A “Voluntour” Vacation?

January 24th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Is immersive volunteering right for your next vacation plan?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Combining vacation with volunteering is on the rise, as the ever-increasing “voluntourism” opportunities around the world can attest. And the need for global volunteers is perhaps greater than ever before, with prominent disasters in Haiti, Japan, the Philippines and, of course, the United States making headlines.

Big-hearted tourists have been dispatched the world over. But while so many volunteers mean so well, and want to do so much good, are they really prepared?

A Mexican company, Voluntrek, is taking voluntourism a step – or several – forward, with an 18-day course in which volunteers join professional Mexican rescue teams in Mexico City, delving deep into disaster training (including learning how to work in and around collapsed structures). The idea came about after founder Yvonne Nader Bichara searched for opportunities to give back in her own country, and realized there was an opportunity to merge tourism and volunteering. Travelers interested in learning how to qualify with Voluntrek can find it through GoVoluntouring, an online community for volunteers and overseas teachers with a searchable database of projects in 99 countries.

We recently spoke with Bichara and Aaron Smith, founder of GoVoluntouring, about the new partnership:

How did GoVoluntouring and Voluntrek decide to join forces in offering a disaster-training program?

AS: Voluntrek was introduced to us by a peer organization. The project’s goals of providing skilled relief in a time of need, while empowering volunteers through real-time applied learning, are precisely what we look for in program partners.

What does the program involve?

YNB: The training provides basic elements for rescuing, planning and command post, preparing volunteers to join future rescues around the world, and to become part of the team. Participants will assist theoretical and practical lessons, learning about civil protection, hazards, first responder training, donated goods management, triage and collapsed structures.

This program is only for those interested in using the acquired knowledge and abilities to volunteer with an organization in case of a disaster, not for those seeking to make a career in this field. Participants will not be receiving a certificate of participation, but will be qualified to cooperate as part of a volunteer team in future emergencies and natural disasters around the world.

Have you seen a major uptick in travelers wanting to do good on their vacations?

YNB: There has been a sharp rise in the number of travelers participating in these programs over the past 6-7 years. Especially women. In fact, GoVoluntouring’s users are 82 percent female, and most are over 35. We regularly hear stories of overcoming challenges, eye-opening experiences and unforeseen events. It’s these unscripted moments that, upon returning, leave the most powerful impressions.

How do you know what kind of volunteer vacation is right for you? Should you develop some kind of checklist or should you choose based on a destination?

AS: One of the most common questions we get is “How do I know this project is right for me?” That’s a big question with a lot of moving parts. In response, GoVoluntouring has written a page called “What to Ask,” as a guide to help people understand the realities and necessary considerations. There is a 14-point checklist with questions that all potential volunteers should consider. If there was only one question every volunteer should ask, it should be, “To what extent is the local community involved?” as that question matters as much for environmental conservation projects as it does for social empowerment.

On a simpler level, and as a starting point, we have seven filters that can provide people with matches, things like destination, duration, project type and fitness level.

Do travelers seem to have more specific target areas for voluntourism now? It used to be that people generally wanted to, say, go on safari and contribute in some way to the community. But do they now want to go to very specific areas for specific reasons?

AS: As for specifics or trends, wildlife conservation projects, such as Sea Turtle Conservation, seem to be the most sought after options. Costa Rica, because of its rich bio-diversity, warm climate, and eco-brand, continually leads the way as our most viewed country. Other popular destinations include Peru, Guatemala, Thailand and South Africa.

Every volunteer’s reasons are different for where they want to go, and what they want to do during their time. We can say that some folks are looking to improve their CV, others are looking to spending two weeks as an alternative to an all-inclusive resort, while others still are looking for a lens-changing experience for themselves, or their family members. All however are, or at least should be, conscious of their impacts on the ground.

Are there places where traveling volunteers are actually in the way? How do you determine where you're most needed?

AS: Honesty is a very good place to start, and finding highly organized projects with strong community involvement is where it needs to end. If a potential volunteer goes into this thinking they will save the world, and/or that every project is equal, they are dead wrong.

If a volunteer is looking for a holiday alternative that has a hands-on component as an entry point into voluntourism, we have great options for sure, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending an unskilled teaching aid to Kathmandu for two months.