Mark Twain cut right to the bone when he said that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
Just as importantly, travel has begun seriously to give back to the communities and places it sends its travelers to.
For example, on my recent round-trip to San Francisco (5,426 miles) my plane and I were responsible for spewing .98 tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). So Carbonfund.org sold me $11.33 of carbon offsets, equivalent to my travel carbon footprint. They’ll use the money to plant trees, generate wind power and other green causes.
Giving back is big these days, and it makes good business. Toyota is one company that’s spotlighting issues that help and enable communities, and the travel industry is increasingly committed to the same ethic through VolunTourism, or volunteer travel.
Take Dr. Glenn Bubley, an oncologist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He wanted to see Honduras with his wife, Lynn, a Registered Nurse . “But we didn’t want to travel there empty-handedly,” he said. “We knew there had to be a better way to get to know the country and the people than by just passing through it as tourists.”
So the couple joined a medical team, and for five days, they worked in five different makeshift clinics that dotted the countryside. They treated people that rarely had any sort of medical care or medicine. As Lynn told me, “Our lives have been blessed. We have been given so much, we wanted to give back by volunteering,” a feeling that just about all volunteer travelers expressed in one form or another.
“VolunTourism” is relatively new. The trend probably started sometime in the 1990’s with small, “bite sized” vacations that gave travelers with no previous community or mission-driven experience the chance to combine their vacations with short-term work that would help the places and locales they were visiting. Most of these were developing countries or regions.
The idea got a big boost after hurricane Katrina in 2005 when thousands volunteered to help save New Orleans. They hauled trash, built homes, filled sandbags, and got to know New Orleans and its people in ways no tourist ever could.
Kathy Boisvert doesn’t like to lie on the beach.
The Massachusetts native told USA Today Travel that she’s the kind of person who “wants to be busy.”
So, Boisvert got busy.
She signed up as a voluntourist with WorldTeach, a non-profit organization that matches volunteer teachers with overseas assignments – and ended up teaching in Cape Town, South Africa.
VolunTourism gives travelers like Boisvert a richer, deeper travel experience by enabling them to contribute to communities and villages, and make a difference.
Volunteers typically pay their ways to the destination and are responsible for paying their own room and board which can run around 300 to 6,000$, depending on how long the stay is, where it is, and if airfare is included.
While there are lots of organizations that list volunteer vacations and how to go about being part of one, the Bible on the trend seems to be Bill McMillon’s Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, a compilation of about 200 non-profit organizations that have VolunTourism opportunities.
However, many experts warn about the danger of being too starry-eyed. They recommend asking tough questions before signing on, such as how the project actually helps the community, and how much of the volunteer’s money really goes into the community.
Also, many returning volunteer travelers warn not to assume a superior attitude. “You’re there as a guest, to help” one volunteer said, “ not to assume your way is the right one.”
In the August edition of O, The Oprah Magazine, Margaret Rhodes has a short article she calls, “Destination: Eco-Vacation,” which echoes the ideas of VolunTourism.
In these programs, eco-tourism volunteers rebuild hiking trails or track sea turtles, and are enriched by the satisfaction, says Rhodes, “of helping the planet.”
The article repeats the advice of experienced volunteer travelers to be realistic and honest with oneself in terms of how much time and money one can spend, and what the expectations are.
That said, VolunTourism is an idea whose time seems to have come. A perfect pairing of travel and giving.