Author: Kerry Law, Founding Editor of Goodtrippers – Goodtrippers is the ‘eat / sleep / do’ for responsible travellers. Visit www.goodtrippers.co.uk for recommended eco accommodation, organic restaurants and volunteering projects. You can also follow us on Twitter @Goodtrippers. And if you have your own responsible travel recommendation for Goodtrippers get in touch!
Volunteering holidays for first-timers
Looking for a memorable travel experience that gives something back? Kerry Law, founder of responsible travel website Goodtrippers, explains why a volunteering holiday should be on your travel list for 2013…
Before you book…
Spend time researching before booking your trip – not just to browse the myriad of choices out there, but also to ensure the project you choose really is making a positive difference. Some projects are merely ‘poverty tourism’ dressed up as charity, offering little employment or economic benefit to the communities they claim to help, let alone running credible projects that the local people or wildlife want or need.
Unfortunately, there is currently no commonly-used accreditation scheme around the world to highlight the ‘good’ voluntourism from the ‘bad’ – so research is your best friend! Look for projects that work with local people (including accommodation and food). Ask questions such as, what percentage of the trip fees go to the local community?; how long has the project been running?; and search for reviews and endorsements from credible sources.
(As it happens, a lack of a ‘one-stop-shop’ for info and reviews on volunteering holidays was what inspired me to start Goodtrippers. We need lots more volunteering travel reviews to help others make informed choices, so if you’ve an experience to share, please get in touch via the site!)
Use your skills
A volunteering holiday will essentially involve you working – but don’t be alarmed! You may see holidays as the one time to escape work, but toiling on a volunteering project overseas certainly won’t feel like your regular mundane 9-to-5. Most projects offer low-skilled activities for anyone to do – whether it’s labouring on the site of a school build in Africa, or counting turtle nests on a beach in Thailand.
Read project itineraries carefully and if in doubt, ask the operators about the work involved on a typical day – if you don’t feel fit enough to carry heavy equipment on long distances in a humid climate, see if there are office tasks you can help with, or choose a more suitable project! Most operators will be delighted to hear of any specialised skills you can offer, so do check if they’re interested before you book.
Learn something new
Similarly, a volunteering holiday may reveal some hidden talents you never knew you had, or teach you some brand new ones. Volunteer to cook for your co-workers, or get involved in some DIY or sewing at your homestay – you’ll never know you can do it until you try! Some projects also run courses alongside your stay allowing you to learn the local language or, if you’re volunteering in marine conservation, learn how to scuba-dive. Frontier has details on professional qualifications you can pick up on some volunteering trips.
Get under the skin of the local culture
There’s nothing like working alongside the locals to help gain the best insight into a country and its people. Good volunteering projects will already employ local people and will welcome tourist volunteers as additional help. Using the downtime to chat to your fellow workers can be a real eye-opener – and they may be equally keen to hear about your life back home too.
Support the local economy
It’s not just your skills and your time on the project that helps a local community. Money you would spend during any regular holiday – on accommodation, food, souvenirs – this time goes straight into supporting the local economy which are often small communities rarely touched by tourism. This makes your holiday spending a vital new income stream for locals.
Meet new people
Volunteering projects are great for solo travellers, young and old. You know that everyone is there for similar reasons and with common goals. Before you book, find out about average group sizes, sleeping and eating arrangements. Communal meals and dormitory-style rooms may not suit everyone but nowadays many projects will offer more private options as they attract older tourists. Whatever the arrangements, you’re bound to gain some new emails in your address book!
And the heart of why you should volunteer on holiday? Instead of merely observing, you’ll be doing! Whether you’re building schools or hospitals to improve living conditions in a Third World country, or helping protect and conserve endangered wildlife and natural habitats, you’ll be spending your ‘holiday time’ making a positive difference around the world. Now that really is something to aim for in 2013!
This post is supported by Volunteering Solutions