Going on a vacation to places we have heard of, but never visited, is something most people love to do. But what if your conscience decided to go on an altruistic trip, while your heart is longing for a much-needed tour trip? Well, you could please both by being a ‘voluntourist’!
White sandy beaches, gondola rides in the moonlight and trekking are some of the exciting items on the ‘things to do’ list of a travel lover or even someone who just wants a break from their mundane, often stressful, lives. But if the rising trends in tourism are to be believed, villages in developing countries and places which have been adversely affected by natural disasters are the newly frequented ‘tourist spots,’ for those with an inclination towards doing good during holidays.
What is Voluntourism
Voluntourism or Volunteer Tourism is about killing two birds with one stone – traveling and volunteering. You get to visit new places, meet new people, learn new cultures and experience new things along with making a difference in the place you visit and in the lives of the people you meet. Voluntours are made to place where there is a need, and voluntourists are people who are willing to spend their hard-earned money, vacation time and energy to meet those needs. Often, people choose voluntourism to use their skills for a worthy cause rather than the usual monetary gain.
It gives you an opportunity to explore another side of the world you live in. One tour as a volunteer among people with struggles far greater than yours, has the power to permanently change your perspective on life. According to recent statistics, voluntourism is the new rage in the tourism industry. The Travel Association of America has been following this trend since 2005 and has only seen an increase in its popularity.
Pros and Cons
Though voluntourism trips have garnered a lot of attention, not all of it is focused on the bright side. While some consider voluntouring a blessing, others consider it a curse in disguise. The reasons behind this difference in opinion are not very hard to see. Voluntourism pros and cons can be seen on two aspects – one from the individual point of view and the other from the local community’s point of view.
- Gets to volunteer and travel
- Gains an insight into ‘another world’ and gets a break from the ordinary, regular life
- Gets to learn from placements and experience new things
- Gets an opportunity to use skills for sustained services
- Eye-opening experience related to third world development, progress and living conditions
- Satisfaction of making a difference in lives and fulfills altruistic desires
- Finds a new zeal and purpose for life
- Inspired for long-term volunteering and creates advocates or donors for a worthy cause
- Health benefits – alleviates depression, different cures and treatments are acquired (according to Corporation for National and Community Service report)
- Many types of productive services are received.
- There is an increase in tourist income.
- There is an influx of special and expert skills.
- Cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect are promoted.
- People get glimpses of better living conditions and touchstone for their own development.
- Sustainable tourism is encouraged.
- Social and physical conditions are improved.
- Immediate concerns are addressed.
- Local Government and Administration are pressed to act.
- Less of leisure and more of work
- Ineffective use of skills (because of rash decisions or faulty attitude)
- Dissatisfaction with personal role (due to wrong choice of project or high expectations)
- Exploitation by fraudulent voluntour agents and organizations
- False sense of self-importance as a result of ego polishing
- Disillusionment with life and increased cynicism after witnessing the dark side of life
- Bad experiences that give rise to pessimism and distrust
- Poor screening of voluntourists leads to reduced effectiveness and opens avenues for harmful activities.
- Short-term development, dependent solely on voluntourist, gives rise to ‘new colonists’.
- It highlights the differences and hence, widens the rift between the developed and the developing communities.
- Creates ‘market of orphans’ in case of orphanage projects (some organizations hire ‘orphans’ from their parents to invite donors.).
- It hinders self-development.
- Ill-considered projects have less or no usefulness.
- There is adverse effect on local employment and markets.
As can be seen, voluntourism can be as harmful as it is useful, if the voluntours and voluntourists are not well-organized with well-targeted projects. That’s why, a lot of thought should be put into decisions of becoming a voluntourist and choosing a voluntourism project. One effective way of doing this, is by bearing in mind, the voluntourism harms and benefits.
A voluntour is a great option for those who want to do something more useful than getting sun-burned on a Greek island. But in order to increase the effectiveness and benefits, while reducing the ill-effects and harms of your voluntour, you will have to make a fair amount of preparation for it.
Personal Preparations for a Voluntour
Purpose: The first stage of going on a voluntour is knowing your reason or purpose of being a voluntourist and then finding a voluntour that will meet your purpose. There are many number of reasons why people want to leave leisure and luxury of normal tour trips, and join a volunteer tour which requires them to give mostly more than what they will receive. These reasons can be generalized into few categories:
- Hands-on Experience in International Aid
- Find Purpose in Life
- Break from Routine
- Fill the Gap Year
- Career Enhancement
Depending on your purpose and your idea of how you think it will be satisfactorily met, you could choose a voluntour or a normal tour. It is also this purpose that determines how good a voluntourist you will be. Deciding to be voluntourist just because you have nothing better to do or you want to make your CV look better is not a good enough reason. You will not be able to give fully if you have self-interest as a priority. Keep in mind that the place you would be going to, is where real people with real needs and real emotions live. Your services are going to impact not only their present, but possibly even their future.
Budget: How much do you want to spend on the voluntour? Like for any other thing, you could choose to voluntour on a small budget or be willing to spend huge bucks. Out of this, decide on a specific amount for things.
- Travel expenditure
- Amount you want to spend on yourself (accommodation, food and shopping)
- Amount for the project (donation or funds for required materials)
- Spare amount for emergency
Time Division: This includes only two things:
- Percentage of time for touring
Your Role: To be an effective voluntourist, you need to decide your role in the volunteering project. Ask yourself these questions:
- Which of my skills do I want to use for voluntouring?
- What kind of project do I want to be involved with? (medical, building, orphanage, etc.)
- How deep do I want to get involved in a given project?
- Will I be okay working under another person (maybe a less qualified local) or do I want to be the leader?
- Do I want the project I choose to be completed before my departure, or is it okay if it was continued by others?
Choosing a Voluntour
Once you have found your reason, hunt for genuine voluntours, whom you think will meet your criteria. A thorough research on the organization and its project is a must. Get in contact with people who have gone on voluntours before. A good voluntour organizer will be more interested in meeting the needs of the community they will work for, than meeting the superfluous demands of the volunteers. Your services as a volunteer should be beneficial, not harmful, for the local people. It is best to make a list of things you would want to do on a voluntour and the impact you want the project to have on the community there. Your list of criteria for voluntours could be something like the one given below.
Project Requirements for a Voluntour
- Details of previous voluntours and projects
- Project type (medical, educational, building etc)
- Approvals from concerned authority
- Reasons behind the choice of project (Were the local people consulted? Is it really needed?)
- Ethical legitimacy of the project (Does it respect the customs and beliefs of the local community? Will it have positive influence in the lives of those involved?)
- Local involvement (For a lasting impact, a project should be locally led.)
- Sourcing of skills and material (Will material and skills available locally be used or ignored?)
- Time period (Is the project short-term or long-term?)
- Impact on the community (include both positive and negative points)
- Budget (Ask for detailed cost split up)
- Refund in case of cancellation
- Means of communication (how will you be able to contact back home?)
- Safety Measures
- Your role in the project
In addition to these, you need to include other things like identification proof, travel insurance, medical necessities (e.g., appropriate vaccinations and allergy treatment) in your itinerary. For choices of places for voluntourism, there are many agents and organizations which offer voluntours to various countries, mostly to countries that are developing or underdeveloped (e.g., Haiti, Cambodia, Thailand etc.). Two very famous and recognized websites on voluntourism trips are ‘voluntourism.com’ and ‘voluntourism.org’.
Having an open mind, learner’s attitude, and a team spirit will go a long way in making you an effective voluntourist. Voluntours that are carefully chosen and rightly executed, gift a lifetime of happy memories and friendships to everyone who is involved – the organizers, voluntourists and the local community.