VolunTOURism: Now You Can Explore the World and Help Save it Too!

Find out how combining travel with volunteer work can help you better connect with nature and people, while doing something significant to help save the planet.

It’s been called responsible travel, reality travel, and travel with conscience. In the past several years, volunTOURism – or travel that includes volunteer work for a charitable cause – has become popular among tourists looking for some kind of adventure. Rather than just sight-seeing, lolling on the beach or skiing down some snowy slope, hundreds of travellers are trying to put more meaning and purpose into their holidays. Helping people, and helping to heal the planet, are becoming not just extraordinary alternatives in their vacation plans, but desirable — and very attainable – “must-dos” in their itineraries.

Burgeoning Industry


Travelling off-the-beaten-path gained popularity ever since Ian Wright of Discovery’s Globe Trekker made it cool – and fun – to do in the 1990s. But for the more serious adventure-seeker, there are only so many exotic places to see, so many tribal people to meet, and so many cultures to experience — without immersing oneself longer in a local community.

Today, more travellers are willing to stay longer in a chosen destination, and engage themselves doing humanitarian or environmental work. It’s the best way they can not only explore, but also connect, reflect, do good, and feel good during their travels.

There are now more than 2,000 companies and organizations around the world offering some kind of volunteer vacation in every corner of the planet. Whether it be teaching English in China, feeding lion cubs in South Africa, or helping preserve ocean habitats in the Carribean, an exciting assortment of work-and-leisure opportunities is being offered to anyone willing to share their time, talent and energies. And because of cheaper air travel and the vast information available online, volunTOUR packages have certainly more and more realistic and feasible.

In 2012, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) classified volunTOURism as an emerging niche in the adventure travel industry. From over 140 tour operators they surveyed, 61% said they offer volunTOUR trips, citing “growing awareness and demand for ‘giving back’” as the primary reason for the rise in numbers.

Of the tourists ATTA talked to, 35% said they would like to try a holiday involving a volunTOURrism component in it. The most popular destinations are South America, East Africa, India / South Asia, Central America, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. And, interestingly enough, more than half (53%) of volunTOURists that year were females (47% were male), with 20- and-30-somethings making up almost 33 percent of those surveyed.

Truly, what makes volunTOUR trips so workable these days are the variety and flexibility of both the programs available, as well as the time frame and conditions that are on offer. There are programs for childcare or orphanage work, academic education, environmental conservation (or eco-tourism, volunTOURism’s closest cousin), medical aid, heritage protection, disaster rebuilding, livelihood projects, clean water and sanitation, working with women, land stewardship and scientific research.

There are opportunities to work in big cities with their typical urban comforts, or cozy accommodations in exotic dive resorts, or rudimentary shelters in a far-flung tropical rainforest. Durations can go anywhere from “bite-sized” stints of just a few days, to medium-range packages of 2 weeks, to a full month or two of “work-and-play” vacations. The options are endless.

Raison de faire:  The Privilege of Helping People and the Planet

In the past decade, devastating natural calamities like Hurricane Katrina in the United States, the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti gave well-meaning travellers all the more reason to fly out of their comfort zones and offer a helping hand.

Some sign up for projects as unskilled workers in hopes of gaining experience or picking up a new skill, even though they’re already veteran professionals in their fields of specialization. Everyone has an innate desire to help, and those who are able DO go out of their way to fulfil that urge.

Furthermore, the growing consciousness to do anything and everything “sustainable” continues to spread.  In an age when environmental protection has become a catch phrase, everyone is looking for more ways to protect the planet.

Indeed, travelling “green” goes beyond just carrying your own reusable water container everywhere you go. A large number of tourists are taking it further, getting their boots on the ground and not being afraid to get down and dirty.

Many of them are actually getting the hang of it. According to tour operators, returning travellers often say it’s a life-changing experience. Many feel as though they’ve gotten far more out of a volunteer project than they’ve given.

In fact, after having immersed themselves in communities and established a connection with locals, some have come back wanting to do more, and even staying for longer periods of time. The change within their hearts and attitudes is incalculable.

Is VolunTOURism for you?

So how much does it cost for mixing pleasure with purpose? Average prices, which normally include lodging, food and administration fees, start at around $200 per day per person.

More expensive packages offer an amount of training, especially those in scientific research or highly technical fields. (Such as BlueVenture.org, which surveys the unexplored reefs off the coast of Madagascar, offering basic and advanced scuba dive training.) But many accept volunteers for whatever they can pitch in. Programs are available not just for individuals, but also couples and entire groups or families.

But it’s not all work and no play either. Many vacations allow plenty of time to explore a chosen destination. Think beach outings after work or on weekends, or free safaris that come with working in wildlife territories. The opportunity to meet people with like minds and committed hearts is just as overwhelming.

Interested yet? First, ask yourself these questions. What’s your passion? Is it children? Animals? Research? Or the environment? Are you willing to work with people whose culture and ways are far different from yours? Can you trade creature comforts for Spartan accommodations? Does the idea of getting hot, dirty, and stinky not bother you?

As you search the internet and get awed by the variety of options on offer, study each one carefully and weigh it against another. Read all the fine print. Find out just how much coverage each organization is willing to shoulder, from administration to training to health concerns.

Be clear about what you expect to get, and give, to the work experience. Above all, make sure you get a good mix of serious hard work, as well as lots of fun, in the trip. You never know, you just might turn out to be one of those who keep coming back for more.

Cover photo: www.petergreenberg.com

About the author

JD Lara

JD is a former travel writer-producer for TV. Now a work-from-home mom, she lives in a homestead with animals, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. She’d still love to travel but since family and farming have become priorities, she’s content with just armchair traveling via the internet.

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