What if you could travel but also use that time to help build communities? Or run sustainability projects? What about participating in development projects? Imagine you could go to a place not just for mere sightseeing but also to understand the real culture of a place. Picture yourself working with the locals and making a tangible impact in their life! That’s what voluntourism is about.
Voluntourism: What is it about?
Voluntourism involves the combined experience of volunteering and tourism. It is a growing industry, and caters to everyone, from young college graduates to retired people looking to help communities. Ideally, voluntourism focuses on the developmental and sustainability projects in a developing region. Voluntourism also allows travelers the time to experience the local sites and culture.
The industry is gaining attraction with many traditional travel websites now having a dedicated section for voluntourism. Potential travelers can search for voluntours that match their interests, read stories from other voluntourists and hook up with travel groups.
How does it work?
There are many organizations working to provide the tourists with a genuine volunteering and travel experience. One such organisation is PEPY Tours. It offers a volunteering experience in the developing nations of Cambodia and Nepal. There, volunteers help in developmental projects along with their visit to the historical sites and monuments of the countries.
In India, 17000 ft Foundation, an organisation working to improve lives of the people of remote, high altitude mountainous villages of Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir provides an incredible voluntourism opportunity through its Voluntourist@17000 ft Program.
A voluntourist at 17000 ft Foundation, Devika describes her experience here as – “Village home-stays, Ladakhi culture and society, school workshops, palaces, local food (and loos), monasteries, monasteries and more monasteries; truckloads from Ladakh is coming on this space. Watch out!”
Patagonia region in Latin America is also a prime location for voluntourism. According to Swoop Patagonia, there are various projects where the tourists can contribute and make a difference. You can choose between different projects:
- Ecosystem-based projects: huemul tracking, removing exotic plants that are threatening native species, collecting and planting seeds, organic farming, and natural building
- Community projects: tutoring children and teenagers, operating a community radio, teaching and/or assisting at a local library, helping at a daycare centre or assisting people with intellectual disabilities, supporting communities affected by mining, creating animated movies explaining the dangers of metal mining exploitation.
The region is also home to the beautiful Torres del Paine National Park, the surreal Perito Moreno Glacier, the Fitz Roy mountain and many beautiful lakes which make it an absolutely stunning place to visit.
Is Voluntourism cheaper?
Voluntourism can also provide cheaper travel options. Since the tourists are working in the development projects in the host nations, the accommodation and food are often taken care of by the hosts. Some organizations also provide a grant for voluntourism. Travelocity’s ‘Travel for Good’ initiative, for instance, provides a giveaway for voluntourism to boost traveling for good. However, for the most part, a volunteer trip also means spending your own money, just like a regular trip.
Does Voluntourism require volunteer expertise?
In general, Voluntourism does not require any special skills or expertise, since everyone can contribute in one way or another. However, it is always helpful if one has certain skills which can be put to use. For instance, a teacher or someone who specializes in teaching methodologies can always help with the local schools. Many voluntourists who are proficient in English help assist the locals with English lessons.
Often, volunteers work as support staff for the experienced staff working on the ground. According to Fahima Adam, who is a nutrition project manager in South Africa, volunteers definitely make a difference. She suggests here: “The most important way volunteers help is by providing extra hands. When we do growth monitoring, we take the heights and weights of, on average, 30-100 children per session. If it was only me taking these measures, I wouldn’t be able to monitor nearly as many children as that.”
If is often said that travelling changes one. The new roads, the new people, the new experiences: all of which have a profound impact on our otherwise ordinary lives. However, with the increasing corporatisation and improved facilities which make you feel at home, travelling is losing its genuineness with more and more travellers feeling like an outsider, instead of really experiencing the place.
Voluntourism provides an opportunity for an altogether different travelling experience. There’s an element of excitement because you’re new to the place. At the same time, there’s a sense of connection with the place and the cause you’re working for, which makes one feel better.
There are also psychological and health related reasons which makes voluntourism a splendid option for you. A research done by Corporation of National and Community Service titled ‘The Health benefits of Volunteering’ showed that there is a positive relationship between health and volunteering. In fact, people who volunteer tend to have greater longevity and lower levels of depression.
Since voluntourists work in a group setting, it also provides a unique opportunity to interact and work with a team, thereby improving one’s understanding of team dynamics and ability to adapt, lead or communicate in a social setting.
In essence, voluntourism is an opportunity for voluntary service in a destination while inculcating the traditional elements of travel and tourism such as art and architecture, geography, culture and history of the destination in ourselves to provide an enriching and engaging experience.
What you need to be careful of?
There are certain general precautions which one should take care of while voluntouring:
- Get copies of your identification, keep them along at all times
- Get travel insurance
- Carry a list of any medical conditions or allergies
- Get any necessary vaccinations
- Learn as much as possible about the culture of the place before coming
Recently, voluntouring has also raised some ethical concerns. Studies have shown that certain programs, such as working in an orphanage or school can have detrimental effects on both the community and the children. For example, children can form close attachments to volunteers and face abandonment issues once those volunteers leave. For the same reason, UNICEF campaign is even aiming to end short-term service in orphanages.
It should also be noted that voluntourists’ ability to change systems, alleviate poverty or provide support for vulnerable children is limited. Since voluntourism trips are often short, it would be unreasonable to expect big changes in such a short time-frame. It has also been seen that many voluntourists also inadvertently perpetuate patronising and unhelpful ideas about the places they visit.
Considering these ethical concerns, it is important to undertake voluntourism in a responsible manner. According to Will Coldwell, a reporter for TheGuardian Travel, there are certain fundamental questions that one needs to ask oneself before engaging with a voluntourism organisation:
- Ask your volunteer organisation to break down where the money you pay will go
- Ask for evidence of how previous volunteers have made a difference
- If you are not qualified to do it in your own nation, don’t do it abroad
- Be wary of the length of the project
- Always remember that the community needs come ahead of yours
Where to find Voluntourism opportunities?
These websites provide information and tips on Voluntourism:
- VolunTourism – For tips and weekly newsletters on voluntourism.
- Voluntourism 101 – Dos and Don’ts for Planning a volunteer vacation
- The Guardian Blog – How to find ethical voluntourism project
These organisations provide Voluntourism opportunities:
- 17000 ft Foundation – Organisation based out of Ladakh, India
- PEPY Tours – Voluntourism in Nepal and Cambodia
- Swoop Patagonia – Volunteering opportunities in Patagonia
- Projects Abroad – Volunteering opportunities in more than 25 nations
- GoEco – A blend of Ecotourism and Voluntourism – Volunteering for ecological and humanitarian projects
- One World 365 – Aims to make travel meaningful through worldwide options for volunteering and offshore temporary holiday jobs.
- American Hiking Society – The organisation runs volunteer vacations in the form of trail building projects in the US.
- Go Voluntouring – A user-friendly search engine for volunteer abroad projects culled from a variety of organizations.
- Sierra Club – One of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the country, offers everything from family backpacking trips in your own state to wildlife safaris in Kenya to volunteering on a Hawaiian farming community
- Amizade – The organisation has a partnership with 11 countries, including the U.S., Brazil, India and Tanzania. Individuals can join existing programs or groups can customize a program, such as youth empowerment, construction and maintenance.
Where will you go voluntouring next?