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'Voluntourism' — sightseeing while helping others — is increasingly trendy

Vacations that build in time for volunteer work have become popular in the United States for several reasons. For some, such trips are the “in” thing to do, following the example set by actor Angelina Jolie, shown talking to children in Sudan.

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Vacations that build in time for volunteer work have become popular in the United States for several reasons. For some, such trips are the “in” thing to do, following the example set by actor Angelina Jolie, shown talking to children in Sudan.

Everyone, it seems, is getting into the act.

Even cruise ships and hotels now offer guests the opportunity to volunteer. Last summer, Holland America launched the "Cruise With Purpose": Passengers stopping in Juneau boarded research vessels to collect water samples and record ocean temperatures to try to predict the success of Alaska's salmon season. Ritz-Carlton arranges half-day volunteer activities at 74 locations: In Cancún, Mexico, guests travel to a Mayan pueblo to help renovate a school. In Jakarta, Indonesia, they cook and clean at a shelter for street children.

From charities to tour companies to luxury hotels to cruise ships, there's no shortage of nonprofits and for-profits willing to organize a volunteer trip for the altruistic — and paying — traveler. For good reason: Nearly one in 20 U.S. travelers has taken a trip to help the less fortunate or support a humanitarian cause, according to research firm Y Partnership's 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor.

"Voluntourism" has grown in popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. Experts cite another reason: It's trendy. Think Angelina Jolie touring refugee camps in Sudan.

"There's just much more interest in reaching out and helping people in poverty," said Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a group of nongovernmental organizations involved in volunteer work.

Voluntourism usually works best when the volunteer contributes to a well-organized project while interacting with other volunteers and local residents. But sometimes volunteers don't have a fulfilling experience. Worse, sometimes they actually harm the community.

For instance, some voluntourism experts advise against volunteering at an orphanage, because the children can get too attached to someone who won't stick around. Others say volunteers should make sure they aren't taking jobs away from locals. "Any project can be harmful to the community if it's done wrong," said Zahara Heckscher, co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.

With so many opportunities, and so much that can go awry, how's a traveler to choose?

David Clemmons, founder of, said potential travelers should carefully consider their motivation. Anyone doing it just for school credit (some programs offer courses) would probably be better off getting a summer job. Anyone doing it to write off a vacation probably shouldn't do it at all, Clemmons said.

Prospective volunteers also should assess their skills to figure out what they can offer. There are many different types of volunteer opportunities: educational, environmental, research-oriented, humanitarian, cultural. Setting realistic goals is important.

Other key points to consider:

• Ask practical questions: Where do you want to go? What kind of accommodations will you tolerate? How much time do you want to spend volunteering vs. sightseeing? How long can you volunteer?

• Take care when choosing an organization. Interview someone who works for the group. Make sure you share the organization's values, as some have overtly religious or political views.

• Find out whether the organization is running the program in the community you are being sent to or whether it's simply matching you with a local organization. It may be cheaper if it's a matching situation, but you also may lack support on site.

• Prices run the gamut from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Ask exactly what the fee covers. Some organizations cover only housing and food; others include transportation, supplies, insurance and more.

• Be clear about what kind of on-the-ground support you'll be getting. If you're volunteering abroad, will there be a bilingual staff member on site?

• Find out what the organization would do if you were to become ill or get injured. Is there a crisis management plan?

Above all, ask to speak to former volunteers. Many organizations have Facebook pages, and groups usually will put you in touch with former volunteers (though usually only those who had good experiences). Talk to the happy volunteers, but ask them to refer you to someone who was not so pleased. "The happy customer/critical customer technique," Heckscher said. "I think that's the way to go."

Start your search here

Below are some organizations that arrange volunteer travel programs. Be sure to do your homework before signing on with any group.


• Sierra Club, (415) 977-5522 or

This environmental group runs about 80 trips a year, of six to seven days each, nationwide. Tasks, which vary depending on the location, can include plant restoration or rebuilding and maintaining trails. Prices range from $300 to $1,000 and cover meals, lodging and on-the-ground support.

• World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,

Started in the United Kingdom in 1971, this has grown into a global network of farmers who provide housing, food and lessons on leading an organic lifestyle in exchange for help on their farms. Volunteers don't pay for their stay, but WWOOF organizations usually charge both volunteers and hosts a small fee to help maintain the network.

Building/community development

• Habitat for Humanity, toll-free 1-800-422-4828 or

This organization sends volunteers to help build homes domestically and internationally. Costs of programs, which typically last seven to 14 days, range from $900 to $2,500, depending on the location.

• Amizade, (304) 293-6049 or

International and domestic programs range in length from one week to a year. Prices start at $732 and can go as high as $12,050 if the volunteer takes a course. Food, lodging, emergency travelers' insurance for international trips and other services are provided. Most of the projects focus on building schools, health clinics and other community structures.

Education/health care/social work

• Global Volunteers, toll-free 1-800-487-1074 or

Volunteers are sent to communities around the world for one to three weeks to participate in a variety of activities such as teaching English, caring for disabled children, providing health care and repairing community facilities. Fees range from $945 to $3,195 and cover housing, food, in-country transportation, on-the-ground personnel and other services.

• Cross-Cultural Solutions, toll-free 1-800-380-4777 or crosscultural

Programs run from one to 12 weeks. Duties may include teaching English, working in health clinics and helping with children in orphanages in 12 countries. Fees range from $1,853 to $6,843, depending on duration of stay and time of year. They include food, lodging, support staff and other services.

More information

•, (619) 434-6230

This Web site provides information and research on volunteer travel.

• International Volunteer Programs Association, (646) 505-8209 or

An association of nongovernmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.

• Center for Responsible Travel, (202) 347-9203 or

A nonprofit research institution that advocates for tourism practices that don't harm host communities or the environment.

'Voluntourism' — sightseeing while helping others — is increasingly trendy 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 3:30am]
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