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The value of voluntourism

Volunteer tourism, aka voluntourism, is alive and well and growing in popularity. In fact, according to a new survey sponsored by and Condé Nast Traveler, more than half of respondents expressed an interest in taking a volunteer vacation.

Volunteer tourism, aka voluntourism, is alive and well and growing in popularity. In fact, according to a new survey sponsored by and Condé Nast Traveler, more than half (55 percent) of the respondents expressed an interest in taking a volunteer vacation.

The survey polled more than 1,600 people and found that approximately 20 percent had taken at least one volunteer vacation. Of those who hadn’t, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) said they’d be very likely or somewhat likely to take one.

Then again, considering that 95 percent of those who have taken one said they’d be (somewhat or very) likely to take another, those who haven’t may discover that taking one is just the beginning.

Beyond the ‘flop and fly’ vacation
The idea of incorporating volunteer work into travel isn’t new, but the scope of such efforts is expanding rapidly. “There’s been a huge upswing in the wake of September 11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami,” says Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of in Dallas. “For the first time, many people who were writing checks felt a real human connection with those in need.”

At the same time, says David Clemmons, founder of San Diego-based, the idea of civic engagement is being raised everywhere from public schools (as a graduation requirement) to the current presidential contest: “Volunteering is becoming more in tune with the mainstream. People are ready to get out there and do something.”

The survey results concur. When participants were asked how interested they were in giving back to the local community in some way when traveling, 80 percent said they were very or somewhat interested in doing so.

Participants were also asked what type of volunteer work they were interested in. With more than one answer allowed, the leading choices were teaching English or other academic subjects (66 percent), working with children (62 percent) and doing scientific or environmental work (60 percent). Among experienced voluntourists, on the other hand, more than half (54 percent) participated in construction projects, more than all other options combined.

One reason for that, suggests Clemmons, is that many Americans today have less of a connection — and therefore less skill — with construction-oriented projects. In the U.S., he says, “Body labor is giving way to mind labor. Teaching English, helping children, etc., fit in with what people do — without a lot of extra training.”

Do good, but have fun, too
Voluntourism is also becoming more viable for more people thanks to more flexible scheduling. Instead of having to commit to weeks or months — or even years, as in the Peace Corps — it’s now easy to mix doing good with having fun in as little as a week or two.

In fact, when survey participants were asked how many days out of a two-week trip they would be willing to devote to volunteer work, two choices — four to six days and seven to 10 days — accounted for 56 percent of the responses. “People do want to volunteer, but they also want to experience a destination,” says Clemmons. “If they’re going to Bangkok or Sri Lanka, the thought of not spending time without a hammer in their hand is unrealistic.”

And even short-term experiences can be valuable. One of GlobeAware’s projects, for example, involved building adobe stoves in a remote Peruvian village. Building several in the course of week-long trips, volunteers have helped the village cut both the incidence of respiratory disease and deforestation, both of which will have long-lasting results. As Haley-Coleman willingly admits, “You can do more the longer you’re there, but you can still have a meaningful experience in a short period of time.”

Take the trip or write the check?
Of course, that raises the crux question about voluntourism: Meaningful to whom? And how do you measure the value of such efforts against others, such as donating goods or money?

For example, survey participants were asked the following: If a volunteer vacation would cost you $3,000, do you think the destination/people would benefit more if you just gave them the cash, or is there a value in the trip itself? In response, 15 percent said there’s more value in taking the trip, 18 percent said they would benefit more if they got the cash, and 67 percent said both are valuable in different ways.

The latter may sound obvious, but as Clemmons and Haley-Coleman point out, there are other, intangible issues involved. Self-esteem, for example. Recipients “earn money by hosting you, coordinating efforts, etc.,” notes Clemmons, “as opposed to receiving a handout.” And visitors who have made a direct connection are more likely to follow up with subsequent donations: “They’ve been on the ground and met people, so they know where their money is going.”

Furthermore, says Haley-Coleman, the act of going can have a fundamental effect on those who go, as well. “A 25-year-old may find [a volunteer vacation] reshapes their whole attitude. How do you measure what that changed perspective is worth over the next 65 years? We hear it over and over and over: People think they’re coming in to solve problems and get on a pat on the back. What they actually find is that they get far more than they give and come home wanting to do more, either locally or on longer trips.”