Selling Voluntourism


The Gulf Coast, where rebuilding continues post-Katrina and Ike, is a good option for a low-budget volunteer vacation


It’s one of the hottest trends in travel right now, perhaps because of our increased social awareness or sense of social responsibility, or simply because helping people feels good. Volunteer tourism—or voluntourism—has increased exponentially in the last few years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Having noticed the trend, travel agents are now specializing in helping clients help others.

“These tough economic times are encouraging more people to give and serve,” says Patti Fortlage, founder of Give & Getaways Volunteer Vacations. “People are realizing how much they have compared to others and they are signing up to help out. We may be feeling the pinch from these tough economic times, but we are realizing it is nothing compared to those who, say, are dying due to lack of clean water.”

Jim Baldwin of JB’s Journeys has noticed an increase in young people (generally of college age) forsaking the “self-indulgent spring break-type vacation” and instead traveling to help those less fortunate.

Destinations for voluntourism can vary greatly. Baldwin recommends choosing the trip based on what the traveler can afford. “If someone has only $500 or $600, he can go to the Gulf Coast [New Orleans, Galveston] where they are still rebuilding post- Katrina and Ike. Or, if they have $2,500 or $3,000, they can go to Kenya and donate things like mosquito nets, school supplies, fresh water or shoes.”

Myrna Arychuk of Solaway Travel, on the other hand, sends volunteers to help out in orphanages and a TB sanatorium in western Ukraine, where locals are still suffering the effects of Chernobyl.

Give & Getaways’ Fortlage says “hard-core” volunteers may go to Sri Lanka or the Philippines. The most popular destination, however, tends to be Costa Rica, she says. “Costa Rica is easy to get to from the U.S. and the conditions aren’t as difficult as other places. It is the perfect place to ease into the whole idea of volunteering. For example, there is indoor plumbing and the water is drinkable right out of the tap—it’s just uncomfortable enough to make you proud you can do it, but not so much of a culture shock that you just can’t bear another minute. The people are friendly, the nature is beautiful [and] the climate is tropical. There are monkeys and birds and turtles. You get paradise while doing good.”

She also recommends Jamaica as a good first trip for beginners. “Jamaica seems like a nice draw because of the island atmosphere, but most volunteers return stating how differently the locals live there from what they were expecting,” she says. “There is real poverty in Jamaica...something you would never know if you only vacationed there.”

But a volunteer vacation is still a vacation, and many travelers will want to relax and sightsee apart from contributing. Fortlage says this isn’t difficult. “Most volunteer projects require a commitment of about six to eight hours each day for five days in a week, which allows the volunteer ample time to take advantage of cultural opportunities in the area,” she says.

Since her volunteers tend to visit more urban areas, Solaway’s Arychuk is able to arrange three- and four-star hotels to make their vacation comfortable. “At the end of a hectic day, it is enjoyable to come back to a nice hotel, have dinner and relax,” she says. “I often find that the group will gather and discuss many further projects they see that could be developed.”

Ultimately, voluntourism is not only soul-enriching but also one of the best ways of experiencing a destination. By interacting with the locals, visitors can get a true insider’s scoop on the area, and a better sense of what else they should see and do there. “In this way, you can either bypass all of the touristy stuff completely or take advantage of it in ways that aren’t so costly,” says Fortlage. “You really do get immersed in a place far more quickly [than normal], so you can take advantage of the fact that you are on vacation.”

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