Voluntourism is thriving. The concept of volunteering while travelling has been gaining popularity over the last five to 10 years. Some experiences are free but many actually cost you a premium for the experience. The idea is to visit unusual and exotic places while becoming part of a community working alongside locals on projects.
Helping local people
The concept grew out of the days of volunteer religious missions or volunteering in a kibbutz in the 70’s. These days, it’s a source of income for local people and businesses in poorer countries. Foreign tourists pay for experiences they would never get at home.
Forget going on a holiday just to tick off the bucket list. By volunteering you become involved with local issues and get to experience a different life by personally interacting with cultures in a more authentic, grass roots way.
There are those who worry that voluntourism has a negative impact on local communities, driven only by the increasing void between the “haves” and “have-nots”.
I’d suggest you try it and make your own mind up. Assess what it is you want to do and find out from others to be sure that your involvement is a win-win and not simply an opportunistic exploitation by operators cashing in on the voluntourism trend.
The concept is very popular with young people, from school students just finishing their last year or doing a gap year, to university students with long summer breaks (and wealthy parents!) to pay for their experience.
Voluntourism appeals to all ages
But voluntourism has an appeal to people of all ages and nationalities.
Language is no barrier as sign language, gestures and laughter work well. All you need is the willingness to get involved and work alongside others as a team for the benefit of whatever organisation you sign up for.
There are many companies who will arrange your trip for you and charge a premium to handle your airfares, insurance and volunteer placement. They offer peace of mind if you are a young inexperienced traveller with protective parents. But you can save money by approaching the organisations directly and make your own arrangements.
The savings can be directed at car hire, excursions and other options before and after your stint of volunteering.
A Google search brings up lots of opportunities, such as the rehabilitation of baboon and vervet monkeys in the Western Cape Province of South Africa to saving Cross River gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon.
Or perhaps working with wildlife and underprivileged children near Kruger Park in South Africa is more appealing to you? There are plenty of experiences to choose from.
Is voluntourism for you?
In August, 2014, my husband and I decided to experience two volunteer projects in Africa. This was a first for us and our time was limited by the amount of leave I could take as well as the cost for both of us to share the experience.
The lesson we learnt is to be wary of how you organise your experience.
Talk to people, read blogs written by people recounting their own experiences. Trip Advisor can be useful. Contact the organisation or host directly and make sure you are happy that what you are paying for is what you expect.
There are unscrupulous organisers whose promises fall down drastically leaving volunteers disillusioned and giving voluntourism a bad reputation. Poor operators have dropped out of the system as they were more common in the early days of voluntourism, but word of mouth is gold.
Then go, get involved and enjoy!
Irene Isaacson travelled at her own expense.