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How are Travel and Volunteering Related?

Unfortunately, they’re not often thought to be related. Travel is typically a form of consumption. You’re purchasing an experience, and most people when they travel aren’t really thinking about helping others along the way. That’s just what travel is traditionally.

Then there is volunteer travel abroad. Traditionally, this involves volunteering in a foreign country the entire time you are there. Some volunteers will travel around the country after their volunteer assignments, but many volunteers return home immediately after their stints. Their exposure to the host country is limited to interactions within the volunteer community and not much more.

Travelers who fall into one of these two camps generally believe the right way to travel is their prescribed way – either as a tourist or as a volunteer. But, there are new forms of travel emerging such as voluntourism and ecotourism. A lot of people now are looking at this new form of “hybrid travel” — touring AND volunteering that is done in a sustainable way and gives back. Supported by changing consumer attitudes and lifestyle priorities, this trend is likely to be here to stay!

The problem is many trips currently being promoted as voluntourism consist of predominately volunteer work with minimal touring. While it’s true you shouldn’t volunteer purely out of a desire to travel or to fulfill any other personal wish, there are benefits in scheduling a share of “exploration/touring” during a voluntourism trip. A tour can actually enhance your volunteer experience. Learning about the history and culture of the country is vital for volunteer travelers. Getting to know the host country and its heritage helps you appreciate the people, their uniqueness, their diversity and even their plight. This understanding can strengthen the bond of the volunteer traveler to the host country and its people.

As volunteer Hal Amen explains, “In Bolivia, my travels around the country have shown me the differences in quality of life between city dwellers of Cochabamba and livestock ranchers up on the high, cold Altiplano. Studying the War of the Pacific, and then seeing firsthand the land Bolivia lost during that conflict, has shed light on the country’s contemporary relations with Chile and Peru. Visiting the vast, amenity-less rural expanse that is the birthplace of President Evo Morales has informed my understanding of his socialist platform and activist-style political maneuvering.”

Touring also helps the host country economically. Travelers spend more when they tour, and their money is spread more widely. Tourism is a central industry in many countries popular with volunteers, and their support can make a positive impact. You’ll need to make sure the tour operators you use are committed to responsible travel — giving back to their communities and to adhering to socially and environmentally responsible standards. Knowing your money is going where it’s needed can feel almost as good as volunteering itself!

We believe that voluntourism — travel and volunteering — done in proper balance, will maximize your travel experience.

photo by will hybrid: colorful houses in copacabana, bolivia

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  • handsupholidays said:

    Great article!
    As the founder of Hands Up Holidays, (www.handsupholidays.com) clearly I am biased, as we specialize in hybrid-tours that combine responsible sightseeing with meaningful volunteering.
    I started Hands Up Holidays as a result of travelling this way myself in Guatemala and South Africa, and want to make it easy for people to have similar, life changing experiences.

  • Daniela Papi said:

    I very much agree! As the founder of PEPY Tours (www.pepytours.com) I believe we share the same values as Hands Up Holidays and agree that the hybrid-model of NGO work and tourism adds value to the tourism industry.

    I added other thoughts (linked below) on how I think "voluntourism", rather than being the "bad" little brother of volunteering is, in my opinion, a key to improving the tourism industry as a whole. When done right (this is of course a big WHEN), as you point out, voluntourism operators can do so much more than just doing good with the volunteering or philanthropy portions of their trips. They can bring the travel dollars back into the country and the economy by designing the whole tourism experience to be a positive contributing force for change in the area visited. When combined with educating travelers, this can indeed change how they travel as regular "tourists" in the future, no matter where they go.

    In my experience, "voluntourism" does not end up taking people who would otherwise become full-time volunteers away from that path. Instead, when done right, it takes people who would be your typical tourists and helps them make their tourism impact more positive.

    More of my thoughts here: http://voluntourismgal.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/volunteering-or-voluntourism-who-cares/

  • travelanthropist said:

    I completely agree with Daniela that when done right voluntourism, in fact, helps make tourism impact more positive. Voluntourism serves as a great introduction to many travelers who are not aware of the impact they can make in and during their travels.

  • Fei An said:

    Nice job! I like that you emphasise the difference between voluntourism and volunteering. uVolunteer (http://www.uvolunteer.org) is often mixed up as a voluntourism company, which we really aren't! I agree with Daniela that voluntourism can cause positive tourism impact, but I think people's main focus, when they do something like that should be to help the community. We had people coming here that used volunteering more as an excuse to justify their holiday and refused to get their hands dirty. This makes your company look bad towards the local partners and doesn't serve the purpose of volunteering…

    You can find our blog at: http://www.uvolunteer.org/volunteer-life

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