Volunteer Vacations: The Good & Not-As-Good

My sister-in-law recently returned from a volunteer vacation at a game reserve in Africa. For those unfamiliar with the term, a volunteer vacation (or voluntourism, as it is also called) is the combination of tourist travel and volunteer work for a charitable cause for a short duration—usually 1-4 weeks. Travel agencies can set up these trips just like they do regular tour packages. Or you can type ‘volunteer vacation’ into Google and up will pop all sorts of online outfits ready to match you with a variety of causes…whether you want to work with animals, children or the elderly…to work on building projects, clear trails or be part of a medical mission. In Costa Rica? India? No problem.

I asked my sister-in-law what her days at the game reserve entailed and she ticked off on her fingers, the following:

  • Game capture: so that tick solution could be put on zebra, wildebeest, springbok, and impala
  • Hole Digging: as prep for planting trees that would eventually offer food, shade and protection for elephants
  • Litter patrol
  • Fence patrol: making sure electric fences remain working and no critters are digging in or out.
  • Predator enclosure clean up: I think we know what this includes.
  • Removal of invasive, foreign trees that were choking out the indigenous trees that elephants like to munch
  • Lion tracking: keeping tabs on pregnant lions and their cubs

Now, she enjoyed her time there, but did not view this as much work for forty volunteers. She often went in search of additional duties because that is the kind of person she is. She became concerned that many of these tasks were simply busy work…that volunteer vacationers had become part of the reserve’s business model. It brought a lot of questions to her mind. Yet, she enjoyed going out on safaris and playing with the lion cubs, and she had a fantastic view over the vast plain from her large hut decorated with furniture like you’d find at Pier One. But with an embarrassed smile, she told me she could have done without the rose petals in her bath water.

Now, not every volunteer vacation is so cush. Don’t get the wrong idea. Like with any vacation, there is potential for getting nothing close to what you anticipated. There are scams out there and poorly planned trips. But really, the point I’m trying to make is how important it is to determine, not only expectations, but motivations…yes, plural, because, if you’re anything like me, you almost certainly have more than one reason to do something. What do you really want to get out of this trip? Where on the spectrum from hardcore work for a cause to ‘hey, it’s a cool behind-the-scenes adventure’, do you fit? My sister-in-law said there were many who wanted to really work and just as many who were content to…as my husband calls it…’max the min’ and hang out watching movies in the air-conditioning for long stretches of the day, when not out on safari or specifically given a job.

There is a lot of controversy regarding volunteer vacations…about how useful they truly are. Personally, I believe there are a tremendous number of long-term positives that can come from these experiences, but the critics do have some valid points that shouldn’t be brushed off. I prefer to see them as opportunities for improvement. This is a subject worthy of a series.

What do you think of the idea of volunteer vacations?

P.S. Here’s a little irony…back in ’95, I went on safari in Kenya. Now, this was straight tourism, mind you. No, volunteering involved. But, our digs were not nearly like my sister-in-law’s while she was volunteering. We slept in tents that had a partitioned section off the back for the ‘bathroom’, which consisted of a hole dug in the ground. The dirt pile next to it had a sign stuck into it that said, ‘Rhinos cover it; so can you.’