Voluntourism is the newest warm fuzzy of the travel industry. Under ideal circumstances, it’s a sustainable, experiential way to see the world and give back at the same time. Whether you’re helping to build a new school or clearing a trail, a working holiday is, for some, the best possible expenditure of disposable income.
But there’s the rub. Along with multitudinous other factors that make voluntourism a dicey concept, it doesn’t come cheap. Some organized volunteer holidays cost as much as a luxury vacation or adventure trip of the same length. That’s great if you can afford both the time and expense, but many of us don’t have that option.
The good news? You can still be a philanthropic traveler regardless of your income, physical ability, educational background, or destination. Below, five easy ways to make a difference on every trip.
Clothing, shoes, school supplies, basic medical supplies (Neosporin, aspirin, antidiarrheals, bandages), food (fresh fruit and dry goods such as rice, flour, or beans are often good choices, depending upon where you’re traveling; avoid processed foods and candy).
In regard to donations, I’ve found it’s best to do a bit of research beforehand (even if it just involves talking to some fellow travelers or travel operators in the region, or locals). You don’t want to inadvertently cause offense or shame by giving freebies; on the other hand, don’t be put off if you’re asked to help if you can. Some reputable outfitters may request that clients donate any unwanted items of clothing at the trip’s end. These items significantly help local communities (especially children) or the families of contracted staff such as porters or cooks. Donating gently used clothing and shoes is also a greener way to travel.
[Photo credit: Flickr user Visions Service Adventures]Ask–tour operators, guides, community leaders–before donating medical items, even if they’re OTC; ditto food. Guidebooks, travel articles, and local travel literature often note what items are in short supply in specific destinations.
For example, when I did a farmstay on a remote island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, my guidebook suggested I bring fresh fruit for my host family, as residents could only purchase it on the mainland. The farm patriarch also let me know at the end of my visit that any clothing donations for his children would be greatly appreciated. Depending upon your cultural and/or economic background, such a request may appear brazen or appallingly rude. Coming from a humble man whose entire family had welcomed me into their single-room home, fed me, and treated me as one of their own (rather than just a fast source of income), it was a request I was only too happy to honor.
Voluntourism is something you can do yourself, assuming you ask permission when appropriate, and act in accordance with local and cultural mores (Behave Yourself! The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is an entertaining and informative book I recommend for all travelers). Whether you pick up trash on a beach, offer to work reception at a locally-owned backpacker’s for a few hours or days, or teach useful foreign language phrases to children, you’re giving back to that community.
I realize how colonialist this may sound, but the fact is, English speakers are in great demand worldwide. Even in the most impoverished countries or regions, locals who speak English (or French, Italian, German, etc.), no matter how rudimentary, can find employment or offer their services as guides, taxi drivers, hostel employees, or translators. Fluency in a foreign language(s) gives them an advantage in a competitive market. Think about it. It’s never a bad thing to learn a language other than your own, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you make.
3. Buy local handicrafts and food
Just like shopping your farmers market back home, buying local supports a local economy, and usually eliminates the need for a middle-man. A bonus: many specific destinations all over the world are famed for their food, textiles, woodcarving, pottery, etc.. Every time I look at certain items in my home–no matter how inexpensive they may be—I’m reminded of the adventures and experiences that led to their purchase.
4. Immerse yourself
You don’t need to “go native,” but the best travel experiences usually entail a certain amount of surrender to a place or culture. Learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect; treat the people–even if they’re urbanites in an industrialized nation–with respect and observe their rules or customs when appropriate; be a gracious traveler or guest. Your actions may not provide monetary or physical relief, but giving back isn’t always about what’s tangible.
5. Reduce your footprint.
It’s impossible not to have a carbon footprint, and as recreational travelers, that impact increases exponentially. But there’s no need to eradicate “frivolous” travel; indeed, experiencing other cultures and sharing our own helps foster tolerance and empathy. Rather, we should be mindful travelers, and do our best to conserve natural resources and preserve the integrity of the places we visit. Just as with camping, leave a place better than you found it. Even if the locals aren’t putting these philosophies into practice, there’s no reason you can’t.
[Photo credits: schoolchildren, Flickr user A.K.M.Ali hossain;vendor, Laurel Miller]