Voluntourism: Not "a day at the beach," Better!

August 8, 2011 in Travel, Volunteer Travel

Where is the stereotypical, lounging vacationer?, Image by Flickr user Micky

For most people, a vacation means snoozing on the beach, catching rays by the lake, or reading for pleasure, but a new trend in tourism suggests that a vacation can be a truly life changing experience. Volunteer tourism, also known as volunteer travel or voluntourism, is a new type of vacation that incorporates sightseeing with service, allowing participants to visit and learn about a new place and culture while using their skills and passions to make a difference.

Groups like Cross-Cultural Solutions, Global Volunteers, Voluntourism.org and Hands Up Holidays arrange these trips, providing clients with opportunities to better the local communities they visit as well as to relax and tour. Trips can last a single week or up to three months, and while most occur in a variety of countries, Voluntourism.org also provides opportunities to take volunteer vacations within the U.S.

A variety of service projects are available to suit your interests and skills, including building and renovation, teaching English, assisting in medical facilities, and supporting environmental preservation. Most organizations equally encourage families, couples, and single volunteers, though some countries and projects may require different different ages and skill sets.

Although many of these trips require demanding, physical work, organizations provide varying levels of comfort and activity. You may choose a trip that truly matches your interests and lifestyle. Most trips provide free time in the evenings and on weekends to explore the surrounding area on your own, but some trips stress this more than others. Hands Up Holidays, for example, describes its vacations as “luxury” and offers just a “taste” of volunteering, while Voluntourism.org seeks truly dedicated volunteers who are willing to put a lot of time and thought into their service experience.

And now the question we’ve all been waiting for: How much does it cost? Of course this depends on where you’re going and how long you’re staying, but in general it seems trips organized through the groups mentioned above are not outrageously expensive, but also not the least expensive way to go. Many fall between $1,000 and $3,000, not including airfare. It’s important to recognize, however, that in many cases this fee includes guided service experience and other cultural activities like language lessons or field trips in addition to lodging and food. Sure it might be cheaper to fly to Thailand, stay in a hotel by the beach and lounge the day away, but you won’t necessarily learn anything about Thai culture, and you certainly won’t be helping anyone besides the owner of the hotel (assuming you stay put in your hotel beach chair). 

If you are on a tight budget, never fear, there are inexpensive ways to volunteer! (pardon the rhyme). Instead of allowing a volunteer travel agency to do the work for you, plan your own trip around a certain service event like a beach or park clean up, or contact an organization directly to ask if you can help out during your vacation. Though this requires more work on your part, you’ll escape the administrative/organizational fees included in the previously mentioned packaged trips.

Of course, voluntourism isn’t for everyone. Critics argue that it’s just another gimmick to get well-meaning individuals to take expensive, exotic vacations guilt-free. They claim that the various projects completed by vacationers don’t make a real impact on the lives of locals and voluntourism organizations could conceivably take advantage of poor communities around the world to sell trip packages.

I see how voluntourism could be suspiciously good to be true (who would pay to volunteer during time off??), I think that overall the heart of volunteer travel is in the right place. Normally vacations are for relaxing and concentrating on personal and family indulgences. Volunteer tourism, on the other hand, recommends that you accomplish more with your time off: improve the well-being of others around the world and more deeply understand different communities and cultures. For me, that sure beats a day at the beach!

Check out Matador Network’s Complete Guide to Volunteer Tourism to see if it’s right for you!


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