Voluntourism: Good Times and Good Works
by Steve Kallaugher
Most people come home from vacation with a nice tan and a suitcase full of souvenirs. Carolyn Bentley returned from a trip she took with her 17-year-old daughter, Julia, with a new outlook on life â€“ and a renewed bond with her child.
â€œIt was life changing,â€ says Bentley. â€œItâ€™s an amazing way to grow yourself and develop bonds with others. You become part of the country, instead of just looking at it out a window.â€
With those sentences, Bentley sums up the appeal of one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry: Voluntourism.
Euromonitor International announced at the 2006 Travel Trust Association Conference in London that Voluntourism will be one of four key growth areas in travel over the next three to four years. A 2006 Travel Forecast poll conducted by Travelocity revealed that 15% of travelers planned on taking a volunteer, educational or religious trip this year. Thatâ€™s an increase over last yearâ€™s record, when more than 65,000 Americans traveled overseas for volunteer vacations, according to the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA)
â€œVoluntourism isnâ€™t simply growing in popularity, itâ€™s exploding,â€ says Delta Willis, communications manager for the Earthwatch Institute. She cites two reasons for its emergence. â€œFirst, the fantastic growth of adventure travel. Second, the increasing number of travelers who want to learn or do good deeds.â€
Globe Awareâ€™s experience confirms this: Enrollment in the companyâ€™s programs has increased 40% each year since 2001. According to Executive Director Kimberly Haley-Coleman, â€œVoluntourism is flourishing at such a rate it is hard to comprehend. September 11 changed everything. When that was followed by the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, it made everyone aware of how much is needed. People want to make a concrete connection, to give more than money.â€
Getting More Than You Give
The voluntourist concept was born with the establishment of the Peace Corps in 1960. But devoting two years of oneâ€™s life to volunteering in a distant country isnâ€™t possible for most people. Still, as a generation of travelers wandered further off the beaten path in their search for adventure, they saw the face of need first handâ€”and they came home determined to do something about it.
Ask any voluntourist why he or she takes precious time from work to serve others and, chances are, youâ€™ll get the same response: â€œI got so much more than I gave.â€
Indeed, Voluntourism is by far the best way to experience in depth the country youâ€™re visiting. Working, eating, and living with local residents takes you out of the bubble most tourists live in, and away from well traveled tourist haunts. It breaks down the barriers that most travelers face, giving you a much deeper understanding of the culture, challenges, and pleasures of the people who live there.
A voluntour vacation may not be a day at the beach, but voluntourists come home refreshed from the changeâ€”even if some projects can be demanding work. Theyâ€™re also filled with accomplishment and a sense that their spirits have been replenished as well. For time-pressed professionals and their families, who might not be able to volunteer regularly at home because of their busy schedules, a voluntourist vacation offers a means of connecting, not only with themselves, but with their desire to give back.
A Voluntour for Every Taste
Then again, a volunteer trip may well be a day at the beachâ€”literally. There are thousands of opportunities in every part the world, so you can choose a program and place that suites your passion.
Most voluntourist organizations, of course, focus their efforts on less developed parts of the world where the need is greatest- from Nepal and Vietnam to Ghana and Botswana, from Peru and Nicaragua to the Cook Islandsâ€¦volunteer opportunities in the developing world tend more towards humanitarian aid and development projects, such as Globe Awareâ€™s project assembling wheelchairs in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Questions to ponder while planning your trip:
- Where in the world do I want to go?
- What cause means the most to me-humanitarian, educational, medical, environmental, professional?
- How much time do I want to devote?
- What are the physical requirements of the work and living conditions?
- Do I need to know the local language? How can I learn at least a few phrases?
- What immunizations will I need?
- Is the organization a recognized 501(c) (3) that accounts for how its money is spent and how much it gives to the local community?
- Is my trip tax deductible?
- How much experience has the organization had in the country?
- Can I speak to previous volunteers about their experiences?
- What background reading can I do about the country and culture?
Steve Kallaugher is a freelance writer and veteran voluntourist.