The ‘voluntourism’ industry is booming at the moment. In its purest form, the volunteer holiday (or ‘voluntour’) is an opportunity to combine travel with public service; travellers can go to developing countries and interact with local people while simultaneously working on projects and ventures that are designed to make the country better.
You get to see a beautiful place and experience it in a way that positively affects the people and animals who live there - it’s responsible, eco-friendly and morally sound tourism. Every day you see countless stories splashed across the web about people enriching and changing their lives through serving others, and that’s a beautiful thing.
There’s also a dark element to ‘voluntourism’ that needs to be pointed out. For one, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who make a lot of money off the good intentions of regular people - money that doesn’t go near the school, animal shelter or orphanage pictured in their brochures. The first red flag to look out for is an agency that charges you an arm and a leg to go overseas and help out. The concept of service is being twisted into ‘salvation holidays’, which is nothing but a ploy on kindness. Business are quite happy to take advantage of our guilt-laden conversations around the supper table every week, about one cause or another, and offer up an expensive way to make yourself feel good about it. Of course you might have to pay something towards your trip, but goodwill and human decency shouldn’t come at a crippling premium.
As you’ll see from the participants of this month’s travel feature, voluntourism is not about darning a red cape, flying off to rescue the Third World and coming back a hero. It’s about opening yourself up to a humbling experience that is as much for your benefit as it is the organizations where you’ll be helping out.
Where To Start:
We asked Andrew Wahba, the creator of the True Travellers Society, a community website that connects would-be volunteer travellers with information about free and low cost volunteer opportunities, a few pertinent questions about getting set up with an organisation.
Firstly, Can you tell us a bit about your website and why you started it? “ I started to think about the organization while working for an NGO in Argentina. There were a number of volunteers there and we all arrived through different paths. Some had paid a separate organization (essentially a meaningful travel agent) a fee and others had found the organization on their own. I thought there was an information gap and created the website to provide a central location where people (volunteers or organizations) could share information about low fee volunteer opportunities around the world.”
And are there opportunities available to people wanting to travel and volunteer without forking out thousands of Pounds? : “There are a number of opportunities, you just have to dig around. Some organizations are only looking for money to cover accommodation and food for the volunteers. Others will provide free room and board if you meet a required length of stay or have a special skill set that they are seeking. The most important thing is to cut out the middle man. If you are looking for an opportunity in Argentina, contact an organization in Argentina and not one in England who can find you the opportunity in Argentina. Contacting this 'middleman' will increase your costs substantially.”
How Do You Pick An Organisation to work for?: ““I believe it is really important to do a lot of research about the organization you are going to volunteer with. Contact the organization and ask a lot of questions. Find out if their philosophy is in line with yours. Try to get contacts from past volunteers and ask them about their experience.”
Is it a holiday or a work trip? How should people approach their volunteer trip to ensure they get the most out of the experience? “For me it is both, although I don't think of it as being work. Volunteering is a great way to meet local people. Volunteering also gives you a meaningful way to spend your time when you are in a country. You can see the local sights and do something valuable at the same time. I think it is a great way to truly experience a culture and community.”
Lastly, if you’re looking for cheap, low-cost volunteer programs I can highly recommend these sites: www.volunteersouthamerica.net/, www.volunteerforever.com and www.volunteeringforfree.com.more blog posts