Gone are the days when taking photos of exotic locales and trying new cuisine was the highlight of a vacation. Millions of Americans are embracing a new way to travel, one in which they can immerse themselves in local cultures and do their part to effect social change for communities in developing nations.
This trend, called volunteer tourism, or "voluntourism," usually sees travelers spend one or two weeks working in a developing community that is in need of labor or skilled workers. "Voluntourists" often pay for their own expenses, including a contribution to the community project for which they are volunteering.
Is It Worth the Money?
Voluntourism combines the adventure of traveling and exploring new cultures with the moral satisfaction that comes from volunteering. It also gives people a chance to learn a new skill during their vacations. Many voluntourists sign up for projects as unskilled workers in the hope that they can learn something new, even if they're already tradespeople or seasoned professionals in their fields. There are over 2,000 voluntourism organizations and companies around the world, so you're likely to find a volunteer opportunity that will interest you.
A 2008 survey co-sponsored by MSNBC found that more than half of those surveyed wanted to take a volunteer vacation. The participants were also asked what kind of volunteer jobs they would prefer to do. The most popular options were teaching English and other academic subjects, as well as working with children.
Excluding airfare, a volunteer vacation can still cost thousands of dollars. World Teach offers volunteer vacation packages for those looking to work as educators overseas. These packages include airfare and range from $1,000 to teach in Columbia and China, to nearly $6,000 to teach in developing African nations. The fees are used to pay for administration costs, food, lodging and any other expenses for the volunteer organization.
What to Watch Out For
It may sound morally enticing to volunteer with an orphanage in a developing nation, but you could very well be hindering the economic and ethical growth of a community.
Voluntourism has been fueling Cambodia's "orphan industry," with the number of children in Cambodian orphanages doubling over the past 10 years. According to Al Jazeera, over 70% of the children in these orphanages have one or both living parents. Many Cambodian parents are sending their kids to orphanages that also act as schools so that these children can reap the benefits of a Western education.
Unfortunately, many of these children are exploited for profit by the orphanages and kept in slum-like conditions in order to prey on the sympathy of well-intentioned volunteers. SISHA, an anti-human trafficking and exploitation organization, had one of these Cambodian orphanages undergo various government inspections to meet minimum health and safety standards. The orphanage failed all of the inspections, but some voluntourism organizations still place volunteers at this orphanage and others like it.
Cambodia isn't the only country that is making money by having children pose as orphans. In the West African country of Ghana, it was found that up to 90% of the children in orphanages were not actually orphans. Furthermore, only eight of the 148 orphanages were even licensed. UNICEF officials report that these schools spend less than one-third of their incomes on the children.
The 2008 MSNBC survey also found that half of the participants who said they voluntoured previously did construction work during their volunteer vacations. Unfortunately, a significant number of these projects are overstaffed and many of the volunteers are unwittingly taking paid jobs from workers in struggling economies. Before you commit your time and money to a voluntourism project, Travelmole.com recommends that you ask yourself the following questions: Is there a need for a volunteer? What is the legitimacy of the volunteer projects? Do you bring the necessary skills to the project? Are you displacing paid workers?
By addressing these concerns, you can ensure that your contributions are productive and beneficial for the community that you're working in.
The Bottom Line
Volunteer tourism is a billion-dollar industry, with an estimated 1.6 million humanitarian travelers giving money to both non-profit and for-profit organizations each year.
While it's a positive sign that so many of us are willing to give back to the global community, it also means that there's a lot of money to be made from volunteer tourists. As a result, many developing nations are seeing children and generous intentions exploited for profit. If you truly want your efforts and money to go to a good cause, exercise caution and do your research before taking a volunteer vacation.