Combining travel and volunteering, voluntourism is a popular trend, whether it's helping the environment or local community—and it's not just for travelers who have months to spare abroad. Major disasters, such as Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami, inspire many to give back but sometimes you can be more effective in other areas that aren't part of the news cycle. Costa Rica, New Orleans & the Gulf Coast, Africa, and Thailand are all popular destinations where you can help protect unique environments and cultures. Here's what to expect and some resources to find the right program for you.
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What to Expect
A true volunteer experience usually requires more than providing your travel dates and sending a check, therefore it is advisable to research a range of types of commitment before picking one. Fees for volunteer programs are comparable to costs for a vacation, but standards are almost always lower than those of a typical pleasure trip. Rooms are shared, meals are self-catering, and toilet facilities will not be five-star-hotel caliber. Those that look more fun than work-oriented, with smiling bikini-clad teens on their Web pages, are generally most expensive.
In recent years more and more Costa Ricans have realized the need to preserve their country’s precious biodiversity. Both Ticos and far-flung environmentalists have founded volunteer and educational concerns to this end. Volunteer opportunities span a range of diverse interests. You can tag sea turtles as part of a research project, build trails in a national park, or volunteer at an orphanage. Many of the organizations require at least rudimentary Spanish. Most of the programs for volunteers who don’t speak Spanish charge a daily fee for room and board.
New Orleans & the Gulf Coast
Tourism is the driving force behind the area's economy, and visitors’ dollars are helping the region rebound following Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. But if you want to have a more-direct impact, get to work. The groups listed below help connect volunteers with all sorts of jobs—everything from gutting/rebuilding homes, landscaping, environmental and cultural preservation, to clerical assistance.
- Bayou Rebirth matches volunteers to wetlands restoration projects in Southeast Louisiana. In addition to helping renew precious environmental resources, volunteers get to experience the beautiful ecosystem of the Mississippi River delta. Full day and half day opportunities are available.
- Habitat for Humanity's mission is to eliminate homelessness and make housing affordable. The organization is building new homes in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.
- The grass-roots KatrinaCorps works with multiple groups and hosts a variety of different projects. Service opportunities include renovating/repairing schools and houses, house gutting, land preservation, and mentoring.
Volunteering in Africa has grown in popularity, and several international volunteer vacation organizations offer some combination of touring and service. Professionals can often consult their own organizations for opportunities to transfer skills in Africa, while students can find suitable student-oriented programs through their universities. While there are many opportunities throughout Africa, the existing tourism infrastructure in South Africa and Kenya make them a good place for first-timers.
- A vacation-oriented volunteer agency, Aviva offers leisure-friendly activities like teaching surfing or helping conserve penguins. It's good for students with spare time, and plenty of spare cash.
- Global Volunteer Network is a New Zealand–based volunteer placement agency with environmental projects in South Africa.
- Transitions Abroad lists dozens of South African volunteer opportunities with a range of requirements and destinations.
Though the tourism boom has been great for Thailand’s economy, it has had many negative effects on Thai culture and natural resources. These problems, which range from water pollution to sex tourism to the transformation of hill-tribe villages into virtual theme parks, are difficult to rein in. The good news is that a growing number of tour operators and hotel proprietors are addressing these issues, and are therefore worthy of your support. Voluntourism is a growing trend in Thailand, and a number of organizations are now offering educational travel programs that incorporate some volunteer work. Lots of businesses are offering eco-minded tours; here are a few reputable ones to get you started.
Photo Credits: Habitat for Humanity Volunteers by HFHI/Steffan Hacker, Manuel Antonio Squirrel Monkey by iStockPhoto/ edurivero
- The umbrella group Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute is a good place to start. It provides information about tour agencies and community programs that promote culturally sensitive tourism.
- East West Siam's Himmapaan Project is a reforestation initiative near Chiang Mai. Participants work alongside tribespeople and forestry experts to promote biodiversity.
- The Educational Travel Center organizes cultural exchanges and ecotours, as well as volunteer programs at a variety of destinations in Southeast Asia.
- North by North East Tours works in both Thailand and Laos, offering homestays and volunteer work such as building schools, teaching English, and providing medical care.
- Lost Horizons runs several thematic ecotourism trips in Thailand, including jungle treks, kayaking, beach retreats, and animal conservation.