2 min

Voluntourism: Getaways that give back

From building intercultural relationships to being knee-deep in building materials, debris or piranhas

Whether you help save animals, kids or the environment, or build schools, homes or intercultural relationships, you’ll come home from a voluntourism vacation with something more long lasting than your average souvenir. Credit: Wikipedia

You want to get away, but you want to give something back at the same time. So go beyond the resorts, the beaches and the bars and contemplate a volunteer vacation. Whether you help save animals, kids, the environment or ancient languages or build schools, homes or intercultural relationships, you’ll come home with something a lot more long lasting than your average souvenir.

If you’re someone not suited to spending your days sitting on the beach and prefer to do something useful with your time off, there are a slew of places where you can lend a hand. Two of the biggest are Christian organization Habitat for Humanity and environmental charity Earthwatch.

While Habitat and its volunteers build and rehabilitate houses, Earthwatch is the motherlode when it comes to options for making the world a better place. From cuddling cubs at a lion orphanage and restoring rainforest in Borneo to conserving Amazonian river otters and managing mangroves in Kenya, the breadth of options the group offers is truly incredible — the reason that 4,000 people volunteer as “citizen scientists” on these experiential vacations each year. Program fees start at just a few dollars for daylong urban experiences to upwards of $5,000 for intense 14-day expeditions. This may seem pricey, but flights, food and accommodation “donations” sometimes qualify as tax deductible. On top of that, many volunteers fundraise to cover their program costs.

If helping out with a more immediate need is more your thing, you can often find volunteer opportunities in the aftermath of a disaster that make a huge difference, such as clearing debris from the beaches of Thailand after the 2004 tsunami or replanting lost wetlands in post-Katrina Louisiana, with groundbreaking lesbian tour operator Sweet (which, sadly, no longer operates). In the US, REI and the Sierra Club offers opportunities for people to conserve iconic natural sites worldwide, from Machu Picchu and Yosemite to Maui and New Mexico. The Toronto-based Projects Abroad is another excellent place to start planning a voluntourism trip.

For giving with an altogether gayer flavour, LGBT-based relief agency Rainbow World Fund organizes humanitarian aid journeys that explore and help developing countries, putting a particular focus on global AIDS, world hunger, landmines and safe water. Check the website for details of the annual Guatemala journey, which works with a water project in a Mayan village, LGBT community projects in Guatemala City and a women’s clinic. Global Volunteers launched an LGBT offshoot in June 2014 and offers humanitarian tours, working with local gay activists, HIV clinics and orphanages and delivering medical and education supplies to various destinations, including Tijuana.

While some voluntourism options have volunteers on the ground, knee-deep in building materials, debris or piranhas, immersed in the environment they’re there to help, other volunteer experiences are bite-sized add-ons that can be built into an otherwise self-indulgent vacation. When contemplating doing your bit for the planet, you don’t usually snap up a cruise-ship stateroom or on-shore oceanside suite. There’s something about gambolling aboard a 14-deck, floating pamper palace that doesn’t usually put cruise vacations high up eco-hawks’ wish lists, but the increasing popularity of voluntourism as a vacation component is changing that. From Crystal Cruises’ You Care, We Care shore excursions, which allow afternoons assisting at a South African orphanage or pruning invasive species off Oahu, to the Ritz-Carlton chain’s Give Something Back program and Hilton Doubletree’s family-focused Think Trees, vacation companies all over are adding altruistic excursions. It certainly seems like a fabulous way to save the planet.