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Jan 29

Voluntourism – ‘Giving Back’ As Much As We Take Away

Not all volunteer experiences have to be hard work – you can volunteer at places like Monkey Mia in Western Australia and spend your days getting friendly with the dolphins!

Most people take a holiday to relax not work, yet giving something back to a place, rather than simply taking away – whether it be a bundle of beautiful memories or a suitcase of souvenirs – is the aim of a rising number of travellers. Tagging turtles for a conservation project or reading stories to kids at an orphanage are activities increasingly being included on travel itineraries. They’re the kind that are going to be on our to-do list too this year.

Voluntourism, that is, travel that integrates a volunteer experience, is a growing travel trend. This increasing sense of altruism might be the result of the global economic crisis and frustration with our world’s increasing materialism, a mounting desire for self-fulfillment and gaining wisdom through challenging experiences, or a need to make a difference and make the world a better place. Or it might simply be representative of a wish to better connect and more meaningfully engage with the places we visit and people we meet. Either way, in our opinion, it’s a good thing.

Whatever the reason, the volunteer experience is no longer the domain of spirited young people on their gap year or post-graduates seeking to expand their CV. Nowadays, people of all ages and backgrounds are looking for ways in which they can combine travelling for pleasure with working for good.

The idea isn’t new of course. Selfless individuals have long been taking time out of their everyday lives – anything from six weeks to six months, or even a year or two – to devote themselves to working voluntarily for overseas charities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and environmental projects, doing everything from building schools in impoverished communities in Africa to caring for mistreated elephants in Thailand.

The US Peace Corps is widely considered to be the first formal organization that was established with the aim of facilitating volunteer help to disadvantaged communities overseas, and a handful of NGOs with a more global reach quickly followed, including Earthwatch, which recruits volunteers for environmental and conservation projects, and Habitat for Humanity, which works with volunteers around the world to build homes for those in need.

In more recent years, new initiatives have demonstrated that volunteer opportunities are being increasingly sought by more travellers from all walks of life. For instance, Travelocity established Travel For Good, partnering with a number of organizations – from the scientific-focused GlobeAware to international ‘volunteer abroad’ organization Cross Cultural Solutions – to offer opportunities, as well as grants for ‘Change Ambassadors’.

More people are also seeking shorter experiences. Let’s face it, not everyone can afford to take a year or even six months off work, and volunteer experiences can be expensive. Some want to involve the whole family as part of the kid’s education or a bonding experience. And isn’t it better to volunteer for a short time than not at all? Surely going back home and telling friends about the experience, and raising greater awareness about the situations and ways to help, is as important as travellers getting their hands dirty?

Five star hotels are increasingly meeting travellers’ needs by offering volunteer packages, such as the Ritz-Carlton’s ‘Give Back Getaways’, which include excursions and activities intended to connect guests with the communities they’re visiting. So while we’re working with HomeAwayUK (AKA HomeAway Holiday-Rentals) over the next year, we’ll be trying to instill a desire in travellers who we meet and who read our site to ‘give back’ too.

This year we’re on a mission to seek out and identify opportunities to ‘give back’ in the destinations we visit. We recognize that not everyone can devote two weeks to a volunteer experience, and that raising awareness about experiences is equally valuable. We also appreciate that families, couples, and groups of friends renting holiday homes might want to participate in an opportunity together.

So in the year ahead (and even after our grand tour is over) we’ll be searching for short-term experiences, from one day to a week to a month that we can cover on this blog – whether it’s a tree-planting, working at an animal refuge, serving lunch at a soup kitchen, reading story books to orphans, kicking a football around with impoverished kids, or participating in clean-up campaigns. We’ll file them under ‘Charitable Deeds’ in the categories list in the right column of this site, so you can find them.

Next week we’ll announce our 2010 destinations. If you know of any short term volunteer experiences in the places we’re visiting that we can come and get a taste of and cover for this blog, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re also keen to get your thoughts on volunteering. Is it something you’ve thought about doing on your next holiday? Have you had a volunteering experience before and if so, what was it like, what did you get out of it, is it something you would recommend, and do you have any tips to share?

4 comments

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  1. Petulia

    Hi Lara,

    I think you make a great point here. It is extremely important to give back to the country and community we visit and work in. For this reason, at Context we have started a Foundation for Sustainable Travel. We support a project in each of the cities we work in and find a way for our clients and ourselves to give back. You can find out more about it here: http://www.contextfoundation.org/

    1. Lara Dunston

      Gosh, missed this post – we were so busy at the time, apologies!

      Thank you! We just interviewed Paul about the Foundation of course, and that story will go up this week.

  2. TheLuxPod

    I think this is a brilliant concept. It is far more rewarding to be a visitor and not a tourist. I have been traveling to Liepaja, Latvia for the past 5 years and now have two properties listed with HomeAway. I have accommodated many Latvians in my apartment in London so they can have an opportunity to experience a thriving city and hopefully take some ideas back home. Next week I have been invited to the Council to provide some marketing concepts which may assist tourism in the beautiful old town of Liepaja. It all takes time, but it feels immensely satisfying to help others. One never knows where small, incremental steps will lead.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks LuxPod! Totally agree with you! See this post here: http://grantourismotravels.com/2010/07/22/giving-back-it-doesnt-take-much-to-make-a-difference/

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