ShanghaiTalk Magazine featured Journeys Within in their latest issue in a wonderful article about volunteering during vacation. You can read the text of the article here, but be sure to see the full display on their site, or as a PDF here: Feature story
By: Kyle Patrick Long
It’s a boom that defies generational and professional boundaries, attracting recent graduates, retirees, corporations and families alike. The international volunteering industry, known as voluntourism, has boomed in the past decade, with an increasing number of vacationers skipping the spa treatments and beachside cocktails, opting instead for a more memorable, authentic local experience.
Tammy Leland, a pioneer in the industry and co-founder of Crooked Trails, a small non-profit in Seattle, explains, “We began doing this kind of work 14 years ago. There were very few companies doing community-based travel that gave the locals the power to make decisions about tourism in their own communities. People were talking about ecotourism benefiting the environment but not cultures.”
Edge of Seven was founded in 2000 when Erin Guttenplan noticed an upswing in the interest to volunteer abroad. Seeing an opportunity to connect volunteers with meaningful opportunities in developing countries in a more affordable way, the non-profit is constructing a hostel in the Everest Region of Nepal that will house 40 girls from areas where education sometimes means a three-day walk each way to the schoolhouse.
When a traveler commits their hard-earned vacation time or savings to go on a trip, they often come away with more than the locals they have come to assist. “The moment that a volunteer has a personal transformation and recognizes the need for global social change, those are the moments that inspire me,” says Guttenplan.
The organizational support these groups bring is one of the main growth drivers for the industry. According to a 2009 study by GeckoGo, volunteering with an organization was by far the preferred option, with 89 per cent of respondents saying they would like to volunteer with an operator versus 11 per cent who prefer to organize the trip themselves
Founded in 2004 and based in Sydney, Australia, Inspired Adventures bills itself as a ‘charity challenge company’ that keeps the focus on pre-trip fundraising for various charities. The company works directly with the charities to activate their donor base, getting supporters to raise money for them, with the reward of an exciting travel challenge in an exotic location. The average participant raises RMB 33,000 above their travel costs through a variety of events, such as hosting charity dinners, raffles or chocolate sales.
In May, a group of 10 adventurers who raised well over RMB 330,000 for The Heart Research Centre will spend 10 days in Beijing and trek along the Great Wall while spending the night in local villages. Kyle Taylor, Business Development Manager of Inspired Adventures, explains, “Since I started leading trips last year, I’ve already had four people change their careers. They realized they needed to do more to help people.”
Unlike most other forms of voluntourism, not every trip is exclusively focused on helping charities on the ground where the adventures take place. Taylor explains that Chinese charities are often difficult to engage with, but many of their other trips do offer a chance to volunteer for several days with children, or provide medical services in Vietnamese villages, for example. These interactions also help to bridge long-term connections between the Australian charities they support and local communities that need it most.
“We’re at a stage now where everyone who can afford to travel has probably travelled. They’ve done Europe or a safari, but this is a way to say, ‘How can I go back and have a unique experience, get off the beaten path and do something for a cause that I’m proud to support?’” says Taylor.
Leland has seen first hand that the tourism industry has responded to the uptick in interest in recent years. “We are seeing literally hundreds of operators with volunteer service programs. This, of course, scares us a little bit that once again the tourist industry is looking to make money off of indigenous people who have a project or program to connect with people from the outside world.”
Journeys Within, a tour company that offers an experience with bed & breakfasts and charitable foundations, has a slightly different approach by taking visitors to see what their donation has made possible. They call it ‘active philanthropy’ because travelers don’t just write a check to a charity, but instead travel and visit that charity, participating in the English class they helped fund, meeting the recipients of the well they provided or having lunch with the scholarship student they’re supporting.
Critics are quick to point out that spending upwards of USD 1,000 or more on airfare for volunteers or philanthropists to travel around the world could be better used by the local communities themselves, but proponents argue that voluntourism is not just about the immediate impact of the volunteer work. Establishing long-term ties and transforming the volunteer into a life-long supporter of the cause is an important part of the process.
Guttenplan points out that many of the past volunteers return to their home countries and become advocates, helping to secure grant funding, host fundraisers or speak in their communities about their work. It’s a sustainable approach that has helped Edge of Seven maintain and grow its operations to Cambodia, India and Thailand with meaningful projects.
Leland warns, “The impacts from this kind of travel can have enormous benefit to both hosts and guests, but it can also have many negative impacts if not properly done.” With that in mind, it’s always a good idea to check the background of any company offering these services and check online for opinions and stories from other travelers before you commit.