If you have vacationed in Guatemala, it is highly likely you have visited the stunning Mayan ruins. It is highly unlikely you have visited the garbage dump, which is home to the poorest slum dwellers of the city, where children scavenge for their daily bread. You may have marvelled at the wildlife in Costa Rica’s national parks but might be surprised to learn that you could do your bit to save the endangered leatherback turtles in the country. There is hardly any doubt that a trip to Egypt would include sighing over the mysticism of the Sphinx but it is highly doubtful if there would be any sighing over the plight of the impoverished orphans of the country.
Why does anyone go on a vacation? For relaxing, having fun or spending time with the family. But what if you could delight your daughter by a trip to a wildlife sanctuary and put a smile on an orphan’s face at the same time? Or glow in the satisfaction that you have not only filled your shopping bags but also a homeless person’s life with laughter!
Welcome to volunteer tourism, commonly known as Voluntourism – tourism combined with volunteer work; a holiday with a difference – where you can make a difference. You can volunteer your time, skills or energy to a cause while on a vacation. It is a wonderful way of experiencing a country, its sights, culture and people while making a worthwhile contribution to society at the same time. This relatively new travel concept is fast gaining popularity as it offers a chance to make a positive difference while enjoying various tourist activities.
Before you jump onto the voluntourism bandwagon, pause and consider a few points:
Decide on your interest level first. Do you want to spend a small part of your holiday doing volunteer work with main focus on tourism; or the voluntary work is primary with the fun thrown in as an add-on. Once you are clear about that choose a suitable project accordingly. The chance of your contribution being worthwhile will depend much on how well the project matches your aim. So give this some careful thought.
Tourism is my primary focus – If tourism is first on your agenda, there are lot of places you can search for the cause suited to your tastes and convenience. Identify and make a list of the suitable trips (you can choose by location/activity). Contact the tour operators for the trips, which interest you and check with them about volunteering opportunities on their trip. You may also check the official tourism websites of the respective country you want to visit. Often, adventure tour operators have volunteer activities on their itineraries for those interested.
Off the Radar, a website Xola Consulting launched with a monthly newsletter dedicated to supporting adventure travel operators committed to communities and the environment.
Voluntourism International, a non-profit organization, which frequently reviews companies with volunteer service trips, gives information about voluntourism in their newsletter and website (under Worldwide Options)
The volunteer work is my primary focus – If volunteer work is the main thing on your mind, you will be spoilt for choice; there are a thousand options out there to ‘do good’. You can sift through the options, narrow down the search according to your field of interest, city, hours etc.
Transitions Abroad magazine and website is a wonderful resource dedicated to volunteering and working abroad.
Idealist.org with a vast, expanding database of over 61,000 non-profit and community organizations in 165 countries is another excellent resource.
Peter Greenberg’s travel site also contains useful information on Voluntourism with links to some of the large, global organizations like Airline Ambassadors, Globe Aware and i-to-i.
Lonely Planet is another reliable resource with great tips and information.
Bill McMahon’s book Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others is another great place to look for ideas.
If your ‘voluntour’ is to really be fruitful, there are a few important points you should check on. Ask basic questions about fees, accommodation and nature of work etc. Also find out about the tour operator. It has been found that tour operators and NGO’s are faced with 3 main challenges:
Corruption – Tour operators may sometimes be unaware of fund mismanagement or issues like ‘hired orphans’ to keep donations coming in. Check on the worthiness of the tour operator or NGOs, how long they have been operating, their past record and experiences, their understanding of the local language and needs and the impact they have made on the community.
Sustainability – Check on the involvement of the local community, if it is missing, the project cannot be successful on a long-term basis. Check if the program results in self-empowerment of the community ultimately; find out the long term goals of the organization and how they are working towards sustainability.
Unintended Consequences – Sometimes organisations generate needs for services and products in a community that they are not capable of supporting long term. Sometimes the needs are ‘created’ and did not exist in the community. So check if the project has identified the real local needs and is working towards fulfilment of those.
Voluntourism is a great way of putting back something valuable into the society from which we draw so much. With a little caution and checks, the contribution of a ‘traveller with a conscience’ can go a long way in creating a positive difference in many needy lives. The following testimonials are the best way to sum up the case:
“Not only did I get to experience the beauty of the country, but the memories of this trip will be edged in my mind and my soul forever” Annie Diaz Toro, Florida.
“The bottle school trip to Guatemala was the most life changing and memorable of all my travel experiences! The trip was truly magical and I came back with heart felt inspiration, really knowing deep inside our ability to make a difference in the world and how we learn and grow from other cultures and their values.” Mike Azcue, CEO, World Ventures.
Someone out there may be waiting for you to put a little sunshine into their lives!