once they know the traveler is carrying medical supplies.

Many countries, such as Cuba, allow visitors to bring in up to 10 kilograms of humanitarian aid. The suitcases, which are also donated, contain $200 to $300 worth of materials.

“Funnily enough, getting suitcases is a lot more challenging than getting the medical supplies,” adds D’Souza.

Supplying remote clinics

NJT Volunteers help to pack up 500 donated wheelchairs, which were sent to Honduras.

As the supplies are carried by tourists, the destinations they reach depend on which countries people are visiting.

This means Cuba receives the most donations from NJT as it’s popular with Canadian tourists, along with Mexico and countries in Central America like Honduras and Guatemala.

“We’re trying to supply remote clinics and bush clinics. We don’t send to major hospitals in big cities, as they are provided for by the government,” says D’Souza.

“When you get into the more rural areas, you’ll find the clinics have a doctor and a building, but they have nothing on the shelves. Those are the kind of places we’re trying to reach.”

While volunteers are often given a specific clinic to deliver to, Hon sought one out herself on Isla Taquile during her trip to Peru, and says she found the experience particularly rewarding.

“It’s [the suitcase] a special gift that could save someone’s life,” she says. “Isla Taquile is so out of the way, they struggle to get stable staffing, let alone reliable medical supplies.”

Although D’Souza stresses that the suitcase delivery process is usually “smooth sailing,” he acknowledges there are possible risks when it comes to foreign tourists visiting isolated areas of developing countries.

“I don’t think this program is for everyone. It’s for the kind of people who are really prepared to step outside their comfort zones and take supplies to the places that need it,” he says.

“But in the over 1,000 suitcases we’ve sent from Toronto, we’ve never had a security incident.

“It’s always been the complete opposite. When people find out what you’re doing, they’ll go out of their way to help you.”

Hon agrees. “It’s rewarding on all levels, the warm feeling you get from donating, from volunteering and meeting other like-minded people,” she says. “Being privileged to take hand packed and well thought out humanitarian gifts.

“Seeing the journey some people go on to get to those who can really benefit from this is just beautiful. Healthcare professionals tear up when they realize the suitcases are from normal people who want to help.”

The bigger impact

Not Just Tourists Toronto founder Avi D'Souza hopes there will be an offshoot in every city one day.

According to D’Souza, one volunteer who traveled to Cuba recounted meeting a diabetic who regularly walked three miles to get an insulin syringe and often ended up using the same one over and over again until it could no longer break their skin.

Another told how they saw staff at a remote hospital washing latex gloves and drying them on a clothes line, while a different volunteer witnessed the bandages she’d brought in being used on a patient almost immediately.

“It would be so much easier to send these supplies in a container instead of packing them in to suitcases and liaising with travelers and customs officials,” says D’Souza.

“When a traveler takes a suitcase they inevitably have to speak to local people. We find they have their eyes opened and make connections to these communities and sometimes stay connected to them for the rest of their lives. That’s the bigger impact.”

Hon was so inspired by her experience as a volunteer that she’s decided to set up a branch in her hometown of Bristol in the UK, and D’Souza is hopeful that the movement will keep spreading.

He says he’s often frustrated at not being able to reach certain areas in need because Canadian travelers don’t go there.

“I just don’t think people know that you can even do this,” he says. “I’d love to see an offshoot in every city.

“I want to see people get inspired and set up chapters all over the world and have the idea spread.

“The amazing thing about this organization is there’s no money. We don’t ask for financial donations. Everything is done because people believe in it.”

Visit the Not Just Tourists website for more information about volunteering.