Many years ago, out-of-town vacations were deemed as a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Nowadays, however, thanks to technological advancements and improvements in airline policies and safety, it’s not uncommon to find people taking regular trips out of town, flying to foreign countries, and enjoying their stay in sun-kissed beaches and pristine mountain villas. These vacations, although vastly economical, have often been questioned for their extravagance, and for how little they do to give back to the world.
Organizations from all over the world, however, have come up with an ingenious solution: voluntours – vacations that also give tourists a chance to do something for the communities they’ll be visiting. Volunteering has become quite popular, with Institute of Volunteering Research reporting that as many as 44% of adults volunteered formally in 2012-2013 –- a 5% increase from the numbers in 2010-2011. Furthermore, while 2012 saw an increase in people volunteering to aid in disaster relief, studies also indicate that as many as half of the people living in the United States have shown an interest in taking a volunteer vacation in the near future.
Voluntours – also known as volunteer vacations and Do-Good Vacations -– are all about traveling to a new place and helping and learning from others through cultural immersion and community work. Organizations such as GoVoluntouring are quickly gaining popularity, having established a system that allows would-be vacationers to choose an iconic destination, and participate in activities that include, but are not limited to, medical aid, community infrastructure development, and environmental and wildlife conservation.
But early this year, Pippa Biddle shed light to a growing problem faced by voluntour organizations, and how, sadly, the joys of voluntouring were largely misrepresented. Pippa and a group of her friends had gone to Tanzania as part of a school trip and helped build a library, but because they were so unskilled, “each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”
When they go on Do-Good Vacations, people are often lost in the thought of helping others and forget to ask, “What exactly am I doing to help out?” This aspect of volunteering goes widely neglected when people consider taking voluntours. Most charities require their volunteers to have training in some practical aspect that can help the community they’re being immersed in. It’s not enough to want to do good – volunteers should be able to actually do good. For instance, VSO International, one of the most successful charitable organizations that services all parts of the world, requires that their volunteers have a minimum of 2 years of professional experience in the field they want to volunteer with.
Similarly, Fair Trials International, a non-government organization that gives people access to quality legal advice, no matter where in the world they are, asks that those who volunteer with their organization undergo training in areas of law reform, assistance, and external relations, or, when possible, already have a background in law and legal aid.
Sure, the idea of going on a vacation and coming out of it as better people is alluring, especially when you’re traveling with children in tow, but more often than not, Do-Good Vacations offer absurd packages that don’t really give much to the community. For example, families looking to go to the Philippines might be surprised to find that voluntour programs in the country range from “having breakfast with the impoverished” to making arts and crafts with indigenous tribes. While these seem appealing, it begs the question, “How does this actually help the community I’m visiting?”
This isn’t to say that all volunteer vacations are ineffective. While official voluntouring efforts in the Philippines are largely questionable, other small-scale voluntouring projects in the country allow tourists to join mountain treks and deliver school supplies and construction materials to out-of-the-way communities. Before you go on any trip that offers the chance to do good while you’re experiencing the beauty of a foreign land, be sure to do enough research to ensure that you’re actually helping the community you’re being immersed in.
Image courtesy of: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr Creative Commons
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