An Altruist's Vacation

If travel is meant to broaden the mind, then the steadily growing field of “voluntourism” stands to broaden the mind and enrich the soul. But like its close cousin ecotourism, the altruistically simple concept of doing good while traveling is also privy to some easy misconceptions. Here, we offer a guide to get you on the right path to becoming a good global citizen.
Mexico Connie Bock
FROM THE GROUND UP: Voluntourists pitch in down in Mexico (image courtesy Connie Bock/Volunteers for Peace)

What Is It?
In this age of greater environmental awareness and sensitivity toward more sustainable patterns of travel, voluntourism is one way in which well meaning travelers can put their money where their hearts are. After all, who can argue with, say, a marketing exec who wants to commit her vacation time to something more fulfilling than a bottomless beach buffet and better tan on the Maya Riviera?

Recent humanitarian catastrophes like the Southeast Asian tsunami, Kashmir earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina have only helped to increase the public appetite for offering private time toward the greater good. Front-page fears over global warming and the re-emergence of environmentalism in the mainstream have further fueled that feel-good fire.

The lingering effects of 9/11 can't be understated either, both among individuals and the travel industry writ large, which took a huge hit in the immediate aftermath. "Until 2000, [volunteer vacationing] wasn't even on the radar for the mainstream travel industry," recalls David Clemmons, founder and co-director of Voluntourism International. "Now people are more aware of the world around them—and what's going on in the world around them."

The concept of volunteer vacations, though, isn't new—just as wildlife observation didn't simply come into being with construction of the first ecolodge. Travelers have been sharing their time, expertise, resources, and cultural idiosyncrasies for centuries. But just as cheaper air travel has created a framework for attainable experiences in foreign lands, in the last five or six years voluntourism has benefited from a more structured organizational framework. People have an innate desire to lend a helping hand; now that impulse is even more actionable, especially with the explosion of information across the Internet. Long story short, we have fewer excuses for sitting on our duffs doing nothing.

Published: 25 Jun 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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