Volunteering to build a house
One voluntourism activity: building a house

Have you ever thought about volunteering on vacation?  Teaching English, building a house, or cleaning up the environment?

If so, you’re not alone. Volunteer tourism – or voluntourism – is growing in popularity. A 2008 study by Tourism and Research Marketing put the number of volunteer tourists at 1.6 million per year for an annual value of more than $2 billion U.S.

Why Voluntourism?

“Folks are waking up to the fact that tourism is a massive industry with the ability to change landscapes, and thus how one travels matters,” explains Betty Jo Currie, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Atlanta, Georgia. “They don’t want their children to see their travel experiences as simply privilege. They want them to learn about the places they go, the people, and the ideas.”

One Voluntourist’s Experience

Voluntourism: Helping with Animals
Another potential voluntourist activity: helping at a shelter

Pamela Lassers, with Virtuoso partner Abercrombie & Kent, recalls a marketing communications executive who used her talents to benefit an organization supporting Mount Kilimanjaro porters. Porters ascend with climbers on expeditions, carrying gear and supplies.

“The client asked us to find a volunteer project in Tanzania after a bike trip she was doing,” Lassers relates. “She helped the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project develop their website, write press releases, and find university partners to provide an ongoing source of PR interns.”

Where to Go, What to Do? 

Sybil Ford, a Virtuoso travel advisor in New York City, says Kenya and Cambodia are two of the most popular voluntourism destinations. “Those places allow you to combine sightseeing you wouldn’t do on a regular vacation with the ability to help someone,” she notes. “Cambodia is popular with Vietnam war veterans, because Vietnam is not that far from Cambodia.”

There’s a world of projects awaiting voluntourists

Ford finds clients are also interested in other African regions, particularly with water-related projects. “Something else I’ve seen tour groups incorporate is support for women’s groups,” she continues. “There’s a certified area with women who are supporting their families with the funds used to purchase their crafts. This is a safe environment where you can actually see the women working.”

Through Abercrombie & Kent trips, travelers can educate street children in Delhi or provide pillows and blankets to kids in Peru, for example. These programs encourage human connections, allowing clients to play soccer or attend classes with the children they help.

“It makes me feel good when I do things like that,” confides Elaine Carey, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Raleigh, North Carolina, of a charitable orange-picking excursion she participated in on a cruise through Israel. “It sets something off deep inside me and makes me want to help even more.”

How to Have a Great Voluntourism Experience

  • Think about your skills and interests and ask your Virtuoso travel advisor to find an experience that’s a match.
  • Have an idea of the kind of project you want to do and how long you want to spend doing it.
  • Often hotels, cruise lines and tour operators have partnerships with charitable organizations, including their own non-profit arms that improve the lives of people in the regions they serve. Your travel advisor can arrange an experience for you through them.
  • Have realistic expectations. You’ll likely meet locals and gain a new perspective, but you won’t witness huge changes from a brief project.