Volunteer tourism: is it for you? Also called “voluntourism,” it’s a growing travel trend. About two million people a year–spending $2 billion–go abroad and donate their time to help a favorite cause.
Given the world situation, volunteering certainly seems noble. But there are only so many vacation days and so much extra money…can you “afford” to give up either? A tough, but honest question. Let’s think this through together.
Why do people choose volunteer tourism?
Typically, some of the reasons volunteer tourism is appealing include:
- “I want to make a difference.” Much like the famous Starfish Story, people choose to help others, one-by-one. Whether it’s teaching English, saving an endangered animal, or providing clean water, these volunteers just want to do their part.
- “I want to understand a culture.” These voluntourists seek an immersion experience. They dive in, living with those they seek to help. Each learns from the other.
- “I want to see the world in a new/different way.” Tired of taking trips and snapping photos of food? Volunteer to dig a little deeper in whatever cause is important. Choose a favorite destination or take the leap and try a totally new place.
- “I want to get a new perspective.” When boredom or burn-out take hold, volunteering can help restore energy and faith in the world. After a stint, people return home with a clear eye, grateful for what they have and the life they have built.
- “I want to teach/heal/build…” Folks who have a special skill or training enjoy applying their craft in a different and useful way. They have something solid to offer and are happy to teach or share it.
- “I want to build my career.” Admit it, using vacation time or a gap year to volunteer looks damn good on a resume. Hopefully, it also promotes personal growth and empathy, but that’s not the primary goal.
There is nothing wrong with any of these reasons. Volunteers should simply be clear about why they want to help. They should also know what type of program or cause they’re truly interested in. And maybe most important: The program is ethical and 100 percent invested in those it seeks to help. Do some homework before signing on.
For an excellent introduction to volunteer travel, read this blog post: How to Ethically Volunteer Anywhere in the World. Written by Shannon O’Donnell as a guest post for NomadicMatt, it’s solid advice for anyone considering voluntourism.
Shannon has also written The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. Get it to really understand this niche of the travel industry…and how responsible volunteering really works.
How to find the right volunteer tourism opportunity
Ready to go? The best way to start is to visit–and bookmark–Volunteer Forever for a comprehensive overview and list of programs waiting for enthusiastic workers. It lists 800 international projects and organizations, complete with 3,500 reviews.
Volunteer Forever also checks on each one, with research and follow-up over a five-year period. The site lets you filter by destination, purpose, and affordability. (Yes, there is some cost involved, from bare-bones to upscale.) No matter what your interest, from environment to stray pets to post-hurricane building…your help is needed.
Want to help AND see the world? Sure!
Suppose you want to combine travel with volunteering. Not a bad idea! Consider these:
- Italy: Wow! Naples needs all kinds of volunteers, from teaching to archeology. $685 for two weeks, including accommodations and meals in a dormitory. Cheap Italian lessons are available.
- Costa Rica: Want to save the sea turtles? Work in a health clinic? There are twelve projects to choose from. Cost starts at $365 a week. Do your part, then get out and explore this magnificent country!
- Belgium: Yes, even in the middle of Europe, volunteer tourism thrives. The disadvantaged, as well as refugees, await your assistance. For $495 a week, work in a mobile library or help with food outreach.
- Peru: Hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, then return to Cusco to join a jungle conservation project or help renovate buildings. This will only cost $320 a week, with the chance to have a one-week “mini-adventure” included.
The downside of volunteer travel
It’s easy to say that all volunteer tourism is good. But you should know that not everyone agrees. Some critics say that just the act of advertising and recruiting volunteers detracts from an organization’s mission, both financially and logistically.
Others point out that the discrepancy between volunteers and those they serve is not altruistic. For example, when privileged whites flock to sub-Sahara Africa for a unique experience, and post selfies with the poor blacks they’re supposed to “help,” what is the real purpose of their trip?
Some social scientists worry that volunteer tourism creates an unhealthy relationship between the host programs and the wealthy visitors. Instead of addressing the real cause of a problem, volunteers offer a “band-aid” solution. Building new homes certainly provides shelter, but what about the lack of education and training that enables people to get jobs? When parents dump their children at orphanages, should more effort be made to assist the parents rather than encourage them to take their children where food and shelter are available?
These are big questions and there are no fast solutions. But you may want to choose your volunteer experience based on how programs are tackling the Big Picture.
More about ethical travel issues: