The classic Israeli passions for technology, social justice and world travel all converged in the soul of Michal Alter and led her to start visit.org, an online marketplace for booking tours and activities that benefit communities.

Using the visit.org platform, visitors can add short-term, affordable immersive local experiences to their existing travel itineraries in more than 30 countries.

Distinct from voluntourism or service trips, visit.org experiences are intended to introduce travelers to community-based nonprofit organizations while raising awareness and revenue for those organizations’ causes.

“It could be a walking tour or a workshop,” Alter tells ISRAEL21c in a Skype call from visit.org’s New York office. “It could be a few days in a biodiversity research institute in the Amazon forest, a day with a coffee-farming cooperative in Guatemala, or a two-hour baking class in Harlem with a program that trains immigrant women to become professional bakers.”

A Xhosa woman seen on a village tour conducted by the community-based cooperative Mdumbi Backpackers in South Africa. Proceeds support the local community. Photo courtesy of visit.org
A Xhosa woman seen on a village tour conducted by the community-based cooperative Mdumbi Backpackers in South Africa. Proceeds support the local community. Photo courtesy of visit.org

Before visit.org, she says, there was no centralized marketplace to promote these types of engaging visit experiences.

“It’s about human interaction; about learning from the locals.This is a highly fragmented market that is not easy for people to access on their own. That’s where our innovation lies.”

Individuals or groups can use visit.org to browse among hundreds of community-based organizations based on location, time and issue area. Visit.org charges travelers a 20 percent fee on top of every online booking. Gift cards are available.

“Online payment streamlines the process for both sides, and our partners get 100% of their asking price,” says Alter. “Those partners not yet online are paid directly by the user.”

All listed organizations are identified and vetted by visit.org’s international staff to assure that they have a track record of positive impact and agree to invest revenue generated from visit.org tours into programs that benefit the local community.

“We spend a lot of time helping these nonprofits build programs and attractive, safe itineraries, deciding price points and making sure they run these programs so they are profitable for them and benefit the local community,” says Alter.

“We want to make sure visitors have a good experience so a large portion of them will become long-term supporters of the organizations they visited. We see that 30 percent of our users book another experience within a week of coming home. People find these added-on experiences are the most memorable part of their trip.”

Visit.org’s new ambassador program trains travelers to go on pilot trips to potential partner organizations. They share photos and stories of their encounters on social networks and provide fresh content for the organizations through blog posts and other content that visit.org distributes.

Visitors at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, which uses tour proceeds to promote a sustainable food system. Photo courtesy of visit.org
Visitors at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, which uses tour proceeds to promote a sustainable food system. Photo courtesy of visit.org

Alter, now in her late 30s, traveled extensively in Latin America and Southeast Asia after her military service in Israel. “During those prolonged trips my most memorable experiences were related to local communities and cultures and the relationships I managed to build,” she says.

After studying computer science at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, she worked as a software engineer in Tel Aviv.

In her free time, she began volunteering with MesilaAid and Information Centre for Migrant Workers and Refugees in Tel Aviv. Eventually she left her job to direct refugee affairs at Mesila.

“Working in that setting, I saw that small nonprofits have a lot of assets – things like a unique understanding of local culture and communities and history – and I thought they could do a better job sharing and leveraging these great assets with the general public and not just a small group of volunteers and donors,” says Alter.

After giving birth to her first child, her refugee friends and herfriends from elsewhere in Tel Aviv met one another for the first time when they came to the Alter home with baby gifts. “It was very powerful. It made me think back to those relationships I built on my travels. Most people have very limited vacation time and no way to access this kind of interaction. So all these angles of my life — technology, volunteering, traveling — came together in visit.org.”

Visit.org cofounders Michal Alterand Violaine Pierre. Photo courtesy of visit.org
Visit.org cofounders Michal Alter and Violaine Pierre. Photo courtesy of visit.org

Seven years ago, Alter moved to New York to earn a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University. She founded visit.org in the fall of 2014 with Violaine Pierre from France.

“It’s really a global movement we’ve created to change the future of travel. Everyone involved shares that vision,” says Alter.

The team they’ve gathered is multinational and includes several Israelis from Alter’s school, high-tech and nonprofit years. An Israeli investor who recently came on board is a childhood friend of hers.

The Surfer Kids- South Africa: A Surfer Kid from Friemersheim, a rural community in South Africa. Travelers can surf with the nonprofit, The Surfer Kids and tour proceeds go toward supporting underprivileged children.
The Surfer Kids- South Africa: A Surfer Kid from Friemersheim, a rural community in South Africa. Travelers can surf with the nonprofit and tour proceeds go toward supporting underprivileged children. Photo: courtesy

Visit.org won a seed grant from the Columbia Business School Tamer Fund for Social Ventures.This entitles them to office space in the school’s startup lab in downtown Manhattan.

Alter recently spoke about her company at a meet-up of IsraeliStartups NYC, an organization bringing together entrepreneurs from American and Israeli businesses in the city.

“I appreciate being part of the Israeli startup community here and I want to integrate us more into it, to find advisers, mentors and investors from the Israeli community in New York,” says Alter. “The Israeli spirit and determination bring a lot of advantages to startups here.”

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