If your idea of the ideal vacation consists of lying by the pool doing nothing more strenuous than getting a new ice cube for your drink, stop reading now. But if spending time giving back to the less fortunate, helping save the earth or just using some of your free time to make a real difference, voluntourism may be for you.
The idea behind the concept is simple. Instead of buying cheap souvenirs and frequenting tourist traps on your next vacation, roll up your sleeves and do something constructive. Like build a house for a needy family. Or help clean up a national park. Or volunteer at an orphanage. Or bring needed medical supplies and assistance to a remote area.
Volunteering while on vacation is a relatively new idea. The first volunteer vacation was organized by Earthwatch in 1971, but the idea didn't become popular until the 1990s.
Interestingly, the term "voluntourism" was first used by the Nevada Board of Tourism in 1998, in an effort to get local residents to help support rural tourism in remote parts of Nevada. Now it refers to any sort of vacation that adds an element of volunteer activity, including environmental concerns, mission work, humanitarian efforts and conservation. Today, about 11 percent of travelers plan on doing some sort of volunteering during vacations, according to the travel website Travelocity.
Actually, there are two kinds of voluntourist adventures. One consists purely of service. An example of this might be a medical team that goes into a remote jungle, sets up a clinic and works 18-hour days for a week providing free medical care.
The second type combines some traditional aspects of travel and tourism -- experiencing the culture, seeing the historical and artistic treasures and even doing some shopping -- while devoting time to a volunteer activity as well. PEPY (Project Earth Protect Yourself) trips through Cambodia and Nepal are one example, with about 75 percent of the time touring and 25 percent volunteering.
A subset of this type of volunteer vacation is doing something you would normally do -- like take a scuba diving trip -- but instead of just diving for fun, you and your dive mates clean a stretch of underwater beach or help establish a new artificial reef.
No matter what you like to do or what part of the world you'd like to experience, voluntourism can open doors to new adventures, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.
Profiles of Adventure
Danielle Voirol, 26
What organization were you with? The Brazil Mission ministry of St. Louis de Montfort Catholic Church in Fishers, Ind.
Where did you volunteer? Imbau in Parana state, Brazil. The volunteer portion involved (helping run) educational programs for 6- to 16-year-olds.
What was the best part of the experience? Spending time with the people there. They stood out in the cold so they could greet us -- all of us -- with hugs when we first arrived at the hotel. And, of course, I loved being with the kids at the school.
What was the most surprising part of the experience? After we finished with the volunteer portion of the trip, we went to see Iguacu Falls, on the border between Brazil and Argentina. But as amazing as it was, I almost wish we'd spent more of that time back in Imbau. I'd never been so unprepared to see a vacation end.
Todd Stevens, 25
What organization were you with? Habitat for Humanity
Where did you volunteer? Guatemala (2007 and going again next month), Honduras (2008) and El Salvador (2008)
What was the best part of the experience? Giving of myself and working hard to build a safe and sturdy home for a family that is definitely not as fortunate as I am.
What was the most surprising part of the experience? During my first trip, I was completely intent on getting our house built. When a friend took a break to go play soccer with the local children, I brushed it off and said, "He doesn't get it."Wow, was I wrong. When I went to find Jeff, he was playing goalie in a school with 20 kids. When he finally left, he came marching back to the job site like the Pied Piper with five or six kids who proceeded to carry cinderblocks for an hour. The trips are about developing relationships and forming bonds beyond cultural differences.
Father Fred Lucci, O.P., 47
Where did you volunteer? About 30 minutes outside of Windhoek, Namibia. I have a friend who is Maryknoll laywoman (with a ministry) to orphan kids with AIDS.
What was the best part of the experience? Anytime I connect with another person on the most basic human level, where we have nothing, you can really give to each other, and the poverty (material and otherwise) is so profound that distractions just can't be found. Then I think I am doing the most important thing that I can ever do:I am encountering God in God's rawest incarnation.
What was the most surprising part of the experience? Paramount, perhaps, is the reality that there is nothing particularly romantic about placing myself in tragic situations. It's not a fun experience, but in the most ironic way such experiences reconfirm my faith and actually deepen my hope. Do I really believe in God's redeeming love? For some reason that I can't explain very well, I do. I don't know why, but I do, and being confronted with the question and forced to answer it ironically leaves me feeling more hopeful that that God who loves us so much that he was born in a barn and died on a cross must have some other crazy plan up his sleeve, or he would have never come to us in the first place.
Elizabeth Gordon-McNeil, 50
Where did you volunteer? Honduras and New Orleans, La.
What organization were you with? St Francis Builds with Habitat for Humanity & St. Bernard's Project
What was the best part of the experience? In Honduras, it was seeing the face of Kenya (the homeowner) as she worked with us and saw the walls of her home go up. In New Orleans, the gratitude of the normal people you met when they heard you had come to volunteer.
What was the most surprising part of the experience? How much fun we had, how deeply moved I was by God's Spirit with us and working through us to help us. How easy it was to do and how good we all felt at the end of a day.
Ana Arista and Joseph White, 43 and 36
Where did you volunteer? An Embera indigenous village in the rainforest in Panama
What organization were you with? None; we first went as tourists and came back to volunteer on our own.
What was the best part of the experience? The deep appreciation the people had for everything we did. For example, when we took out a book to read to the kids, the children would run through the village telling others we had a book and a large group would gather to hear the story.
What was the most surprising part of the experience? We did not really miss the modern conveniences (electricity, running water, etc.) because we were so much in the moment doing this work with the people
What would you like people to know about volunteer tourism? It's better than a vacation. Actually getting involved and serving people in the place you visit makes you enjoy your trip even more, because you go beyond the tourist experience, which in most places is getting more and more similar to life in the United States, and you really enter the world of the people in the region you are visiting.
Anne Kolar, 19
Where did you volunteer? Guatemala in 2007 and El Salvador in 2008
What organization were you with? St. Francis Builds, which worked on Habitat for Humanity
What was the best part of the experience? The best part was not simply playing the role of a visitor, but becoming truly immersed in the culture and participating in meaningful exchanges with the people in the countries I visited. I returned to the same place multiple days in a row, so I got to have multiple exchanges, reflect, and then converse further on subjects or experiences to learn even more.
What was the most surprising part of the experience?How fulfilling it is as a vacation. I was surprised by how much this experience enhanced my identity and worldview so that I could return to reality with a fresh start, even without the days relaxing on the beach.
Reasons to consider a volunteer vacation
You'll learn something you never knew about yourself
"Going down [to Brazil], I already knew I'd probably get more out of the experience than I could possibly give,"says Danielle Voirol. "But I wasn't prepared for how humbling the trip would be. I think that in the United States, we tend to really value how much work we can get done, how well and how quickly we can do it. But the people in Brazil ... valued our presence more than anything, and that's a lesson that I'm still trying to learn."
You'll get more than you give
"These trips are not all about you,"says Todd Stevens. "They are filled with minor inconveniences such as cold showers, unusual food and the occasional illness. You get tired working with your hands all day. What you gain, however, are memories about the people you worked with, the kids you played with and the sights that you saw."
You may very well meet God face-to-face
"God does seem to show up at the most unexpected times,"says Father Fred Lucci."One day we were teaching some of the kidsin a resettlement camp how to read.Right next to us was a little shack out of which a nun would hand out bowls of soup for lunch and about 300 skinny little kids would run and line up to get food. All of a sudden this tiny, tiny little boy staggered over to me.He must have been looking for a safe place to sit where he wouldn't get hurt.He simply climbed up into my lap.His little pants were just dripping with urine and there were flies all over his face.He looked up at me with his big eyes for a moment and then he just put his little head right against my chest and fell asleep.I looked down at his poor little frail body sitting in my arms and I thought, 'Oh my God ... little 2-year-old baby Jesus just climbed into my lap and fell asleep.' "