Voluntourism: Seeing and Serving the World

UPDATED: April 29, 2009
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2009

Anyone who has gone on vacation knows that in
many places just beyond the luxurious tourist areas,
locals often exist with varying degrees of need. If
you feel compelled to help but feel torn between a
relaxing vacation and an all-out humanitarian trip
to the jungles of Borneo, travel expert Claire Newell
can help.

Newell says a third option is gaining in popularity: voluntourism.
The hybrid combines the relaxation of a standard vacation
with the rewards of volunteer work. Newell has more than
16 years of experience in the travel industry and will host her
own PBS series about voluntourism beginning in January 2010.

“What people need to know is that you don’t have to give up
your vacation, your humanitarian trips or your charity work,”
she says. “You still make your vacation a vacation, but you can
enhance it by taking any amount of time you choose to help
others.” The feeling you get from helping others rivals even the
bliss of lounging in the sun on a beautiful beach.

Each episode of Newell’s show will follow a group of similar
people on a voluntourism trip. “We want to
show not only how their experience helps the
people [they’re working with], but also how it
changes them,” she says. The goal is to show the
beauty of each destination, but also the great
need for volunteer efforts in each location that
will inspire people to become more involved.

“We want other people to see how even in the
most beautiful places you can find need,” Newell
says. “I live in a beautiful city, for instance,
but it has a tough area that many people have
never even seen. Hopefully, they will see the
show and want to find their own voluntourism

Travelers often come to Newell for advice,
intrigued by the concept of volunteer work on
vacation but clueless as to how to get started. She
believes there is a perfect trip for any situation,
life stage or time span—that’s the beauty of it.

Newell set up a trip for a group of bachelors who hung out
at Las Vegas clubs after spending four hours volunteering at a
soup kitchen. “I think sitting by a pool and dancing at nightclubs
is such a great feeling, but there’s nothing better than the
feeling you get from giving. And once you do it, you want to do
it again.”

Voluntourism isn’t just for the single and adventurous.
Newell has found that people who are a little bit older—maybe
retired or empty-nesters—can usually give more of themselves
on a volunteer vacation than people with kids. But even with
the pressures and time constraints that come with children,
parents are finding that modeling service to their kids is an
invaluable gift.

Newell knows this from experience. She began traveling with
her kids when they were very young, but, like a typical family,
they usually stayed within the tourist-friendly areas. As the kids
grew older, Newell decided it was time to expose them to places
more off the beaten path. Initially, they took simple medical
supplies, clothes and toys on their trips and gave them to hotel
staff, who would distribute the items to
kids in need.

feeling that comes from helping others can rival even the bliss of lounging in the sun on a beautiful beach.

Newell says her children weren’t
completely on board at first: “They said,
‘Why are we helping people we don’t
even know?’ But the first time they saw
the expression on the [other] kids’ faces,
just from things our kids didn’t want
or need anymore, they were the first to
say, ‘Where are we going? Who can we
help now?’ ”

She believes introducing kids to voluntourism
early can broaden their perspective
and help them to see themselves as
global citizens, making them more open
to experiencing different foods, languages
and cultures.

Newell says planning a voluntourism
trip for your family is easy with a little
research. She recommends using the Web and finding a charitable
organization in your selected destination. But call ahead
of time—don’t show up on their doorstep unannounced and
expect them to organize something for you.

The sheer number and variety of opportunities available
can make it difficult to choose. Newell’s second
recommendation: Follow whatever tugs at your heart.
There are orphanages in Romania and China that need
volunteers, wells to be dug in Africa, houses to be
built for Habitat for Humanity, and many other needs
right in your own backyard.

Most of the trips don’t require more than a day,
and they don’t have to be physically intensive. They
also allow you to encounter a broader spectrum of
sightseeing and culture.

As popularity rises, and more and more people
experience the joy and exhilaration that come from
combining relaxation with service, an increasing
number of organizations and agencies around the world
have begun to put together packages to meet both needs.
There are an estimated 10,000 projects to choose from.

The options range from the familiar to the exotic. The Tibetan
Village Project, for example, offers a peerless chance for “the mindful
traveler who not only wants to see the beautiful sights of Tibet,
but to touch, taste and experience life in Tibet,” says its Web site.
Participants can meditate with nuns, cook for orphans, share tea
with nomads or teach environmental ethics.

Each program is unique. Closer to home, many old lighthouses
are being shut down, but the National Park Service and numerous
historic societies and other civic groups have begun to acquire them
and are now searching for volunteers to help preserve these pieces of
history. Programs allow visitors to stay in an authentic lighthouse for
a week or more, pitching in on maintenance and renovations.

Newell recounts the story of how her brother and his wife went to
Madagascar to help build a well and cook food—one of the options
on the more physically demanding side of the spectrum.

Her own most treasured experience, though, is going with another
couple and her children to Maui for vacation and volunteering to
help out in an endangered sea turtle habitat. “It taught our children
about the environmental impact the modern world was having. It
was incredible and they loved it so much,” she says.

Almost everyone has felt the compulsion to help those they see in
need while on vacation. Now more than ever, voluntourism provides
an opportunity for people who want to see the world and change it.
In the process, they might be changed as well.

Recommended Site-Seeing
Claire Newell’s Suggestions for Planning Your Voluntouism

Comprehensive information on voluntourism.
Includes articles, research forums, a blog, podcasts
and much more.

Like a travel agency for ethical holidays.
Experienced staff puts together
packages for volunteering
adventures, doing the work for you.

A group that puts together volunteering packages
serving children around the world through short-term
humanitarian service trips and sustainable programs.

A nonprofit that offers safe volunteer vacations all
over the world for individual travelers, families, and
corporate or custom groups.

Also offers voluntourism trip packages or individual
projects. Site details teaching and reading partner
programs for kids, IT/administrative/marketing and
medical/physiotherapy trips for skilled voluntourism.