It’s not hard to explain why voluntourism appeals to most of us. The ability to giveback to the places we visit, and interact with locals in a way that regular tourists don’t, is personally gratifying on many levels.
The masses agree. Last week, WorldNomads reported a 46% increase in voluntour travel. They also reported that 66% of voluntourists are women. While voluntourism has been around since the Peace Corps, it’s really only in the last decade that it’s become a niche in the travel industry. I took my first voluntour trip last summer, traveling to the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Tanzania. And at the risk of coming off like a princess, I was not prepared for the amount of work involved.
For two weeks, I lived with a group of six other volunteers hailing from Spain, the UK, Italy, and the U.S. We stayed in the beach village of Jambiani, where there were no roads, and no doors or windows on any house except ours. Our task was to teach English in pairs of two at a local preschool every morning, and at a local vocational school later that morning. In the afternoon, we worked on community service projects: painting the exterior of the high school in the blistering sun, or building a fence to restore a local beach from erosion due to goat over-grazing, also in the blistering sun. In the evening, we took Swahili lessons.
Three meals a day were provided, but they were humble at best. I remember 19-year-old Javier from Spain being so hungry after every meal that his sister began rationing her own portions so she could share with him. A fight even broke out between Javier and Meg from the U.K. when he ate a brownie she had purchased in town and was storing in the refrigerator for “a special occasion.” Javier finally located a beach bar owned by some ex-pats who were only too happy to sell him Pop-Tarts and Snickers bars at a ridiculous mark-up. I felt for him, I really did, because at the end of each day, I went to bed exhausted, both physically and mentally. To have been hungry on top of that would have been miserable.
The hard truth about voluntourism is: it’s hard. Really hard. Not only are you working all day, everyday, but you’re in an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable environment (with people you may or may not like, who may or may not steal your food). Whether you’re beneath the scorching sun all day, or feasted on by mosquitoes all night, trying to get used to churning a bike through sand instead of traveling by car, or being woken by roosters instead of an alarm, you’re constantly exposed to foreign sensations, which can put your body and/or brain into overdrive. Some days, you’re just simply tired of people staring at your pale skin (or if you’re like our dear Editor-in-Chief, your red hair).
The antidote for voluntourism? Perhaps an actual vacation. But if that feels too much like admitting to defeat (I’m also a bit Type A), there’s another brand of voluntourism – luxury voluntourism. Don’t let the name scare you off, luxury voluntour trips aren’t necessarily glamorous or prissy, but rather organized by high-end travel outfitters who put just as much focus on tourism as giving back. If you can spare the expense (these trips typically cost upward of $3,000), it’s a good blend of making a meaningful contribution to the place you’re visiting, fully engaging with an exotic destination and it’s inhabitants, and relaxing.
While I was mulling over luxury voluntourism versus regular voluntourism, I met Sarah Fazendin, president of Fazendin Portfolio, LLC in Denver. Her thoughts on voluntourism got me thinking that perhaps it wasn’t the best approach, luxury or no luxury.
“Travelers don’t necessarily have to sign up for a week of labor, or any labor, in order to make significant contributions to local communities, particularly in Africa,” she said.
It’s been Fazendin’s experience that the people who live and work in Africa know a lot better about what needs to happen to ensure the success of their community than outside organizations, and most of the time, tourism dollars go a lot farther, and are much more scalable, than volunteer work.
The trick is finding the right company. Fazendin turned me on to Kunene Conservancy Safaris in Namibia. Ownership of the company lies 100% with the Himba and Herero communities inhabiting the five conservancies located within most remote and pristine wilderness areas in Namibia. With backing and support from IRNDC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) and WWF (World Wildlife Federation), Kunen is spearheading a new approach to conservation through tourism by engaging and empowering the local communities who share their lives and homes with travelers.
Fazendin argues that just by participating in a safari experience with Kunene, travelers are in fact giving back in a very significant way through their tourism dollars and interest in supporting these programs. Feeding a local business’ revenue stream makes a powerful impact in that community.
Similarly, Manyara Ranch, a 35,000-mile wildlife conservancy located off the beaten tourist track in the corridor between Tarangire and Manyara National Parks in Tanzania, has partnered with local Maasai communities in conjunction with the Tanzanian Land Conservation Trust and the African Wildlife Foundation.
In the Maasai tradition, Manyara leaves the vehicle behind whenever possible, opting to offer outdoor adventure by foot. Trips to the villages include Maasai cultural visits and local school visits, as well as nature walks with traditional healers, and visits to Manyara Ranch’s cattle operations to join the Maasai herders as they feed their cattle.
“It should be up to the African communities to decide where tourism dollars go,” Fazendin said. “Be it painting a school, or conserving more land that brings in more tourists who spend money in the villages.” Fazendin also made the point that some voluntourism efforts can do more harm then good, particularly when they substitute volunteers for unskilled labor positions that could otherwise have gone to locals.
I’m still digesting Fazendin’s food for thought. Please add to the fodder. Tell me, how to you engage in meaningful travel?
Jayme Otto is a travel blogger and contributing editor for Women’s Adventure and a freelancer at large. Look for her regular blogs on www.womensadventuremedia.com.