Want to make a difference as well as seeing the world? Why not try ‘voluntourism’ – a combination of volunteering and tourism. There are opportunities to volunteer in many countries including Cambodia, Thailand, India, South Africa and Peru. As well as being a fulfilling choice of travel, voluntourism often ensures you are with people of similar ages and interests, guarantees you will make friends and can be a safer option than travelling alone.
Voluntourism is a unique opportunity not only to visit and see a country from the perspective of an outsider, but to fully immerse yourself in a culture by living with local people, and exploring the real issues that affect them. Volunteering opportunities can be found with many travel companies including Real Gap and BUNAC, however, you can also create your own opportunities by sending a simple letter or email enquiry to an organization or charity of your choice. Voluntourism offers something for everyone. With such a diverse range of roles including animal conservation, teaching in primary schools, caring for orphaned children, and community development, there is an endless amount of choice and a real chance to make a difference in the world.
Hannah Rattue, a student from Bangor University, spent two months volunteering in South Africa on a private game reserve. Her volunteering role included patrolling the reserve in search of traps and snares set by poachers, maintaining roads and fences, and monitoring the animals. “I wanted to do something worthwhile and I wasn’t too confident about travelling alone,” she says. While working with animals is a desirable option for most people, this choice can be expensive. With prices ranging into four figures for a volunteering placement, it is well worth researching into the cheapest options. “I thought it was quite a lot of money for what we actually did because we had a lot of free time and had to pay for extra excursions. I’ll definitely volunteer again but next time I think I’ll do something cheaper, perhaps with unfortunate children.” Hannah’s trip involved spending all day, every day with the same people, which meant she was able to form close friendships with people she would not usually have socialized with. She says, “I’m definitely more patient with people now as a result. They were completely different to me!”
If you decide to volunteer with a travel company, be prepared to pay upfront costs and check how much of the money is going to the charity and not in the company’s pocket. Alternatively, if you want to avoid extra costs, try WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). In return for food and accommodation, you can help out on an organic farm almost anywhere in the world. Another option is VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas); this company places volunteers in roles suited to their skills and have volunteering opportunities in many countries, however, most of their roles require a minimum of one year’s commitment, so this may be something to explore if you’re looking for a career change. Another idea to consider if you want to develop a new career may be teaching English abroad. Many people opt for a paid placement in countries such as Japan or China after obtaining a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate; however, there are also voluntary teaching placements in countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia. No teaching experience is necessary, however, a TEFL certificate may be of advantage.
Heather Bowman, a student at Edge Hill University volunteered with the travel company Frontier at an orphanage in Ghana for a month, where she lived with a local family, allowing her to become completely immersed in the Ghanaian culture. “I wasn’t a random tourist walking through the village,” she says, “I lived there, cooked and cleaned with the other women, played with the children and was made to feel part of the actual community.” Heather is currently studying to be a primary school teacher, and her voluntary role in Ghana has helped her not only achieve invaluable work experience, but also personal qualities. “I think as a result of my experience I’ve become more sympathetic, understanding and motivational.” Heather went without the luxuries we all take for granted during her time in Ghana, such as electricity and running water. Her role at the orphanage involved teaching neglected children English, as well as caring for them by spending one-to-one time with the children that needed extra care and help to build up their confidence, and playing games with the children outside of school hours to keep them entertained. “I don’t take things for granted anymore,” she adds, “I think I’ve also become more reliable and professional and I find I can look at a situation now and judge its importance.”
So why volunteer instead of lying on a sunny beach, partying in nightclubs or catching a show? Most people do it for personal development, to visit a country that is perhaps inaccessible to the average tourist, to help out with a cause that they feel strongly about, or because they feel they are privileged to live the life they do and want to give something back by helping other, less fortunate people. “I think anyone can volunteer abroad regardless of how confident someone is or isn’t,” says Heather, “Anyone who volunteered would come back a stronger, more centred person and it will contribute to a person’s morals and understanding of life in different ways.” With so many destination choices and roles, it’s easy to see why voluntourism is such a popular option.