Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When Tourism Doesn't Mean Vacation

Alli and kids on a project in Bolivia
My first Christmas in Peru was spent in a children’s hospital and orphanage for specials needs kids in Lima. Through this experience, Christmas came to mean something new to me--it’s about reaching out to complete strangers and giving the gift of caring and time. Those precious moments started me on a lifetime of volunteering, including teaching English to kids selling post cards to tourists in Peru, and working as a volunteer for various “official” organisations around the world. 

I’ve often wondered what inspires individuals to reach out to a community and help. For some, it’s a status thing (“Hey, look at me! I just spent a month in Africa handing out rice. I’m such a good Samaritan!), but for most, it’s a chance to help and connect with people from a different culture.

I worked for 15 years in the travel industry and had many, many clients combine a stint of volunteer work with a regular holiday. The term “voluntourism” is relatively new, but the idea behind it isn’t. People have travelled overseas and volunteered on their own accord for years. These days, people can book a trip through a specialist volunteer tourism company and, just like a regular holiday, the agent will organise their flights, visas, travel insurance, and hotels. Instead of sending the client to a resort, they’ll travel to a community project and help out.

I am Pollyanna-like and tend to think most people volunteer out of a desire to help others, rather than for the status of being a do-gooder. I believe there is a need for volunteer tourism, especially for people who are too busy in their everyday lives to go through the lengthy process of finding a project that suits their skills and a community’s needs. I totally get that. But there are a few things that concern me, and I would hope that anyone contemplating such a trip would ask a lot of questions. Such as: 

What percentage of my money will go to the community involved and what will that money be used for?

Could a local be paid to do the type of volunteer work I’m about to undertake? If so, then why would I do it and take their livelihood away?

Can I use my skills to train locals so their project can be self-sustaining going forward?

How is our involvement going to help the community in the long term? Who will monitor the project and ensure it is completed successfully? Who will make sure the locals have the skills and money to run the project on their own in the future?

Helping out at a village in northern India
Will I be living with the locals? Will I have an opportunity to learn about local culture and get to know the people on a personal level?

A volunteer tourism company should be transparent and answer these questions honestly without hesitation. Most people who want to take these kinds of breaks are savvy travellers, so it’s a good idea to go with the gut feeling as to whether a company is being upfront. 

Taking a taxi to a dusty village and labouring for a few hours before returning to a five-star hotel for a refreshing swim is not what I imagine when it comes to volunteering in a foreign country. Living with the host family, helping out with the daily chores, and learning ways to communicate with the locals are all aspects of what I call “volunteer immersion”. Helping a community realise a dream that has been years in the making can be one of the most rewarding experiences on earth.

This is why it’s up to us, the volunteers, to monitor these companies who sell volunteer tourism packages. We need to make sure the money is going directly to the community and projects, and that the locals are learning new skills that will help them over the long term. Our responsibility as a volunteer starts the moment we decide to participate in a project, and it should continue until well after we return to our heated apartments with fresh, running water. 

Realistically, not many of us have the time or money to spend long stints volunteering abroad. No doubt, many of you reading this have already volunteered overseas, or would like to, at some stage. What we need to do as individuals, and as a collective of like-minded people, is to ensure that when we do volunteer, our efforts are worthwhile. And that means the people we help, gain long term benefit.

Whether it’s two weeks, two months, or two years, volunteering can change the lives of many, including, you, the volunteer.

How about you? Have you volunteered on any foreign projects, or are there any you would like to be involved in?


  1. I'm not sure if this counts, but I spent about five months many years ago teaching English in three schools in Mexico - a public one, a private Catholic one and the employees of a company. I wasn't a volunteer exactly, because it was a requirement for a TESOL degree, but I lived with a Mexican family and probably learned more about Mexican culture than my students learned from me.

  2. That would have been so interesting, Heidi! I think volunteering can come in many forms, and you're right, often volunteers come away having learned so much.

  3. What useful tips, Alli! You hit on some stuff I wouldn't have thought to ask, such as the long-term efforts of the project.

    BTW, you can sign up in with your local Red Cross office to be am emergency volunteer for disaster relief (hurricanes earthquakes, etc). The organization offers in-depth training and has you keep a bag packed at all times so you can take off at a moment's notice. You hope never to get called but, if you do, you'll be able to contribute where people need it immediately.

  4. Thanks, Supriya and thank you for mentioning Red Cross. We don't need a passport to volunteer at home, do we? The State Emergency Service does something similar in Australia. Both are amazing organisations with some very caring and skilled people.

  5. One of my retirement dreams is to go to Jordan and plant trees along their Desert Highway. The Jordanians are trying to reverse the results of centuries worth of bad agricultural practices that turned otherwise fertile land into desert. Somehow it all really appeals to me… but I have to retire first!