Most people take a holiday to relax not work, yet giving 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, including ourselves.

Tagging turtles for a conservation project, being a bear-keeper for a day, planting trees in an area stripped of its natural forest, building homes for poverty stricken families, or kicking a football around with underprivileged kids at a school, are all examples of voluntourism and are the kinds of activities increasingly being included on travel itineraries. And not without some controversy.

While we don’t condone orphanage tourism, and we appreciate that not all voluntourism is good, we try to give back as much as we take away when we travel and will be endeavouring to contribute to places whenever and wherever we can, even in small ways.

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-fulfilment and gaining wisdom through challenges, 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 as travellers.

Either way, in our opinion, when the volunteer experience is necessary and it’s appropriate, and it’s not taking jobs away from locals, it can be a wonderful thing for the volunteer as much as the communities in need.

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 travelling to do 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 organisations (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 in a volunteer activity, 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 over the next year, we’ll be trying to instil a desire in travellers we meet and who read our site to ‘give back’ too, even if it’s in a small way, such as buying local products from an NGO.

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 small ways and short-term experiences, from a product you can buy that contributes to the empowerment of an individual or community or a one day to a week-long volunteer activity that we can cover on this blog.

Whether it’s tree-planting, working at an animal refuge, serving lunch at a soup kitchen, kicking a football around with impoverished school kids, or participating in clean-up campaigns, we want to hear about them.

We’ll tag them ‘charitable deeds’, and file them in Local under Participate, so you can find them.

Next week we’ll announce our 2010 destinations. If you have ideas or tips for us as to how we can give back in any of the places we’re going to, we’d love to hear from you.

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