Volunteer Travel

Ever thought of making your next holiday a wholly different experience to anything you’ve done before, to contribute with your time and money? Well join the thousands of people who travel to exotic destinations around the world and take part in the new eco-tourism revolution. Many otherwise well informed or those that consider themselves “travel trend conscious” are surprised to learn that not only do volunteers travel overseas to work for someone else, they pay for the privilege! There has been a very subtle shift away from the standard backpacking trip, over land type experience to this new type of holiday, and it’s a fantastic experience to boot!

So what is volunteering exactly? Just type in volunteer tours or gap year travel in Google and you’ll be inundated with hits from around the globe detailing projects you can contribute to. These projects are highly varied, ranging from humanitarian assistance, conservation based work to cultural exposure and everything in between. You could work with lion rehabilitation programs in East Africa or South Africa, help HIV/AIDS orphans in the Garden Route, dive underwater while researching coral reefs in Australia or help teach Tibetan monks English. The number of projects available is mind boggling, with budgets and extras to suit anyone of any age.

Most volunteer projects can be divided into two groups: wildlife oriented and humanitarian/cultural. The wildlife type projects are usually slightly more expensive with projects starting at £1000 for one month, and can go up many more times than this for extended expeditions or in projects that give you a qualification when you leave such as a PADI diving certificate. By contrast you could work on a humanitarian project in India or Africa at a cost starting at £500, for four weeks. The reason for the difference is not readily apparent but probably comes down to the charismatic marketing potential of working with wildlife. That’s not to say that these projects are any less worthwhile but generally people are prepared to pay more for this type of experience.

Accommodation will vary with various projects and like most tourism based activities; generally the more you pay the better the facilities and amenities available to you. Thankfully not all of us require a 5 star game lodge from which to work, or a comfortable double room with ensuite bathroom and there are fantastic opportunities to stay with local communities, living their life and eating their food. Alternatively you could sleep literally under the stars while on a research camp and eat very basic meals, a humbling but fantastically rewarding experience being in truly wild places.

The average volunteer program runs for about a month, but many companies will fit you in for a reduced duration. Most will also take you on for an extended period of time but not usually more than an extra month, especially on social or humanitarian type projects. The emotional attachment one can develop with the communities and individuals can be life altering, but also disruptive when a volunteer stays too long and then must leave due to financial constraints or visa requirements. The ideal volunteer program will offer a regular supply of volunteers to maintain consistency and funding for the program, a routine the local community can adapt to and not become dependent on a few individuals.

A question that sometimes surfaces regarding volunteer travel and the work these intrepid adventurers contribute to is, “are volunteers actually contributing anything worthwhile, apart from the funding they provide?”. The answer in my opinion is most definitely yes! Of course there will always be organisations that will jump on the volunteer or eco-tourism bandwagon and attempt to exploit the local community, wildlife conservation initiative and the volunteers themselves by withholding the facts about the goals of the project, the money reinvested into the project and the role volunteers will have in positively altering the situation. Your best defence is to make an informed decision, and to do this you need information.

There are some prospective volunteer do’s and don’ts that follow shortly in this article.
Volunteers can have a major and lasting positive impact on many projects. The key is having a project structure that provides the correct support, training and offers value for money. All these aspects are basically controlled by the company you book with, which is even more reason to find out all you can about your proposed company. Scientific research requires a fairly rigid project structure where the aims and methods for data capture are clearly explained, while having a Project Coordinator to oversee you and your colleagues and explain or correct any mistakes is vitally important to ensure the data captured is robust and can be published in an academic capacity. After all the dissemination of information is the main purpose of scientific research, it has the ability to affect the way we think and influence policy makers, all of which can contribute to truly effective conservation.

By contrast humanitarian assistance can be far less rigidly structured but should still have a long term goal set in place, whether that is building an orphanage from volunteer donations or helping to set up a long-term and sustainable teacher training institution. It is of vital importance that the local community should wherever possible be totally self sufficient from volunteer support or the financial benefits of the company involved. Should volunteers be denied access to these people for whatever reason it should ideally not affect the community unduly, they should never become dependent on volunteer involvement or any associated income generation. You should investigate this situation to make sure your involvement will not contribute to this possibility and the project has clearly defined goals that are sustainable and allow for community self-sufficiency.

The following probably goes without saying as most new age travellers are pretty travel conscious and aware of potential pitfalls but it’s worth explaining a few aspects. Some organisations are not what they seem! Sounds obvious in today’s naturally cynical world but the potential for misconduct is far higher in the volunteer travel industry where there are a number of stakeholders that stand to lose out, not just you but the local communities and/or wildlife. You should endeavour to find out as much information as possible about a volunteer organisation you are interested in. The first stop should be the company’s website to have a look at their mission statement and ethics policy if they have one. If your questions aren’t answered here then by all means contact a representative of the company and ask for their stance on certain aspects, e.g. their environmental responsibility, what percentage of your fee is reinvested in the project, what are the sleeping arrangements, what is your refund policy if I’m not happy with how the project is run when I arrive, is your conservation initiative based on sound scientific conservation principles etc. I don’t intend to single any particular industry here but for example if an organisation states it has been breeding lions since 1970 for example and offers volunteers the opportunity to help with their breeding program, they had better have some solid reasons to explain why no lions have been released into the wild since that time! It is your responsibility to get the most information you can and make an informed decision to contribute to a company that is positively assisting their projects.

Another excellent way of obtaining information about a particular organisation is through referrals, either provided by the organisation themselves or sourced by you. Travel forums, blogs and e-newsletters related to travel are all good ways of getting the information you need. Ask the same questions you put to representatives of the company and see if they match up to what past volunteers experienced. Remember it is easy enough to say one thing and commit your company to saving the world, but when money starts rolling in another set of ethics entirely is easy to put into practice.

So there we have it, volunteer travel is one of the fastest growing sectors in eco-tourism and gap year travel and for good reason! The potential for massive, far-reaching and totally worthwhile contribution by volunteers is indisputable. Volunteers can benefit scientific research by providing extra manpower and all important funding as well as assisting our fellow man to better themselves. As a feel good shot in the arm and a way to see a country and people in a totally different light, volunteering has few equals. Go for it, I guarantee it will change your perceptions and offer a new insight into travel.