Changing the world isn’t as idealistic—or expensive—as it seems. With a little conviction and a lot of heart, compassionate travelers can put their two weeks towards volunteer tourism.
With its growing popularity and edifying reputation, volunteer tourism—or ‘voluntourism’—has inspired and satisfied many travelers in search of more than a poolside bar from their vacation. These volunteer trips, often sponsored by universities, religious organizations or specialized agencies, allow students and Miami residents to pack their rucksacks and take global crises into their own hands.
Providing a relatively affordable avenue for service without individual long-term commitments, voluntourism attracts many who would like to do more on a budget. Participating in volunteer tourism gives a sponsor more bang for their buck. On average, volunteer programs will cost from $1,500-$3,500 per one to three week period, according to a popular agency, ProWorld.
Sojourners from all walks of life are finding a way to work abroad. Religious organizations, like the Florida Bible Church, Food For The Poor and His House, have created missionary programs to Vrygrond, South Africa, in the name of humanitarianism.
“I will actually go thousands of miles away and touch some one’s life, or make a difference in a child’s life,” said Ceci Cabrera, a ministry assistant at the Florida Bible Church, who will be participating on her first mission this summer. “We’ll be helping through church-sponsored “hands on” projects like painting, renovating or assembling and delivering food pantry items to needy families in Vrygrond.”
This trend—though not yet popular enough to earn itself a New York Times Travel tab—is becoming a popular vacation type, especially for women. According to a CNN study, roughly 70 percent of all volunteer travelers are women. The same survey reported that 90 percent of voluntourists are aged from 20 to 25.
Made popular in part by an increase in global consciousness, the search for meaning in life and celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Shakira, this fad has done more good than bad. By stimulating an increased popular awareness of global issues like poverty, health and human rights in developing countries, individual armchair activists can actually take part in the work they admire.
“The most powerful feeling I experienced was actually frustration,” said Hilary Saunders, University of Miami alumni who participated in University of Miami Hillel’s 2009 Alternative Spring Breaks program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Though we truly made strides sanding, painting and organizing the community center, I wished we could have done more.”
Another reason tourists are looking at humanitarian tourism is the global edge it gives a resume. With the increasingly competitive job market and emphasized international criteria for graduate school applications, it’s rare to speak to a university student today who has not already partaken on a humanitarian venture or holds intentions of doing so.
“Reading about Ghana and visiting Ghana are two separate concepts,” said Patty Flemming, a student at the University of Miami who is anxious to find work in Africa. “I can study the people’s testimonies and stories as much as I want, but I won’t feel like I understand a developing country until I get some field experience.”
However, the most popular reason for volunteer tourism remains the instinctual human desire to help.
“You get addicted to service work in a way,” said Andrew Dawson, a junior at the University of Miami who spent two summers conducting research and working in South Africa. “The trip showed me how lucky I was to be born in the situation I was, and put small life troubles into perspective.”
Dawson’s program was an internship with the Amy Biehl Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with underprivileged children growing up in the townships outside of Cape Town. Though his experience was invaluable, he explains that the nature of volunteer tourism lends itself to serious cultural pitfalls.
“Humanitarian tourism is a good thing as long as there is a focus on the actual service,” said Dawson. “Many groups when planning these trips just treat the service as a given and don’t really put a lot of thought into their actions. They focus too much on what they will get out of it rather than focusing on making their service the best they possibly could, the most sustainable and helpful.”
He points out that many of these tourists have not developed the cultural sensibility necessary to offer real help in these areas of the world, which leads to unintentional harm versus help.
“I remember all the groups coming through would always take pictures, naturally, but the way they did it often offended the community, made them feel like exhibits,” Dawson explained. “One 15-year-old boy told me that he did not understand why white people thought he was like a zoo animal. It is the small things like this that hurt and are the problem with humanitarian tourism.”
Along with his group, Dawson ran a three-week soccer clinic and noted that the children that participated gained valuable (How was it valuable?) experience working in teams and together, since none of them had ever played in an organized sports tournament before. It’s these kinds of projects that make the real differences.
“The experience helped me define what I wanted out of life, made me more committed to eventually working for a non-profit organization,” said Dawson, reflecting on his past two summers in Cape Town. “I’m already planning my trip back.”
Let’s add a list of possible places for people to do volunteertourism at least five different places in different areas. Things to focus on while there. What certain areas really need more help with and how to make the most of your experience instead of just going through the motions of volunteering.