Go Away, Give Back

Voluntourism combines vacations with short-term volunteer projects

November 23, 2008|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Never heard of voluntourism? You will. Driven by the desire to fully experience a destination and to give back to it, more tourists are looking for opportunities to provide a volunteer service while on holiday.

Just this month, GoodHousekeeping.com recommended volunteer vacations as a budget-conscious way for families to travel. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury hotelier Ritz-Carlton recently launched its worldwide Give Back Getaways program, offering guests the chance to volunteer their time to local groups dedicated to child welfare, feeding the hungry and preserving the environment. Next year, Philadelphia will officially incorporate voluntourism into its tourism brand, highlighting the metropolis as a "volunteer" destination.

As David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism .org, frames it: "This is more than just putting heads in beds."

Volunteer vacations or service trips have been around for years in the form of tax-deductible trips arranged by nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Earthwatch and Global Volunteers.

But volunteer tourism is different. Instead of focusing on away-from-home volunteer projects, often long-term, voluntourism combines a pure holiday - say, a 12-day safari in Africa or a week in New Orleans during Mardi Gras - with a short-term volunteer undertaking. Another manifestation of the trend is the alternative spring break.

Julie Karre, a seventh-grade teacher at Dunbar Middle School in Baltimore, last spring led a bus trip of 30 college students on a "foreign cities" tour that included working at a local police station in Milan, Ill., restocking a food pantry in Florence, Ky., and repairing a church in Dublin, Va. Sponsored by Students Today Leaders Forever, the trip was Karre's second. She went on her first as a college senior.

"It's just an incredible experience. On top of the experience of seeing parts of the country I wouldn't have otherwise seen, you are interacting with people across economic and racial divides," says Karre, 22. "It's really neat to be part of something that brings a whole community together."

Voluntourism is gaining traction among marketers, who see it as a promising trend, and travelers, who see it as a chance to give back. A University of California, San Diego study reported this year that roughly 40 percent of Americans say they are willing to spend several weeks on vacations that include volunteer service. Their top priorities include helping schoolchildren, families and people in poverty.

Even travel companies that have not introduced a volunteer tourism offering are incorporating programs that hint at the trend. Boston-based Grand Circle Travel, for one, has a philanthropic foundation that supports local organizations around the world. The firm's excursions typically involve at least one charitable component. Grand Circle's "Ancient Egypt and the Nile River" journey includes visits to a nonprofit facility that cares for abused farm animals, as well as a center for disabled children.

Why voluntourism and why now?

Clemmons believes that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 2004 and the catastrophic hurricanes that have pounded the U.S. in recent years have put tourism in a new context.

"Each of these events has brought to the foreground what a role tourism plays at these destinations, and that tourism can be a vehicle for springing back," he says. "I think as this trend solidifies, it will be more than just a travel genre. We'll begin to look at this as a lifestyle."

John Walsh, 58, and his daughter Emily, 25, in August participated in a 300-kilometer trek in Kenya's remote Rift Valley to raise money for a program that supports children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic in East Africa. Their group of 10 Americans and one Australian, along with a caravan of 24 gear-towing work camels, followed rocky trails and dirt roads for 10 days and raised more than $88,000. Along the route, they also did some incredible sightseeing, observing giraffes, zebras, hippos, gazelles and wart hogs in the wild.

The Walshes, who are from Catonsville, were already familiar with Kenya. Emily's mother, Kate Walsh, in the 1990s helped establish the now-defunct Baraka School, which took boys from Baltimore to study in Kenya. When the opportunity arose to join Proper Walk 2008, which benefits Makindu Children's Program, it seemed natural.

"We both like Kenya and the Kenyan people a lot. And what I liked about this organization is we were contributing money and raising awareness for one small organization helping one small group of kids," says Emily Walsh, who works for a public health care provider in Washington. During their 2 1/2-week vacation, she also spent one day working with orphaned children at Makindu. "You can see where the money is going, you interact with people you are helping, and you see how much they appreciate it. It's very real."

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