Guide to Voluntourism: See The World While Helping Others


VoluntourismRoam the planet and do some good while your at it.

Like so many other things, travel has suffered as a result of the economic downturn. People are being choosy about how they spend their spare dollars, and leisurely trips to Paris and Milan simply aren’t making the cut as often as they used to. Many people who are able to travel are taking a long, hard look at destination choices, and what kinds of additional benefits or advantages they might be able to squeeze out of the experience. Filling this need is volunteer travel. Popularly referred to as “voluntourism,” it gives travelers a chance to explore a new destination, make a meaningful conservation or social difference while there, and have fun in the process.

“Voluntourism is a travel style that combines the best of an exciting, fun adventure and cultural trip to one of the iconic or lesser known adventure destinations around the world, with a few days of planned volunteer work within a local community in that location,” offers Richard G. Edwards, director of Toronto-based Planeterra. Edwards adds that voluntourism allows travelers the opportunity to give back in a meaningful and productive way to the people and places they visit, helping to preserve cultural heritage, conserve the natural environment, and support sustainable community development.

Trips are structured differently depending on the travel company, the age and other specific dynamics of the participants, the season or environment, and the location. Financial and time commitments also vary widely, but time is always built in so that travelers can fully explore their surroundings. On some trips, volunteer activities happen before or after an organized vacation. Edwards explains that while Planeterra’s travelers support themselves financially in the community where the trip takes place (and also pay for their own flights, food, and lodging), most of the cost of a trip goes to cover outside activities such as hiking, biking, safaris and wildlife viewing, or other aspects of the trip that happen before or after volunteering.

“The concept,” says Edwards, “is that your time and effort are a contribution to that community, and you are there to have only a positive impact, without using resources that would otherwise be for the community. Food and lodging during the few days spent volunteering are generally a small portion of the overall cost of a voluntourism, and some organizations like ourselves include an additional financial contribution to the local project into the cost of the trip.”

Edwards says that he has seen a growing trend over the last several years, with an increasing number of travelers looking for authentic interaction with local people in the places they visit. Travelers, he feels, want to experience the local culture and people in a way that resembles as closely as possible being a local.

“Parallel to that,” says Edwards, “the recent recession has caused many people to reassess their priorities and begin to understand that giving of themselves to those with fewer advantages is a vital aspect of a full life. Those two trends have merged to fuel the growth of voluntourism. Giving back by giving of yourself fulfills needs for both the traveler and the people and local environments they visit around the world.”

Interested in finding out for yourself what a volunteer vacation has to offer in the way of self-fulfillment and positive global change? While it’s not possible to list the thousands of trips that are available, we’ve offered you a sampling to help you get started, along with several resources that can provide information on more trips at home and abroad.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

VoluntourismThe RSPB was founded by volunteers in 1889. Today, as part of the RSPB’s Residential Volunteering Scheme, you can stay on one of 39 bird and wildlife reserves located throughout the United Kingdom, and assist with all aspects of the reserve’s operation and conservation programs, from working in the gift shop and conducting surveys, to building fences and planting reed beds. Stays are week-long, with longer options available. Accommodations are provided on-site or nearby.

Aboriginal Volunteering

VoluntourismTravel Volunteering, or Voluntourism, is a fantastic way to see the world and help others. The US non-profit foundation Global Citizens Network arranges trips around the world. This excursion, composed of six to 12 volunteers, joins rural communities in Alberta to experience authentic First Nations lifestyles, while learning about the challenges they face in protecting and maintaining their language, culture, and traditional way of life. Volunteers work on specific projects to help toward those goals.

Kibbutz Volunteer

VoluntourismIf you’re between the ages of 18 and 35 and have a minimum of two months available to travel, a kibbutz can be a rewarding place to spend it. A kibbutz is a self-supporting community that operates on the premise that everyone is provided with what they need, and that everyone shares equally in the work and operation of the community. You’ll work six days a week, doing whatever is assigned to you, from gardening and cooking to cleaning and building. English will get you by, though Hebrew language immersion stays are available.

Conservation Volunteers International Program (VIP)

VoluntourismBased in California, this non-profit works to support sustainable development and protection of parks, cultural sites, and wilderness areas, while promoting their concept of “green diplomacy” between landowners, developers, communities, and local governments. Current short and long-term opportunities to protect natural habitat and promote eco-tourism exist in Chile, Australia, and New Zealand.

British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV)

VoluntourismBased in Britain, BTCV offers over 200 volunteer holidays annually. Work assignments vary widely, but there’s plenty of off time to explore the surroundings. Program examples include hiking trails and glaciers in Iceland, nest building on the Black Sea in Bulgaria, and tree planting in Cameroon.

Biosphere Expeditions

VoluntourismThis award-winning, non-profit organization leads conservation volunteer expeditions around the planet, ranging from a few days to a few weeks in length. Projects include protecting wildlife, preserving habitat, and helping to support the survival of indigenous communities. Choices including working to protect snow leopards in the mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia, coral reef conservation in Honduras, and working to save jaguar, puma, and parrot habitat in the Amazon region of Peru. The newest program focuses on turtles in Western Australia.

Appalachian Trail Conference Trail Crew

VoluntourismGet outside, and help build and maintain wilderness paths and tracks along the 2,000 mile long Appalachian Trail, home to many endangered or threatened species. In exchange for backcountry work, volunteers are fed and provided with basic accommodations.

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)

VoluntourismIn exchange for farm work, volunteers receive food and accommodations along with the opportunity to get first-hand experience at growing and producing organic crops and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. Hosts and Willing Workers on Organic Farms programs are available in 53 countries, with the length of stay negotiable. The type of work depends on the crop and stage of production, from tilling and planting to harvesting. Farms and holdings may also include livestock.

By Debra Bokur

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