Forget sunbathing – more and more of us are becoming ‘voluntourists’, writes AilinQuinlan.
Would you spend your annual holiday counting rhino turds — or slaving for hours beneath the sweltering African sun building an outdoor bathroom?
For a growing number of people, not only is this their idea of the perfect break — but they’ll pay to do it, whether it’s dishing up lunch in a Guatemalan soup kitchen, caring for children with HIV in South Africa, working on an orang-utan sanctuary in Borneo, or helping single mothers from the hill-tribes of Thailand.
People of all ages and from all walks of life are abandoning the traditional sun holiday to sign up. In the past five or six years, interest in voluntourism has spiralled with the organisations involved reporting increases of up to 25% in the number of people who want to spend their down-time having fun abroad while doing good works.
“The expression we hear most from our volunteers is ‘it changed my life!’ That’s followed by ‘I’m definitely going back’ and ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done’,” says Jennifer Perkes, founder and managing director of the UK-based Trav- ellers Worldwide which sends around 1,000 people a year on voluntourism projects in more than 20 countries.
Dublin engineer Con O’Donovan agrees — he spent two weeks on a wildlife reserve in Kenya last October working on a major research project on the black rhino.
His duties, which involved a variety of tasks, including counting rhino dung, searching for a vanishing species of antelope and measuring acacia trees, brought him into the wild on a daily basis:
“It was a fantastic experience — we were walking in the African wild and around the corner you’d see oryx or buffalo staring at you.
“For any kid who ever watched safari programmes on TV, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I was one of those kids so for me this was hugely memorable. It will always stay with me,” says the 37-year-old, one of about 1,600 Earthwatch volunteers sent to projects around the world every year.
“I saw conservation on the ground and understand a lot more about how it works. I now evangelise to my friends about the value of this work instead of going on a traditional fortnight’s sun holiday. It has a huge impact on you.”
Deirdre Kelly returned home a different person after spending January and February 2010 working in northern Thailand at a centre for single mothers in crisis outside the city of Chang Mai.
The refuge sheltered a variety of women, including girls as young as 13 or 14 who had been cast out by their hill-tribe communities:
“For hill-tribe women in Thailand, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not accepted within the hill-tribe community and the woman is forced to leave,” explains the Co Laois-based 32- year-old.
Some of the girls I met were pregnant at 13 or 14, others were in their 20s and they were literally cast out from their tribe – they’d be disowned by their family and their community. I later learned the hill tribes have very strong traditions and a single pregnancy is taboo.”
Kelly, who gave English lessons to the mothers and played with the children during the holiday, booked through EIL Intercultural Learning and paid €2,500, including flights.
She says that the experience transformed her outlook on life.
“When I came back from Thailand, I was different in some ways — I was more content. I don’t get as stressed about things.
“I got to see how tough life can really be and it left a lasting impression. I find the little things don’t tend to bother me any more — you’re the better person for this.” She also had a fabulous cultural experience: ‘
You get a really good understanding of a culture — when you volunteer you get to see the real face of the country and meet the real people there. “
If you’re someone who does want to see a culture, and meet people on their own ground, voluntourism is the way to do it.”
Voluntourism tends to cost much the same as an ordinary holiday — anything from €765 (excluding flights) to work on a community project in Guatemala to more than €1,400 (excluding flights) to participate in a marine conservation project in Belize, Central America.
But why do it?
“Generally, we think people are seeing that helping others is hugely satisfying and it also gives them skills and personal development,” says Jennifer- Perkes.
“The benefits of voluntourism are huge — you help people, or rescue animals, you get to experience the culture and community on a much deeper level than a tourist — from the inside.
“It’s a safe, quick and easy way to get right to the heart of a community and make friends with local people. And you have fun — holidays don’t get better than that!”
It also impresses prospective employers, says Anton Kieffer of EIL Intercultural Learning, in Cork, which has 18 programmes in developing countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“If you can show an interest in acquiring new skills and a new language, it looks well on a CV.”
Another factor in the growing popularity of voluntourism is that many holidaymakers are now looking for something deeper. The days when many tourists want to sit on a beach for two or three hours are gone, says Alex Tarrant, co-founder and managing director of Personal Overseas Development (POD) which sends about 500 people every year on such trips.
“They find it’s a wonderful experience, which involves giving something back while getting under the skin of a country and experiencing things an ordinary tourist would never see. A lot of people say it’s lifechanging. They can find it very emotional.”
In 2009, Dublin-based pharmacist Barry Cooke paid in the region of €1,500 to spend three weeks Tanzania building an outdoor bathroom. “I’d been in Cambodia the year before with a tour group,” he says. “The poverty I saw there got to me and I wanted to contribute to the local community the next time I took a break, so I investigated the idea of voluntourism.
“I specifically selected a building project because I wanted to leave something tangible behind me. I felt the time frame was too short to contribute anything meaningful in three weeks unless I was building something,” says the 27-year-old.
“The highlight of the trip came at the end when they gave us a traditional ritual of thanksgiving in which more than 100 people participated.
“It went on for about an hour and a half. This was in return for a bathroom — something we wouldn’t think twice about. It was very humbling.”
Everyone had a favourite bear. Mine was Rocky
Civil servant Kevin Regan spent two weeks working at a bear rescue centre outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in August 2009.
During the break, which cost about €2,200 through Personal Overseas Development, he cleaned the cages and enclosures inhabited by the bears, and played games with them, setting up toys and hiding fruit for them to find.
“Everyone had a favourite bear. Mine was Rocky. He was blind because his previous owner had kept him caged on a roof with no shade and the sun blinded him.” The experience both moved and outraged the 31-year-old from Navan, Co Meath:
“After you see how cruel and ignorant people are you just want to do more. When you see the results of the mutilations, ill-treatment and bile farming [when bears are kept in captivity in so-called crush cages], you want to get hold of the people who did this to the bears.
“You’re outraged, horrified and know all you can do is help there and then. It motivates you there and at home to tell people. The disgusting attitude towards these animals by poachers make you feel sick to your stomach.
“It made me feel, that as a species, we are a disgrace for doing it, buying into it and letting it happen.”
In my first week, an 11-year-old boy died of Aids
Nine weeks at a South African care centre for children with HIV proved to be life-altering for Ciara Cunningham.
The Roscommon-born woman worked at the centre in Capetown in May 2009 following her decision to resign from her job in the world of commercial property consultancy and prior to returning to college.
“Rather than travelling around Europe or to Australia, I was eager to do something a little more worthwhile,” says the 26-year-old, who now works in the IT sector. She went to South Africa with the Corkbased EIL Intercultural Learning:
“I worked in a care centre just outside a township. It catered for babies to 12-year-olds.”
She will never forget her first week at the centre — a young boy died of AIDS: “He was only 11 and his parents had already passed away. He had no family and in all the time he was in the centre — about three weeks before his death— nobody came to visit. “It absolutely changed my outlook. It was life-altering. I’m more socially conscious now, more aware of my consumption. I try not to be so materialistic and appreciate more what I have.
“This started out as something different to do in a period between giving up my job and returning to college – but it was an experience that transformed my entire outlook on life.”