Adventures in voluntourism

2011-04-08 12:05

What began as a generational drive to give back has spawned an addition to the travel lexicon: voluntourism.

This trend, like many, has been fuelled by celebrity.

Sean Penn set up shop in Haiti to help the victims of the earthquake, while George Clooney has campaigned to put Darfur on the agenda, and both Madonna and Serena Williams are engaged in education in Malawi and Kenya, respectively.

Brad Pitt, meanwhile, gets his hands dirty building houses in New Orleans and his partner, Angelina Jolie, has been a United Nations ambassador for ages and travels to all sorts of places, such as Darfur and Afghanistan.

The beginnings of the fully fledged voluntourism were visible by the mid-2000s, with many hotel chains offering the affluent an opportunity to drop in and do good for a day.

Then came the Indian Ocean tsunami, and Katrina, and Haiti – and an emerging segment of tourism gained momentum.

Now a handful of companies offer trips that could be called “extreme voluntourism” or “urgent response travel”, many of them requiring a two-week commitment and tangible skills.

Some outfits have even reported a 100% increase in bookings.

But the idea of volunteer vacations has been met with controversy.

Many NGOs say that the logistics of putting people on the ground disrupt the flow of care, and fly-by-night foreigners are stealing long-term jobs from locals.

A number of international organisations are challenging that perception. They work with grassroots groups in their host countries.

Gap Adventures runs 19 trips that could be described as Peace Corps Light.

The one- or two-week tours focus on helping local communities develop sustainable economies.

Whenever possible, tour leaders hire local guides and have travellers spend the night in local homes so that the money remains in the community.


Project Brazil places volunteers in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro for 15 days to assist at a daycare centre with children six years and younger.

Community Development in Peru sends volunteers to build efficient traditional cooking stoves and work in a women’s weaving co-op near Cuzco.

Micato Share, the non-profit arm of the luxury safari outfitter Micato America, arranges groups with specialised skills to volunteer in Mukuru, a shantytown on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Regular safari travellers can also take a one- to two-day trip to volunteer at schools and orphanages.

Micato recently hosted 10 optometrists and 23 volunteers from Indiana participating in the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity mission in Nairobi.

In five days, the outfitter said, more than 3 000 children and adults were provided with free or low-cost eye exams and corrective lenses at temporary clinics.

The recent disasters in Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico gave birth to Elevate Destination’s urgent-response programme.
Volunteers sign up to get a glimpse of what public service is all about.

The outfit makes three trips a year to Haiti to engage volunteers in a project to rebuild orphanages in the Port-au-Prince and Jacmel areas.

While Haitians are hired to do the bulk of the labour, travellers support them in a variety of tasks, including mixing concrete and teaching computer skills to children.

In Tribewanted, a sustainable community experiment, “tribe members” commit to one month (on average) of sleeping in basic accommodation and helping locals in developing villages with services such as microfinancing, tree clearing and construction.

Tribewanted has just added a trip to Sierra Leone. The group’s best-known project is in Vorovoro, Fiji, where volunteers plant gardens, feed animals and help with construction projects.

Global Vision International is an organisation with 3 000 volunteers and multiple offices worldwide.

It runs trips specialising in education, wildlife preservation and sustainable development in more than 30 countries.

In Madagascar, travellers can work alongside villagers to help preserve endemic species in rural areas, plant trees and promote fuel-efficient stoves. Volunteers can also assist in the construction of a research station.

Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village rebuilds poor communities and those devastated by natural disaster.

In the past 25 years, Global Village has placed 70 000 volunteers alongside locals to help build more than 10 000 houses.

Most alumni remain active as donors.

For the first time in five years, Habitat is going back to Senegal in June to build affordable housing near Dakar.

It also has a disaster response programme to get able-bodied workers on the ground in Chile, the Gulf Coast and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, among other areas affected by natural disasters.

Meanwhile, Global Volunteer Network has placed more than 14 000 volunteers in 22 countries in the past nine years.

Travellers must sign up for a minimum of one week to work in orphanages, schools, refugee camps and animal shelters, taking on projects like teaching HIV and Aids awareness, assisting in wildlife conservation or construction.

As part of the Organic Farming Project in Uganda, tourists help teach raised-bed and double-dug farming as ways to maximise the soil’s potential.

They also explain techniques of water conservation, composting and recycling.

With 10 years experience in eastern and southern Africa, African Conservation Experiences selects projects that focus on the long-term sustainability of wildlife.

The Zingela Predator Conservation trip in Limpopo sends guests out to track hyenas and leopards using telemetry and GPS devices.

Other programmes involve working with elephants, dolphins and whales, and helping locals understand the importance of wildlife to their economies.

© New York Times 

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