While two-week vacays to beachside destinations and jam-packed itineraries to major cities are an incredible way to snatch a glimpse of a new culture, often it can be hard to separate local life from the humdrum of fellow tourists living their best life.
If you're keen to dive a little deeper and gain a more purposeful insight from your travels, then volunteering abroad may be the solution.
Whether it's a summer project for students, a career break, or an extended adventure, meaningful volunteer work is an incredible way to see the world and make a genuine difference to host communities and local economies.
What is volunteer tourism, aka voluntourism?
For many, the prospect of volunteer tourism brings up images of Western travellers caring for the sick and less fortunate in developing countries. With the help of social media, you're probably no stranger to images of young or wealthy travellers immersed in African orphanages or teaching English in Asian schools.
While these are popular choices for many, images like these merely scratch the surface of volunteer tourism opportunities available across the globe.
At its core, volunteer travel involves people donating their time and money in a community or location away from their homes. While there are domestic options available, most travellers will generally opt for volunteer experience overseas.
Some people will raise money to pay for their experience, while others will volunteer in exchange for board or food. With a wide variety of cost structures available, volunteer tourism is often moulded to suit the needs of the individual traveller.
What are the benefits of volunteer tourism?
Providing the volunteer work is done with the right intentions and with an ethical organisation, the benefits can be far-reaching for both the volunteer and disadvantaged communities around the world.
Benefits of Voluntourism for local communities
Support for the local economy: money from volunteers is directed to areas that would otherwise miss out on the economic benefits of tourism. Volunteers are bringing their skills and stimulating the economy of local communities.
Improved well-being of the host community and environment: volunteers can bring new skills, medicine and insight to local people. Not only does this boost their ability to be self-sufficient by training and upskilling local staff, but it can assist the health and well-being of surrounding communities and local attractions.
Enhanced cross-cultural understanding: local people who aren't able to travel can be exposed to a vast variety of cultures, languages and knowledge from around the world through the lens of those visiting.
Breaking down racial, cultural and social boundaries: education from those of differing opinions, cultures and upbringings is an incredible way to become more respectful and understanding, breaking down barriers and ideas built on misinformation or ignorance.
Benefits of Voluntourism for Travellers
Immerse yourself in an exotic location: head off the beaten path and experience a deep dive into a culture and environment completely different to your own.
Explore, learn and travel while making a positive change: use your time and money as a tourist to promote sustainable development, help others and experience a unique cultural immersion.
Gain a new perspective: every day is a new opportunity to show an interest and learn more about the local culture and environment.
Develop skills to aid your career prospects: travel on its own is a great way to build interpersonal skills, experience personal growth and nurture your emotional intelligence. Add in the opportunity to foster professional skills and learn from others while volunteering, and you'll understand why so many companies value employees that have contributed to international development through a voluntourism program.
Reduce your travel costs: volunteering is a great way to travel on a budget as you'll often be staying in homestays, eating in or with the locals and avoiding tourist hotspots that generally come with a bigger price tag. Just keep in mind that some programs may require you to pay a fee to assist the local volunteer house.
Make travel more meaningful: volunteer tourism is more than just selfies and stamps in your passport. When done correctly, it's an incredible way to help those around you and make some unbeatable memories of your own.
Is voluntourism ethical?
In theory, volunteer tourism sounds like a dream. Travellers use their time and money to help those less fortunate. Whether it's humans or animals, what's wrong with Western travellers heading overseas to spend a few weeks doing some good?
As voluntourism has risen in popularity, so has the number of organisations taking advantage of travellers and local communities to make a profit.
What are the cons of volunteer tourism?
Like any form of travel, there is always the risk of a scam or misinformation - whether it's a fake orphanage, misguided funds, people volunteering for their own gain, or the mistreatment of local communities and environments. As a result, many travellers and researchers have raised the ethical viability of volunteer tourism in the future.
There have also been instances where inexperienced volunteers take away jobs and income from local workers. Not only does this negatively impact the local economy, but it can build a reliance on 'outside help' and prevent a community from becoming self-sufficient.
In addition, the rise of social media influencers travelling overseas to create content and build exposure does beg one to question if they have the best intentions.
Are you volunteering for the right reasons?
It's important to remember that if you're considering volunteering overseas, you are already in a place of immense privilege. Not everyone has the financial or physical ability to donate their time and money to others, let alone do that as a form of travel.
With this in mind, when you're contemplating volunteering overseas, ask yourself the following questions:
Why am I doing this? Am I trying to 'rescue the poor', build my social following or get a small thrill from the unknown?
Am I genuinely passionate about the cause I am volunteering for?
Do I have skills and/or knowledge that can assist those I am volunteering with?
Where is my time and money going? Could this be more beneficial for the cause if it was spent in a different way?
Will my trip contribute to long-term positive change, or is it merely a band-aid solution?
It's crucial to remember that the people you are working with are citizens with rights and lives just like you. They are not objects of charity or people in place to make you feel better about yourself.
At the end of the day, we aren't here to tell you what is and is not ethical. What we can do, however, is encourage you to make informed decisions that will benefit locals, promote eco-tourism and leave the world better than when you started.
What kind of projects can I participate in on my volunteer holiday?
Types of volunteer placements
There are heaps of different ways you can volunteer your time, skills, money and knowledge across the globe. Here are a few of the most popular roles and projects:
Teaching. Roles include teaching English or assisting in the creation of educational resources for local staff and students.
Child care. This is an all-encompassing project with a significant focus on the well-being and health of children and youth. Projects can include volunteering in orphanages, interacting with children to help enhance their development or working with disadvantaged youth.
Health care. If you're in training or already have skills in health care, consider volunteering overseas to assist in administering vaccines, providing education about disease prevention and offering general health care and mental health services.
Conservation. If you're keen to kelp mother nature, consider joining projects aligned with animal, environmental and marine conservation. There is the potential to work at an animal sanctuary, conduct research, join regeneration and reforestation projects, assist with trail maintenance and provide general education to help support local ecosystems.
Community support. This covers the likes of building local libraries, schools, houses, hospitals and other forms of infrastructure that contribute to the greater good of the community. Many international development organisations and volunteers perceive community support as a means of female empowerment, working towards gender equality and reducing social inequalities in a community.
How long is the typical volunteer holiday?
Volunteering options can range from two weeks to two years and beyond. Maybe you're keen to spend a few months coaching sports or assisting refugees in the Middle East. Are you eyeing off a gap year spent volunteering on humanitarian projects in South Africa? Or do you have a week to help build local infrastructure in remote Thai villages?
Whatever timeframe you have on offer, we recommend doing some research or asking your local travel expert to assist in finding a volunteer program that will gain the most benefit from your efforts.
Where can I travel with volunteer tourism?
When it comes to voluntourism, the world is your oyster. Popular destinations include:
Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India and Sri Lanka
South America: Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Guyana, Costa Rica
Africa: Tanzania, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belarus, Czech Republic
Pacific: Australia, Samoa, Solomon Islands
Middle East: Palestine, Jordan, Bursa, Israel, Turkey
How to make the most of your volunteer work abroad
Research as much as possible before you go. Ask lots of questions (see below), enquire about the ethicality of the program, consider your budget and time allowance and find something that aligns with your skills and passions.
Have an understanding of the culture you are entering. Don't go in blind; learn some words and common phrases to ease communication and remember to have an open mind.
Remember you are not a saviour. This one is harsh but important. If you're working with those that experience poverty, don't frame your trip as 'saving the poor'. Rather, use it as a powerful cultural immersion where you can generate knowledge, accept other ways of life and maybe lend a helping hand.
Use your skills. Share your knowledge to empower and ensure you aren't contributing to a cycle of dependency - you should be offering a hand-up, not a handout.
Make sure you are travelling for the right reason. Not to get more likes on social media or make yourself feel better but to help make a genuine difference in the cause you are volunteering for.
Read up on reviews about the company. Speak with those that have already done it and get a good understanding of what you'll actually be doing.
Important questions to ask your volunteer organisation
During your research, ask potential organisations the following questions to rule out any scams or unethical operations.
What are the fees for volunteering?
How many people are on the payroll?
Do you have a copy of the account statements so I can see where the money is going?
What kind of projects are in the process or on the agenda in the near future?
What is the company structure? Charity, non-profit etc.
How can my skills help make a long-term impact on the community?
Am I taking work from locals? Why do you need a volunteer and not a local person that could work for a wage?
What kind of training is provided?
Is there a local partner organisation that manages the project on the ground?
How do you select volunteers?
How is the local community involved?
What will my day-to-day life look like on the ground as a volunteer?
Do you have any reviews or case studies from a previous volunteer?
I'm ready to volunteer overseas. What next?
Like any overseas adventure, you'll need to sort out details like flights, accommodation, travel insurance, transfers, visas and vaccinations.
Lucky for you, our team of travel experts can help with all of this and more!