Whether you’re a tourist or expat, hardcore vacationer or workaholic, all travellers young and old dream of taking a trip of a lifetime. New opportunities are cropping up along the lines of volunteer travel, or “voluntouring”. In other words, adding the gift of volunteering to a travel experience. But how do you voluntour, exactly? What’s the best way to get involved, and what should you expect? Read on for tips from my first-hand experience to make the best of your volunteer travel.
A new wave of globetrotters
While some travellers add a layer of adventure to their voluntour experience (travelling only by bike), others aim for a financial goal (spending less than $5 a day), humanitarian project or ecological focus (eco-voluntouring). Others still make their approach a culinary, artistic, or journalistic one. The possibilities are as endless as the types of travellers themselves!
What to ask yourself before your trip: What do I expect from my volunteer travel experience?
Choosing to offer your time and energy by voluntouring is commendable, but be prepared to make sacrifices. Be aware of this from the beginning, or risk disappointment!
Know what to prioritize
Ask yourself the right questions to identify your priorities. What do you expect from your voluntour experience? If the words ‘luxury’, ‘fun’ or ‘relaxation’ are at the top of the list, voluntouring might not be for you. Even if the experience doesn’t meet all your expectations, you’ll come home richer for it. If you know what you’re looking for, it will be an unforgettable trip.
If you value meeting and engaging with other people, enjoy teamwork and are curious, you’ll be a welcome addition to the world ranks of volunteer travellers!
Combining tourism and volunteering is not necessarily relaxing. To be honest, voluntouring is more demanding than the daily grind you left at home. Before making your final decision, keep these basic rules in mind:
1. Have a strong stomach
Making yourself useful can mean confronting unpleasant realities like poverty, mistreatment and exploitation. You’ll often have to stomach the unfathomable, and develop a skin thick enough not to let certain circumstances overcome you. Find a balance between being sensitive and keeping your distance to overcome difficult situations and make yourself useful.
2. Be open minded
Remember: keeping a healthy distance doesn’t mean you lack empathy. As in Sarah’s case, mastering volunteer travel means striking a balance. Certain qualities are a must for any voluntourist: listening skills, curiosity, open-mindedness, availability and understanding are just a few. The most important experience of voluntourism is connection. You’ll interact with cultures very different from your own. If you aren’t ready to engage with certain people, you can bet you’ll soon feel out of place.
3. No regrets. YOLO.
Voluntouring is a special kind of adventure: it means travelling through people instead of through attractions. You’ll have to be ready to make sacrifices—no, this time you won’t get to relax on a paradisiacal beach. What you’ll experience though will stay with you forever. (You’ll have other chances to laze about on the beach, I promise!)
My tip: Voluntouring is often a foray into remote zones, less frequented by tourists, and as a result, not as safe. Paranoia aside, remember that accidents can happen to anyone, so be prepared for anything. It’s essential to have good travel insurance before you leave; a good travel policy will protect you against the unexpected. TuGo offers comprehensive coverage for any situation, even travel insurance for the most adventurous, or for the most remote areas of the globe.
Options to get involved
There are thousands of possibilities to start volunteering abroad. With so many worthy causes out there, volunteers are always welcome, especially in recent years when volunteering networks have made it easier than ever to organize a voluntouring adventure.
a) Join a specialized organization
For many voluntouring organizations, it’s common practice to pay a small fee in exchange for their services (lodging, meals, and transportation). This option is often the most reassuring, especially for your first experience. You can also hold the company accountable for any logistical hiccups.
Here are two reliable organizations with a wide array of international voluntouring options:
1) Projects Abroad is a well-developed organization offering international volunteer opportunities as well as internships in fields like teaching, human rights, healthcare, journalism, construction, coaching, language teaching and even archeology.
2) Cybelle Planète (a pun on une si belle planète—such a beautiful planet) focuses on eco-voluntourism, offering opportunities on preserving biodiversity around the globe. If animals and nature are your thing, this could be for you.
You don’t need any special qualifications for these organizations, and some projects allow youth ages 16 and up to participate.
My tip: For your first voluntouring experience, choose a short and gentle introduction (less than a month), especially if you’re young: coach a sport, offer English courses or contribute to a conservation project. This is the best way to test your stamina, priorities and to try adapting to a new environment and culture.
b) Create a personal project
If you’re audacious and have a personal project in mind, perhaps the voluntouring road for you is to start off on your own. The road will be longer and more complicated by yourself, but your experience could be all the more extraordinary! No qualifications are necessary; it’s up to you to establish an initiative that truly helps others: recycling, reforestation, participatory theatre, language classes or even gathering childrens’ stories and songs from around the world. The list is endless!
Putting together a personal voluntouring initiative is akin to starting your own business; it’s time consuming to set up and run.
Of all the travellers we’ve met, the most radiant were those who worked for a cause close to their heart. Besides enriching encounters and the joy of helping others, you can be proud of bringing your project to fruition from one country to the next.
There’s no need to lead a giant project for your project. You can get involved in many small ways, even without advance planning; clean up garbage on a beach in Vietnam, or teach English at a local school while you’re there.
My experience: Voluntouring around the world for children
My partner Antoine and I wanted to take a long term trip before starting our careers as journalists. We didn’t want to take an entire year for a simple vacation—we saw a year of voluntouring as the ultimate educational experience. This was our chance to achieve two of our dreams: to travel and meet locals, and to contribute in meaningful ways.
As journalists, both Antoine and I are trained storytellers; we work with images and words. This was how our own voluntouring project came to life: we decided to help promote an association in each country we visited. The idea was to create a mini-news video and write articles on our blog (available in French).
The associations could then reuse all this media content to improve their reach. We offered them non-financial sponsorship and support.
A partnership with La Chaine de l’Espoir
Before we left for our trip, we partnered with the French organization, La Chaîne de l’Espoir. Born from Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), this NGO cares for sick children in more than 30 countries. We made them a proposal, they agreed, and thus started our voluntouring adventure!
The association didn’t have a presence in all the countries we intended to visit, so to stay connected, we dedicated our itinerary to the children in their care. And so began the idea of a large chain of solidarity linking all children of the world. We endeavored to bring something back to the children of La Chaîne de l’Espoir: drawings, performances, and songs from all corners of the globe.
So far, it’s been a huge success!
Would we do it all again?
To be honest, our best memories came from the associations we helped. We were welcomed with open arms and made friends all over the world. We learned about local issues in countries facing huge challenges. Above all, we became wiser and more open to the world.
Our travel experience is obviously quite different from one without a volunteer element. We often felt a twinge of jealousy when looking at photos of perfect beaches taken by travellers met along the way. But what an extraordinary adventure we had! A night of dancing with young orphans on a roof in Kathmandu is worth all the diving expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef in the world!
So yes, a thousand times yes! We would do it again in a heartbeat, with our eyes closed!
Are you temped by adventure? What voluntouring opportunities are you considering? Leave us a comment with your questions or suggestions!
Happy travels and happy voluntouring!
We’re a young francophone couple on a trip around the world since September, 2014. We always bring our love for travel on humanitarian projects for children around the world.
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