Voluntourism

The waves are calm, the sun is refreshing, the beach is stunning
– but the true beauty of this vacation is in the smiles we exchange.

Colleen Meigher, a school psychologist in Boston, traveled to the Dominican Republic as a “voluntourist” with Orphanage Outreach, a group that works with abandoned and otherwise disadvantaged children. As part of the tourist experience, volunteers saw the island countryside and learned about Dominican culture. While volunteering, Meigher discovered a rare joy as she provided the orphans with help in English, Spanish and math, and engaged them in games and activities.

Another voluntourist, Manhattan playwright Kristine Reyes, planned a vacation to the Philippines (with her boyfriend and mother) around a medical mission to four towns, each chosen due to their seclusion and lack of access to healthcare. This was arranged through the University of Philippines’ Medical Alumni Association of America. Reyes described their mission of providing care to over 1,700 patients in three days as very intense. The group set up clinics and consultations with doctors, registered patients, and distributed medications – medical treatment that would otherwise be unaffordable for the locals. It was also a personal experience, as one of the locations was Reyes’ mother’s hometown. She says the experience opened her eyes and made her want to be a voluntourist again.

So, What is Voluntourism, Really?

It can be defined as any combination of travel and service. David Clemmons, founder of Voluntourism.org, defines voluntourism as “a seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel – arts, culture, geography, and history – in that destination.”

Clemmons added that the concept has actually existed since the days of religious missionaries; more recent examples being the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity (whose volunteers build houses around the world).

“It’s a cool way to connect,” he says. By volunteering, you can skip the guidebook and see the area by talking and working with locals.

Voluntourism does not require the means to travel to another continent. Clemmons says it can be as simple as visiting a new neighborhood and handing out cups of water at a 5K race. The sector has evolved most recently into the form of organized groups, with travel companies and non-profit organizations offering expanded opportunities. This is also evident in bargain travel websites, like Cheaptickets and Travelocity, which offer package deals that include taking time during a pre-planned vacation to volunteer.

Christina Heyniger, founder of Xola Consulting, has extensively researched the combination of adventure tourism and volunteering. She says that voluntourism’s innovative marketing strategy has been successful in attracting volunteers, but that marrying long-term developmental goals with two weeks of business goals that want instant gratification can cause pitfalls. Heyniger encourages everyone to try voluntourism, but to always remain conscious of one’s impact. Projects must be sustainable. You do not want to diminish people’s inspiration, she says, but they should be ready to channel it and think long-term.

The Savior Came On Horseback
In 2005, Regina Yando, a professor at Harvard Medical School, heard about Relief Riders International, which combines horseback riding trips between villages in India with volunteer work. She traveled to Rajasthan in 2006, where she and other riders performed tasks like bottling prescriptions, registering people to see physicians, visiting schools to deliver materials and even donating money for necessary items. Other aspects included administering de-worming pills to children and distributing goats to local women in need. Yando joked that it was only demanding if you had a feisty goat. She also confessed that it was great fun, but she did not find it life-changing. Moreover, the experience caused her to question the community impact.

“My concern is less on the impact of the individual traveling volunteer and more on the individuals and communities they [assist],” Yando said.

Biking Quest
In 2005, Daniela Papi started a non-profitorganization called PEPY to improve educational opportunities in rural Cambodia. PEPY offers trips (often bicycle tours) for those looking to give back, and has hosted over 250 guests while raising over $300,000 for their cause. Papi says that the voluntourists have had very positive experiences – with many returning for second trips. She knows of people who now only travel as voluntourists.

Adam Vaught, who recently completed EMT training in Orange County, California, joined a PEPY trip in 2006. He liked the program so much that he took an internship to lead cycling trips and other volunteer projects, though he says that his view on voluntourism has changed. He pointed to the fact that after a short voluntour one may leave feeling good, but not with a full consideration of the positive or negative effects of one’s service. He pointed out that voluntourism has given tourists the opportunity to visit typically less-traveled communities, in effect exposing cultures that are not often witnessed or disturbed.

“You may think it’s great, but you come in and are changing these people’s lives,” Vaught says. One example is how simply buying food creates revenue, which can change attitudes and culture – something that is harder to see when only visiting for a short trip. But Vaught believes that overall PEPY is successful in its mission because it constantly reevaluates its projects – Papi employs local staff to monitor and evaluate ongoing missions.

Vaught says he has witnessed other organizations only concerned with tourists’ impressions, in effect ignoring long-term concerns. “The main priority should be helping people,” he said.
Papi continues to learn how to organize the best voluntour experiences to benefit communities and travelers. Initially PEPY started with lots of giving, but Papi soon learned that was not the way to go when it began to create dependency. As a result, she reinvented the approach to be more educationally interactive between voluntourist and community. She admits that it was harder than she expected to create meaningful volunteer opportunities and projects that would truly benefit the community in a long-term effort. However, judging from Vaught’s comments, it seems as though she is on the right track.

What do coffee, turtles and surfing have in common?
While volunteering for the Peace Corps in northern Peru in 2004, Dave Aabo helped the town of Sicchez create a project that revolves around their traditional coffee harvest, which everyone participates in, including children. As education and other activities must be postponed, Aabo and the community decided to attract voluntourists by asking for help in exchange for learning about the organic production of coffee and other crops. This became one of the many projects of Otra Cosa, which has hosted over eighty voluntourists. Aabo said Sicchez is not a typical tourist destination, and offers a unique intercul­tural experience – which the community believes will help its future.

Aabo’s next project involved working in the remote Pacaya Samiria National Reserve to develop volunteer conservation projects through ProNaturaleza, a Peruvian conservation foundation. To attract volunteers, Aabo carefully considered feasibility within the community. Projects he developed included collecting eggs to protect turtles and learning the practice of sustainable fishing. Prerequisites included intermediate Spanish and the willingness to live in a very remote and rugged region, with no running water (or nearby McDonald’s). Needless to say, it was not a job for everyone.

Aabo says he learned to start small and rely on the community to decide its own needs. Having finished with the Peace Corps, he is developing his latest voluntourism project, WAVES for Development, which will combine surfing with intervention in the small beach town of Lobitos.

Voluntourism Trends
Heyniger expects continuous growth among students, some of whom are able to add their experiences to their resumes. She also expects increases among mid-career professionals looking to utilize their employment expertise to do something meaningful. Baby boomers will continue taking trips, possibly with their families. Finally, Heyniger sees the continuing development of the packaged short-term volunteer experience, which typically takes up four days out of a two-week trip. Papi expects to see more experienced voluntourists as the sector grows.

You Can Do It
For a new participant, Clemmons recommends using a non-profit or tour company. Rather than going through an organization acting as a go-between, he suggests using a group with a footprint in the community who will be there with you. “You as the traveler hold the key to the success of this experience,” Clemmons says.

Keep in mind that not all voluntourist opportunities are right for everyone. There may be certain physical challenges or particular knowledge required. Combining travel and volunteering can create unknown variables – and something can go wrong every day, like unexpected rain – but this is just a part of the adventure.

“You never know where this kind of travel can take your personal development,” Clemmons says. “Voluntourism ratchets it up another level.”
Author’s Note: Article originally published in the Planet Section of Ins & Outs Magazine Issue 11 on May 6, 2008

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