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Voluntourism: What is it?

The term “voluntourism” is a combination of the words “volunteering” and “tourism” and is used to describe a popular form of travel that enables people to explore a new country, experience a new culture and contribute to sustainable development. In other words, voluntourism allows people to experience socially responsible travel. To some, participating in volunteer work while on their travels is the best way to discover a new place, learn about the culture and play a role in the local community.

While working abroad, many volunteers live with host families in the local community, which allows them to experience cultural immersion while engaging in worthwhile work. The host family will welcome the volunteers into the home and help you integrate into the new culture and will share their lives and customs with you. This experience allows you to build bonds and close connections with the families, and many volunteers stay in touch with them long after they have returned home.

However, the bonds with the families and locals are not the only bonds that you will create. When you join a voluntourism program, you are also joining a network comprised of other volunteers who are also engaging in socially responsible travel, living and working on other projects, and leaving a lasting positive impact on the communities that they visit. Volunteers can come from all over the world, and interacting with them can broaden your horizons and further spark your passion for giving back to the world. Below, we’ve outlined a tips to get you started down the road of voluntourism.

How is Voluntourism Beneficial?

Voluntourism can benefit local people and communities in a variety of different ways. By contributing to a sustainable volunteer project, you are helping to implement long term development. For example, helping a local teacher improve their English and their classroom skills will impact the children that they will teach in the future. Another example would be helping support an entire family by helping a struggling entrepreneur with their business.

In addition, participating in voluntourism allows the volunteers to directly contribute to the local economy. When volunteers engage in sightseeing such as tours on their free time, the communities directly benefit from the income accrued from the tourism and voluntourism companies. Another way that voluntourism is beneficial is that the voluntourism companies employ local staff to run the tours or host the volunteers in their homes. This helps to provide jobs for local people and gives the employees the opportunities to receive education and training.

Though voluntourism is becoming increasingly popular, it is still extremely important to research the organizations that you are considering traveling and volunteering with.

How Do You Become A Voluntourist?

Similar to researching and planning for a vacation, it is important to research the programs or organizations that you would like to volunteer for. Through your extensive research, you must be able to determine whether the goals of the organization aligns with your own, whether or not the organization is credible, and which organizations have time restrictions or minimal time spent on the project. Some organizations require that you volunteer for a minimum of 4 weeks, while others can be 2 weeks or 9-10 days long.

Pricing transparency is a sign of better quality, or a more credible organization. Credible, good organizations should be as transparent as possible as to the details of their voluntourism packages such as a fairly accurate estimates of the cost, location and descriptions of the accommodations and descriptions of the types of activities that the volunteers can do for the local communities.

Some examples of credible organizations that offer socially responsible travel experiences are People and Places, GVI, or Pod Volunteer. People and Places, which won a Responsible Tourism award, publishes its estimates, does a wide variety of community development projects, provides education and training. This organization returns a whopping 80% of its profits back into the community. GVI is a organisation that not only offers a wide variety of destinations but is also very clear about its work in conservation projects and social enterprise. Pod Volunteer is another social enterprise organisation that is ethically run and puts back into the communities that it works with.

Because the industry of voluntourism is unregulated, finding a safe and credible organisation is extremely important. The International Ecotourism Society published a guideline for voluntourism groups and suggests that the consumer check for transparency and try to get in contact with past volunteers who can shed light on the experience and the organisation itself. In addition, they suggest that the potential volunteer think about whether or not the organization is really benefiting the communities that they are visiting.

However, aside from the three listed above, there are many more organizations available, provided you are willing to spend the time searching for them. In short, to find the project that fits you the best and benefits the community or environment, it is important to do your research on the different voluntourism projects offered by various organizations.

Popular Spots for Voluntourism

Dominican Republic: Social Impact Cruise

Don’t choose between volunteering and a vacation, instead experience the best of both worlds on a 7-day cruise to the Dominican Republic. On this cruise, you can take part in a wide variety of projects created to help the local community.

For example, you might work in a chocolate factory, make paper, or create concrete floors. You can support local environmentalists in educating residents on conservation and planting trees or help create clay water filters to provide families with clean drinking waters. If you enjoy working with children, you can visit a grade school and help teach English to the students.

Each of these projects are created with the locals in mind. In addition, working closely with the locals will allow you to experience a different culture and way of life. Surrounded by guides and fellow travelers who are also impassioned about helping local communities, you will gather a multitude of wonderful experiences. Plus, on your downtime you can enjoy resort facilities both on the shore and aboard the cruise ship.

Seychelles: Counting Turtles

The Seychelles are a conglomerate of 115 different islands near East Africa in the Indian Ocean. These wonderful islands feature beautiful beaches, coral reefs, nature reserves, mountain rainforests and rare animals like the giant Aldabra tortoises. Historically, these tortoises once lived on every continent and island except Australia and Antarctica, but hunting has driven them to a select few locations, and the Seychelles is home to the largest collection of giant tortoises with around 100,000 living on one of the main islands.

In addition to witnessing the beauty of this giant animals in person, you can also be a part of a scientific research team and scuba dive to collect data on fish, coral, and take surveys of other marine life like whale sharks, turtles, octopus and lobster.

Italy: Volunteer Refugee Project

Currently, Europe is facing a refugee and migrant crisis with thousands of people crossing oceans and dangerous terrain to try and make a better life for themselves and their families. While the journey alone is dangerous, the struggle to survive doesn’t end when they finally reach the coast of Europe. The local European governments and infrastructures are unable to cope with the magnitude of individuals arriving who are in need of aid. This project, along with other private individuals and organizations, are working their hardest to help the the refugees and migrants.  

Working as a volunteer, you will be given the option to assist in various activities such as working in a center to assist migrants and refugees in integrating to a new culture, taking children on social and fun outings, teaching language, acting, music or sports classes, working at daycare centers, or even interview refugees to assess their needs and expectations regarding life in their new community and their plans for the future.

You can also assist in planning and running social activities such as movie nights. There are many options as to how you can contribute to the Refugee Project, and working so closely with the individuals themselves is more rewarding than any material gift.

A wide variety of different skills and expertise are needed at this Refugee Project– each person has their own skills and ideas that will allow them to contribute to the project. While the project is seeking longer term volunteers for as long as a month or more, the voluntourism experience requires a minimum of two weeks.

Kenya: Bogani Tented Camp

This 9-10 day trip is ideal for families and individuals alike. This sustainable development project will allow the volunteers to engage in activities that are created to help break the cycle of poverty of the local communities that they visit. The project at Bogani is run by the organization Me to We, which is a branch of the charity Free the Children.

The volunteers are given the opportunity to better the communities that they visit, such as increasing education, improving public access to clean water, improving sanitation, improving crop diversity and durability, and providing healthcare.

When you arrive to Bogani, you are assigned to a group who will share activities and dine together throughout the duration of the trip. This group has a seating area where you can share stories and reflect on the day. In addition, this group will travel together to the local communities to engage in activities together.

The accommodations are ideal for families or groups traveling together, and you are given the option to either stay in a cottage or in a traditional safari tent. Each cottage can accommodate 2-9 people in up to four separate bedrooms. In addition, each of the cottages are different, spacious and decorated using local materials. They all have a living room with an open fireplace and one bathroom for every room. The traditional safari tents are spread out over a large area to offer privacy to the residents, despite the thin canvas walls.

The floors are made of stone and the tents are furnished well furnished with simple furniture, local fabrics and traditional decor. The tents also have plenty of storage space, electrical sockets, a safe to place your valuables within, hot running water, flush toilets and a private veranda. Meals are served buffet-style and are prepared by expert chefs using local food. If you have dietary requirements, they can be accommodated, provided that the organization is notified before departing your home.

Experience both the wonder of local life in Kenya while participating in meaningful volunteer activities that allow you to make a difference in the lives of the locals.

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