There's a new buzz word in the international travel industry - voluntourism. Broadly defined, it means any travel experience that includes some kind of volunteer work. It could be a weekend break close to where you live, or a year long overseas adventure, and could involve anything from tree planting, to teaching English, to saving rare sea turtles.
Combining travel with a volunteer project is a great way to get the most out of your travel experience. Monitoring wild dolphins or turtles has to be more of an adventure than just lying on the beach. Teaching English at a local school or orphanage brings you closer to the culture and local customs than you could ever get as an 'outsider'. Volunteering is a way to give something back to the local community and learn new skills at the same time. Plus, if you sign up for a cause you're really passionate about you'll meet lots of like-minded people, making it a great option if you're travelling alone, or just want to make new friends who share your latest interest.
What will it cost?
There are some free volunteer projects, some that will cost you thousands of dollars, and
everything in between. Some projects will provide accommodation and food in return for
work, while others will expect you to pay a fee that covers not only your own expenses but
part of the costs of the project as well, which means, in effect, you're donating money, as
well as time and effort, to the cause. It all depends on your budget, and how committed
you are to the issue.
If you sign up with Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), for example, you have
the opportunity to work on a range of farms and smallholdings around the world. You'll
learn about organic farming and for every day you work you get a free nights board and
lodging with your host. Many farms will let you stay anything from one night to a few
months. This can be a great experience, whether you want to go to a farm near your home
for a weekend trip, or travel the world for a year staying on different farms in different countries for differing amounts of time.
Other organizations are much more costly. As an example Earthwatch is currently charging $2,650 for an eleven day expedition monitoring whales and dolphins in the Bahamas, or $2,950 for a thirteen day expedition in Italy helping to save cultural treasures, and you'll have to pay travel costs on top of that.
Do I need experience?
A great perk of volunteer travel is that the organization will usually provide any training you need to complete volunteer tasks, and you will learn new skills as part of the experience. Certainly if you have relevant skills you can use them. If you're a nurse, you might want to work on health care projects in developing countries, and if you have a TEFL qualification, teaching underprivileged kids English is an obvious choice for you, but don't assume that just because you don't have experience in the area you're interested in you won't be useful team member.
The vast majority of volunteer projects are open to anyone with enthusiasm and a willingness to follow directions.
How do I get started?
A quick internet search will throw up a range of volunteer opportunities. There are plenty of websites dedicated to publicizing volunteer opportunities or matching potential volunteers with organizations. Take a look at www.voluntourism.org or www.matador.org for preliminary research and ideas, and www.volunteermatch.org for opportunities near you or in the area you want to visit. If you already support a particular charity or non-profit organization, you can approach them directly and ask about volunteer opportunities.
A final tip: be prepared to spend time and effort researching what's available and really taking your time to find the perfect project for you. Volunteer work (especially overseas) can be a huge challenge, so make sure you're putting your efforts into something that you're really passionate about.
Browse the following websites to explore some fantastic volunteer opportunities around the world: