What could be more authentic than traveling to another country to lend a hand in a local community? More enlightening than stepping into the Third World? More satisfying than making a meaningful contribution?
Voluntourism – the nonfat variety, also known as philanthropic tourism.
Anyone heading to a developing country can pack pens, pencils, and notebooks and drop them off at a village school. Chances are good that you’ll be invited to visit a classroom and meet the kids. As their smiles melt your heart, you’ll wish you’d brought a truckload of supplies.
In Africa, upscale CC Africa and their non-profit partner Africa Foundation are great about facilitating this type of experience – a simple act that can make a big difference in the lives of the students – and the donors.
The best travel companies, such as Bushtracks Expeditions, build responsible tourism into their itineraries and make it easy for participants to contribute to local projects.
In addition, some non-profit organizations welcome their donors to travel overseas to see the projects they’ve funded, gain an appreciation for the importance of their support, and meet the beneficiaries of their generosity.
For instance, Room to Read, which builds schools, libraries, and computer labs and provides scholarships for girls, arranges quarterly site visits in Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, India, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
Level 1 doesn’t include hands-on volunteer opportunities, but provides local organizations with the resources they need to continue working in their communities. Donors get a close – albeit brief – look at of the developing world (that tourists fly by in a bus).
Voluntourism lite. Half travel and half volunteer opportunity, this is classic voluntourism.
As an example, Airline Ambassadors International offers trips to many different countries – all focused on humanitarian service and programs benefiting women and children. Trips vary in “intensity.” Sometimes participants teach English, supervise activities at orphanages, assist with medical and dental assessments, and distribute donated items such as school supplies and hygiene kits. They also time for sightseeing, wildlife safaris, shopping, and recreation.
In addition to the actual services provided, Level 2 is important because overseas volunteers encourage local staff who are often working in very difficult situations. I learned this when I worked on an AAI project in Johannesburg with a group of volunteers from American Airlines, Qantas, and other One World Alliance carriers.
“When I think that these people have come half way around the world to help us, it gives me the courage to carry on,” the director of Nkosi’s Haven in Johannesburg told me.
Voluntourism – the hearty meal.
Habitat for Humanity is the poster child for this type of experience. Volunteers in Habitat’s Global Village Program work as a team with members of the host community and learn first-hand about the local culture.
Level 3 participants tend to be younger and stronger than folks who opt for levels 1 and 2. However, even these more challenging opportunities allow time for sightseeing and recreational activities.
Level 3 volunteers work hard and produce significant results that earn the respect and gratitude of local communities.