Charity begins on holidays – at least that’s what many tour operators in the family market are finding. An estimated 10 million travellers a year take part in volunteer projects, according to the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, and there’s even a word for it: voluntourism.
It can involve anything from building abodes for the homeless to working in an orphanage. On our intrepidtravel.com trip through Vietnam, we visited the Children’s Hope in Action project in Hoi An, which provides accommodation, food and books to children from poor rural families. Taj and Grace – who had previously asked questions such as, “Why does the World Vision girl on the fridge have a dirty face?” – now understand the meaning of “First-World problems”.
World Vision says about 300 Australians a year travel to meet their sponsor children.
Elizabeth Burgess, of Melbourne, recently took her two daughters, Verity, 16, and Olivia, 14, to South Africa to visit Vuyiswa, 15, who they had sponsored for a decade. “It was emotionally charged, because the living conditions there were very austere,” Liz says, “no electricity, no running water, no heating.
“It was a real eye-opener for my daughters. They found it enlightening. Really, it was a wonderful thing to be able to do.”
Here are some ways you can incorporate a charity element into a family holiday.
■ Check out packforapurpose.org to bring supplies in your luggage to donate. For just over 2 kilograms, you can bring 400 pencils, five deflated soccer balls and a pump, a stethoscope, or a blood-pressure cuff and 500 sticking plasters.
■ The Encourage program on volunteerholidays.com.au is suitable for all ages, with 10-day trips to places such as Cambodia and Thailand. There are also two-week to 12-month childcare, teaching and construction experiences in Africa and the Americas.
■ Through gviaustralia.com.au, families can volunteer at a children’s centre in Mombasa, Kenya.
■ Closer to home, conservationvolunteers.com.au runs group trips with park rangers, helping threatened species such as the eastern barred bandicoot and forest owls in Victoria.
■ au.earthwatch.org/expeditions takes it further, with climate-change tours at the Arctic edge. Some are appropriate for teens.
■ Care for giant pandas in China, preserve the sea turtle in Greece, or work at the monkey rehabilitation centre in South Africa through goeco.org/tag/family-volunteering.
Voluntourism is a cheap, fun way for a family to bond. However, there are things to be mindful of.
“Contributions can often unfortunately add to existing problems, or create an environment where children are kept in vulnerable and dangerous situations,” says thinkchildsafe.org.
It lists a series of questions you should ask: Is the orphanage registered with the government? Are children required to work to secure funding? What are the qualifications of the staff?
Voluntourism.org says the rapid expansion of this type of travel is causing “growing pains, including cases of the exploitation of host communities, volunteers and the environment; dependency and continued neo-colonialism of at-risk populations”.
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives. Research by CMI Green reveals 58 per cent of volunteer tourists continue to be involved with the project after they return home, and that has to be a good thing.