Want your down time to benefit the greater good? Here’s how you can blend tourism with volunteerism.
|Peru’s Sacred Valley
© Frank Smith and Susan Kheder/
Abercrombie & Kent Picture Library
Most vacationers traveling to Sarasota
don’t dream of leaving a luxurious
resort to spend hours on their
hands and knees with a scrub brush and a
bottle of bleach. But Roe Moldow of Newport,
R.I., did just that — and she considers it a
highlight of her trip.
Moldow devoted a half-day of her vacation to
cleaning a swimming pool for tigers at the Big
Cat Habitat, a Florida sanctuary for lions,
tigers and bears in need. The activity was
part of a Ritz-Carlton Hotels social and
environmental responsibility program called
Give-Back Getaways that offers guests the
chance to mix community service with vacation.
The concept is called “voluntourism,”
and it’s gaining popularity. In fact, roughly
38% of tourists planned to include volunteer
service in their 2008 travels, according to a
survey by Travelocity, up from 15% in a
similar survey in 2006.
“Part of the reason people travel is for new
experiences, and if you add a service component
and engage the local culture more deeply,
you make the experience so powerful by giving
it meaning,” says Scott Laughlin, who has
visited India and Africa as a voluntourist and
is co-founder of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based
nonprofit voluntourism organization Heart
Volunteer vacations can take on almost any
guise, ranging from simple, half-day sightseeing
tours of projects vacationers may have helped
fund to weeks of hard manual labor. But before
you sign up for any volunteer vacation, make
sure you consider these factors to ensure your
trip will be rewarding, safe and successful.
Choose Your Adventure
Pick someplace that appeals to you as a vacation
destination. There are opportunities to
serve everywhere, so unless you’re traveling
specifically to work with a particular charitable organization,
let your instincts be your tour guide.
There are several ways to find a partner organization
through which to serve. You can contact an international
organization that sponsors volunteer vacations (the list
includes Habitat for Humanity and the Sierra Club), or you
can search online to find a smaller group in the area you’re
planning to visit. Laughlin says his best experiences are with
small local groups, but if you go that route it’s up to you to
make sure the organization is legitimate and that your expectations
for the trip match what the group can provide.
“It’s important that the organization be clear about what the
volunteers are going to do. For example, tourists might arrive
thinking they’ll be helping baby turtles hatch, but instead they
might be in an office doing spreadsheets for the turtle-hatching
operation,” says Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International
Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University in
Alternatively, you can ask for help from your hotel or travel
agent. The Ritz-Carlton’s Give Back Getaways program, which
launched last year, offers half-day service trips from each of its
worldwide hotels. Luxury travel agent Abercrombie & Kent
has similar programs and also helps its custom-tour clients
make connections with local service groups.
“We do the due diligence,” says Sue Stephenson, a Ritz-Carlton
vice president who oversees the Give Back Getaways
program. “Our guests want a credible experience, not volunteering-light.
We can research these organizations, understand
their missions and what the volunteer experience will be.”
A volunteer vacation can be entirely service-based or include
a small service component. If you’re new to the voluntourist
idea, make sure you emphasize the vacation part: go sightseeing,
sample the local cuisine and leave time to relax. Then
add service to taste.
“It might be enough to sponsor the digging of a well
before you leave, and then travel to see it in completed
form,” Laughlin says. “That’s a lot different than spending
three weeks digging the well.”
And think about the kind of service you’re doing, and how
intense it might be, physically and emotionally. Lamoureux
says a classic example is volunteers who sign up for a week
of caring for babies at HIV/AIDS orphanages in Africa. “That
can be very traumatic and most people can’t handle it in a
prolonged way,” she says. “Take some prep time beforehand,
and then maybe take breaks from the experience to do other
tourist activities such as going out on a safari for a day.”
Volunteer vacations usually carry a price tag that minimally
covers your expenses so the organization you’re serving doesn’t
have to pay. Sometimes the fee, which can range from $50 to
several thousand, includes a donation to the organization.
Think, too, about your accommodations. If you’d like to
serve by day but enjoy five-star restaurants and hotels at
night, make sure you’re serving in an area that offers those
amenities. Especially with overseas trips, this is an area where
a travel company can do the necessary research to minimize
any surprises you might encounter.
Measure Your Impact
Stephenson says she strives for authenticity with the Ritz-Carlton’s
Give Back Getaways, ensuring that volunteers are
making a genuine, needed contribution to the community
they serve. Voluntourism comes under fire when it fails on
that count, and local residents sense that travelers are treating
their impoverished or storm-ravaged neighborhoods as just
another sightseeing stop. Despite tourists’ best intentions,
those trips can seem dehumanizing and voyeuristic to locals,
who probably don’t share in the tour guide’s fee.
One way to guard against that is to form a lasting
relationship with the organization you serve, either though
philanthropic contributions, repeat visits or continuing your
service when you return home. Laughlin, for instance, visited
a school for street children in Mumbai, India, and met with
the school’s leaders to determine its needs. He continues to
help the school achieve tax-exempt status in the United States
so Americans can eventually make tax-free donations.
Moldow enjoyed all aspects of her trip to Sarasota, but
the volunteer experience stands out: “How often do you
get the chance to stand so close to a lion or a tiger that you
can feel its breath?” she asks. By adding a service component
to your next vacation, your trip, too, might become
more meaningful, memorable and beneficial — for you
and for those you visit.
YOUR TRIP, YOUR CHOICE
Before you start packing, here are several online resources that can help you make the most of your volunteer vacation. The first
group consists of general voluntourism resources and provides a good start for learning more about volunteer vacations as well as
connecting with small service organizations. The second includes voluntourism organizations that sponsor trips so you can sample the
possibilities. And the third is a group of large, well-known organizations that offer volunteer travel packages.