Do your share to help create sustainable change around the world and get more than beachside selfies out of your next holiday
Helping to raise awareness on animal conservation in Africa. Lending a hand to rebuild houses in a typhoon-hit nation. Working as a part-time teacher to educate under-privileged children while travelling in a new country.
Welcome to one of the fastest growing trends in the travel industry today: voluntourism.
“Voluntourism is a combination of both volunteering and tourism. If you are looking to visit a foreign country while using your time effectively for a noble cause, then a voluntourism trip is for you,” says Nicola Lee, director general at Projects Abroad UAE.
With 1.6 million volunteers overseas each year, industry observers predict that voluntourism will become even more popular as travellers look for worthwhile things to do while on holiday.
On a mission
The concept of visiting a foreign land to dabble in part-time volunteer work is nothing new.
For years, people have travelled with an aim of improving the lives of others or a desire to help boost local economies and promote sustainable initiatives in local populations. Many trips offered by travel companies include opportunities to get involved in promoting worthwhile causes such as working with endangered species or in poverty-stricken areas. Often, these initiatives also provide vital employment opportunities for local people, offering them a stable income and the chance to improve their skills through training and education.
Voluntourism as a concept hit a high in the early 2000s, and has continued to grow, but that’s not to say the concept didn’t exist before then. The New York-based Projects Abroad, for example, has been sending volunteers on special assignments around the world since 1992 – long before the term ‘voluntourism’ was coined.
Recent advancements in the travel industry, combined with more widespread social awareness, have seen the concept gain even more traction over the past couple of decades.
To that end, activities have grown in diversity, giving interested participants the chance to sign up to work on projects close to their hearts, whether that’s building schools or joining research projects for wildlife conservation.
Countries that are popular among volunteers include Cambodia, Nepal, Ghana,
Sri Lanka and South Africa and participants include students, regular tourists and retirees.
“There has been a huge increase in the number of volunteers wanting to join our conservation projects with the rise in awareness of the need to conserve the environment we live in,” says Nicola.
“Meanwhile, our care and teaching projects working with children in schools and care centres is a common type of volunteer tourism.
“There is also the option to do research or get involved in other more specialised areas including medicine and health care, building, sports, archaeology, international development, micro-finance, veterinary medicine, animal care, social work and law and human rights.”
She continues: “We do work with impoverished people in our communities and we do not take this responsibility lightly. We have to ensure that we are working with the community and these vulnerable people to meet their needs, help alleviate poverty and have a positive impact on the local people.”
If you’re planning to do overseas volunteer work, you first need to look for a credible provider. Make use of volunteer reviews and do your research by getting directly in touch with organisations to better understand their programmes and policies.
“If you go with a reputable organisation, then you can expect that the amount you will pay will cover accommodation, meals, insurance, 24/7 staff back up and support, airport transfers, transportation to and from volunteer projects, and resources to assist the volunteer activities,” Nicola enumerates.
“However, it does differ from company to company. Some will exclude destination transport, food and insurance, so it’s worth being careful.
“It is also worth going with an organisation where there are lots of other volunteers because this significantly enhances the social experience and is more enjoyable.”
She adds, “Unfortunately, there can be some companies who take your money but never actually see the projects. That’s why we always recommend going with a company that has its own full-time staff in the country and not some third party that it outsources to.”
Try to speak with an organisation alumni or representative in person or over the phone so you can ask direct questions that will help you decide if this is the right project for you.
Voluntourism has also had plenty of bad press. Sceptics question the sincerity and capabilities of volunteers, pointing out that some are only in it for show, as a means to boost their public profile or pad out their CV.
There are also concerns about the proliferation of shoddy groups, often ill-equipped to carry out worthwhile projects and who end up pocketing the money of volunteers and exploiting the underprivileged for their own needs.
Another concern is the question of whether constant volunteer work is creating an environment of over-dependency for outside help while simultaneously depriving
locals of jobs that they could do themselves. This is why it’s important to only book via reputable organisations that are experienced and have sound infrastructures in place to guide volunteers while keeping the best interests of the communities visited at heart.
Despite these concerns, there is certainly a positive impact that comes from an ethically-sound voluntourism project.
“We think [voluntourism] fundamentally changes the outlook of an individual,” Nicola reflects.“They will see problems in a different light and it will help with their social skills and [they will] improve as a person.
“It also creates great links and relationships with other people that they meet on a volunteer trip, from vastly different countries. This includes the local people as well as the various nationalities and countries that our volunteers travel with us from.
“It is important to see what life is like on the other side. Many of us are fortunate to come from a privileged position and background. Exploring how other people live their lives helps you to appreciate what you have got and how fortunate you are.”
Need to know
Interested in volunteering on your next travel adventure? Check out these websites
to find out more about potential projects…
Projects Abroad – projects-abroad.ae
Volunteer Service Overseas – vsointernational.org
Operation Smile UAE – arabemirates.operationsmile.org
GVI – gvi.co.uk
People and Places – travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk
Go Abroad – goabroad.com
World Expeditions – worldexpeditions.com
The Great Projects – thegreatprojects.com
Blue Ventures – blueventures.org
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez