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Learning to Love Voluntourists

Harnessing their Energy and Curiosity for Volunteer Service Vacations

The author of a seminal book on responsible travel, who coined the term "voluntourism," explains the activity, profiles the participants, and elaborates on the many benefits the activity is producing abroad.

Voluntourists in Action: Reforestation in Nicaragua with Travel Alive.
With Travel Alive’s language learning and volunteer program in Nicaragua, reforestation is one of six community options. Photo courtesy of Travel Alive.

I confess to having rather a soft spot for the word voluntourism because I appear to have been the first journalist to coin the word in print. I did this in a feature article I wrote the 1990s on the subject of volunteer vacationing suitable for older travelers, citing some of the earliest players in the fledgling field. These included Earthwatch and Habitat for Humanity both of which remain steadfast short-term voluntourism models to this day. With an explosion of client interest in recent years and many new variations coming on the market, let us reflect on this worthy marriage of volunteer service and vacation travel.

Vacationers choosing to spend their limited holiday time and vacation budget journeying across the world to perform volunteer service are a very recent concept. Over the past 20 years, it has grown with such momentum that both non-profit organizations and for-profit advisory services and tour operators are scrambling to match many different agendas. With a firmly-entrenched western world mindset of “rest and relaxation = vacation,” who would have dreamed that working while on vacation would become such a fast-growing segment of the travel industry today?

What is Voluntourism?

Usually measured in days and weeks, possibly a month, voluntourism or volunteer vacationing is not a high school graduate’s GAP year, nor a stint in the Peace Corps. Though some advocates would prefer to ignore the tourism part of the word, it is key to the definition because it helps to define the scope and the expectations of what is offered and what is received. With rare exception, voluntourists pay their own expenses including a built-in contribution to the project for which they sign up. If the experience is positive, they also tend to donate more to the project once they have made a connection and sometimes even raise funds for it once they get back home.

For the person who chooses to do this, it is a vacation-length commitment of time, personal energy, possibly a special skill, and money. Motivation of volunteer vacationers is rarely to accumulate career-building credentials or academic credits and kudos. In fact, many voluntourists deliberately select a project about which they are unapologetically without skill so they can learn something new. It is not uncommon to work alongside a computer engineer excavating skeletons on a dinosaur dig, a retired elementary school teacher building a house for a needy family, or an electrician recording 3-toed sloths in the Amazon jungle.

Curiosity is a big motivator as is the notion that a change is as good as a rest. Voluntourists rarely sail on a Princess Cruise or get excited about a week at a multi-national resort with four swimming pools, three restaurants and two championship golf courses.

Let’s take the United States as an example of current trends, though many other countries are also sending out roving bands of voluntourists. With the American population at a little over 300 million, 24 percent or close to 75 million people are reported to have an interest in taking a volunteer service-based vacation, according to a Travel Industry Association of America’s “travel habits” survey. A near-majority of 47 percent are Baby Boomers. These daunting numbers of potential clients and the Boomer age demographic are both a blessing and a huge challenge to delivering opportunities with a little or a lot of volunteer time on vacation. Non-traditional volunteer programs that bundle activities or offer only a brief volunteer experience as part of a larger vacation are receiving a skeptical welcome in the field. Some unproven print and internet resource clearinghouses are also causing justifiable alarm in responsible tourism circles.

Boomers as Volunteers

Be aware that boomers wear a different set of eyeglasses from previous generations. One of the most successful non-profits at understanding and attracting the Boomer generation has been Global Volunteers, whose Boomer participation has increased 6-fold in the past decade. Boomers comprise more than 30% of GV clients and a big portion are repeat.

  • Boomers love to travel but, unless they are already retired, they are also time-stretched. Bottom line is they get impatient if they see a waste of their commitment in the form of disorganized or loosely-programmed days with little advance planning or meaningless tasks just to keep them busy.

  • Boomers are better in a participatory setting than in an authoritarian one in which volunteers get their marching orders and do what they are told. Boomers are creative thinkers who often question how and why things are done; neither do they hang back from offering suggestions. Program organizers on the ground who take time to learn about the experience, education, and passions of their boomer volunteers will have a gold mine of creative energy at their disposal.

  • Boomers rarely see volunteer service as being strictly about the program. They are used to having their needs met and having reasonable requests accommodated. Even though the primary goal is volunteering, they will probably want some sightseeing, nature or culture learning lectures, and recreation time built into any multi-day schedule. While they are keen to “give back”, they also expect acknowledgements that they are making a sacrifice to be doing what they do.

Voluntourists Require Different Options

One or two decades ago, a small number of non-profit volunteer service organizations focused almost exclusively on serving needy communities where their set-length programs made a significant difference in the economic foundation, natural environment or social support network. They have gone to admirable lengths to discern the needs of the community and minimize any negative impact that short-term visitors may have on local people or environments.

But “Times they are a-changing,” as Bob Dylan sang decades before voluntourism was a gleam in this wordsmith’s eye. As demand increases, so do creative ideas where short-term is being redefined and new players are expanding the possibilities. Here are a few variations:

Volunteer dabblers: Not every vacationer wants to dedicate an entire year's holiday to volunteer service, but they may get excited about doing a day, a few days or a week, balanced off with some other type of vacationing in a destination they wish to visit. If the concept of volunteer vacationing really draws them in, maybe next time their choice will be a fully-committed volunteer vacation of two to four weeks. A volunteer eco-guidebook, Preserving Paradise: Opportunities in Volunteering for Hawaii's Environment by Maui resident Kirsten Whatley, is a welcome resource to Hawaiian Island visitors who want to learn about eco-friendly volunteer opportunities with over 60 organizations. Almost all suggested nature projects are short-term requiring a day or less of commitment at a time. Not exactly a leap into the deep end, but even a toe in the water is a good start.

A “community based tourism” operator, Hands Up Holidays, recently crossed my radar, a company enthusiastically recommended by Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop and a respected responsible living authority. More than the menu of worldwide destinations, what caught my attention was the description, “meaningful luxury volunteer holidays that blend a taste of volunteering (3-5 days) with amazing sightseeing.” My old-school mindset trips over the seemingly contradictory notion of luxury vacationing and volunteering, but I expect the traveling Boomers will set me straight on the merits of such a collaboration.

Multi-task travelers: Many people like to achieve more than one goal on vacation. A common destination hybrid is to spend mornings learning a language with a professional language teacher, then in the afternoon do a community social or environmental service with local people where new language skills and vocabulary immediately get reinforced. U.S.-based Travel Alive established just such a successful model in Ocotal, Nicaragua, a town not exactly on any tourist route. It now has a steady income for local language teachers, trained homestay host families, and eager visitors to lend a helping hand. Six volunteer projects reflecting agricultural, environmental and social service needs of the community allow each participant plenty of scope in what is a minimum two-week program. Travel Alive’s model has attracted the attention of an organization in Ecuador with whom they began a similar program in that country.

Family bonding volunteers: In the past, few programs accepted volunteers under 18, but that is changing as many more people are aiming to instill their children or grandchildren with volunteer values. What better place to demonstrate such virtues than on vacation, well away from daily distractions and peer pressure? The starting age for a growing menu of vacations that include such a component now averages 10 years old.

While recognizing that youthful productivity and attention span require different expectations from those of adults, it is sometimes wiser to start out with a small dose of volunteering on vacation or mix a learning vacation with some volunteer activity. However, Global Volunteers has successfully remained a single-purpose family powerhouse with its volunteer focus in 20 countries. “We’ve always worked with families since we started 24 years ago,” emphasizes co-founder, Michele Gran. More than ever we are seeing a lot of intergenerational combinations with teens appearing to receive the greatest payoff in terms of experience.”

Global Volunteers estimates that there are currently about 2,000 non-profit and for-profit voluntourism organizations and companies worldwide. While such rampant growth clearly demonstrates a successful broadcast of the message to give back to society and the planet, quality control will always be a sensitive issue, both in the communities and environments where projects take place and in the promised delivery of programs in which volunteers agree to participate and pay their way. As is the case with all travel, the responsibility remains with potential voluntourists to do their advance research, ask questions of management and former participants, and discern for themselves whether the track record matches the marketing.

Voluntourists of any age or agenda are clearly what a late 1990s US-based Harris Poll identified as Life Enhancers: people who travel for enrichment and experiences that stretch both mind and body. Even ten years ago, their numbers were twice as large as the Sun Seekers (beach crowd) or the Play-it-Safers (familiar places crowd). Once Life Enhancers get a taste of holiday volunteering, they will be back to serve the planet in ever-more creative ways as voluntourism options continue to grow.

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