Simple Steps to Vacations with Purpose
Experiential and Responsible Travel Alternatives to Voluntourism
By Amy E. Robertson
Traveler Contributing Editor
4/14/2015 with resources updated 8/20/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|A local demonstrates traditional
pottery-making in La Campa, Honduras. Photo © Amy
Volunteer vacations have been splashed
across travel headlines over the past year, and they are
a fantastic way to spend time away from home while helping
and getting to know others around the globe.
But what happens if you sift through
the options, and find that you’re just not convinced?
Maybe your time off is scheduled after
a grueling period at work, and what you want most is to
just relax. Or you already have a destination in mind,
and the volunteer opportunities in that locale don’t
appeal. Or perhaps you identified the perfect opportunity… but
your travel partner has no interest in it. Or maybe the
type of project that interests you requires a longer commitment
than your vacation time allows.
Yet you love the idea of doing something
good while you travel, and of connecting with locals in
a way that you might not otherwise.
You are left wishing for a Vacation
Purposeful travel replaces handouts
or patronage with solidarity. It offers travelers the chance
to meet and support others who may live in very different
conditions, yet share similar hopes and dreams. Vacationing
with purpose is a grand idea, but don’t let that intimidate
you — it can be achieved with simple steps.
The following suggestions of how to
connect to the community give examples from my experience
in Latin America, but the advice can be applied anywhere,
and these kinds of opportunities are everywhere.
- Eat in family and locally-owned
restaurants. It’s not always clear
when a restaurant is family-owned. But if it is located
in a hotel, or part of an international chain, then
you can bet it isn’t. Size is a good tip-off,
and in this case, smaller is often better. Guidebooks
often tip you off to expat-owned business, but make
sure to spend at least some of your time (and money)
- Stay in small, locally-owned
accommodations. It can be tempting to book
a hotel with an internationally-recognized chain,
which provides a certain comfort about what to expect
in a destination. But guidebooks and websites like
TripAdvisor can help sort the wheat from the chaff,
giving travelers the chance to find accommodations
with a more personal touch. B&B arrangements can
allow visitors to interact with the host family, while
other unique accommodations — from restored haciendas to
jungle cabins and desert tents — enable locals
to maintain properties and lifestyles that may otherwise
be under threat.
- Participate in a local activity
that gives back to the community. To give
a few examples from Latin America, it’s possible
to trek in Guatemala,
volcano board in Nicaragua,
hike to the highest point in Central
America (Tajumulco volcano, 4,222 meters high),
learn to surf in Panama,
or take a cooking class in Peru,
all with organizations that train locals for jobs
in the tourism industry and put profits back into
the local communities.
- Purchase local souvenirs
that are not mass-produced. Shop the local
markets, strike up conversations with the vendors,
and check out local cooperatives. Think beyond handicrafts
when choosing souvenirs – a bag of locally-grown
coffee or cardamom can be just as special of a gift
to bring home.
- Learn from the pros.
Take things a step further by having a master teach you
the secrets of the craft you just picked up. In Quetzaltenango,
Guatemala, members of the Trama
Textiles cooperative offer weaving courses.
- Allow locals to be your
guides. Who better to be the representative
of a culture than a local that you will meet on his
or her own terms? Free
walking tours are offered in cities across Europe,
Turkey and Israel, for which guides earn only based
on tips (good tour=good tips, a great motivation for
quality guiding). Or follow the advice
of travel guru Rick Steves, and hire a private
guide who can do anything from orienting you to your
destination, to having a coffee or glass of wine in
the town’s most charming café. Before
booking any guide, do your homework to make sure you
get someone knowledgeable and suitable for your needs.
|If you stay at agriturismi (usually
older working farms with homestays) throughout Italy,
you support the local economy directly while meeting
and eating with your hosts. At the most authentic agriturismi you
can even participate, if you wish, in farming, cooking,
or walks/hikes/mushroom-hunting with the family. Photo © Gregory
Vacationing With Purpose.
No special knowledge required. Just the willingness to
be thoughtful in your everyday choices while traveling.
Specialists to Help in Vacation Planning and Experiential Travel
If vacationing with a
purpose appeals, but you’re not sure
that you have the time or the energy to research
your options, there are plenty of travel
agencies that explicitly support sustainable
Trails and Wildland
Adventures offer trips across the globe
combining adventure with personal connections,
providing plenty of comforts while taking
care to keep travelers connected to the local
communities. The Australia Family Planet
trip offered by Boston-based ElevateDestinations was
named a Tour of a Lifetime by National Geographic,
reflecting the high quality of its trips.
In the UK, Responsible
Travel offers package trips, including the
U.S. and UK, while Sumak
Travel specializes in South America,
from the Atacama Desert to the Amazon jungle.
Finally, Experiential Travel: 40+ Travel Experts Weigh in on the Biggest Travel Trend, is an important post on the www.GivingAway.com website with many and varied insightful quotes from a travelers, volunteers, travel writers, bloggers, and activists by an organization that highlights and espouses many forms of experiential travel, transformational travel, and volunteering.
||Amy E. Robertson is the author of Volunteer Vacations in Latin America (2013, Moon Handbooks). Her writing has been published on NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel, Delta Sky, National Geographic Traveler, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Leisure, among others. Amy has lived in six countries and traveled in more than 60. Her volunteer experiences include building houses in Washington State and Honduras, monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, working with youth on social documentaries in Bolivia, and serving lunch at soup kitchens in Seattle and Beirut. She has a background in international development and nonprofit management and has worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors.
You may see Amy's many articles for us, her numerous books, and her expanded bio page here.