The popularity and availability of service-based vacations is increasing and giving rise to volunteer tourism. Frommer's editor Jen Reilly joins host Kelly Regan to discuss the types of international experiences you can have that interact on a micro level with local cultures. Reilly cuts through some of the misconceptions surrounding voluntourism -- including necessary skills, costs, questions to ask beforehand -- and tells you some of the best ways to balance work and play during your trip.
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See transcript below for links to more information.
- Voluntourism: Another term for Volunteer Travel.
- Opportunities: Anything from panda conservation in China to gardening in the Galapagos. Progams are available for both skilled and unskilled workers
- Sites to Visit: Earthwatch Institute, WWOOF, Idealist.org, Voluntours.org.
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Kelly Regan: Hi. And welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Jennifer Riley who's an editor here at Frommer's and she covers a lot of Central American destinations for us. And she recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica where she volunteered on a coffee farm while she was there. So, I thought I'd have her on the show to talk a little bit about the new phenomenon, or not so new, but getting more cooler phenomenon of volunteer vacations. So, she has some interesting things to report about that and I'd like to hear more about her experience. So, Jen, welcome. Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Riley: Hi. It's great to be here.
Kelly: Yeah. We've been talking before about the increased popularity of volunteer vacations or what people are calling "voluntourism". So you have some interesting statistics to tell us about.
Jennifer: I do. Voluntourism is becoming increasingly popular I think because people want to do good but they're also learning it's a more authentic way to travel.
Jennifer: Interact with locals on these trips.
Kelly: Yeah. Sure.
Jennifer: And I read recently that the International Volunteer Programs Association estimates that 50,000 to 75,000 Americans will take part in voluntours and programs in 2007.
Kelly: In just this year.
Jennifer: Yeah. That's up more than 20% over last year.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. There was a recent survey that...?
Jennifer: There was. The Travel Industry Association of America found out nearly a quarter of travelers want to take a service-based vacation soon.
Kelly: OK. That's great. You know, we've talked on podcasts from the past about the notion of "green travel" meaning traveling while keeping in mind the physical footprint that you leave behind in the environment, but I think this is a different issue. I think we're talking about, not just having a more authentic experience as you were just mentioning, but I think we're talking about what the emotional or cultural footprint is that you're leaving while you're traveling.
So I think that there's a bit of a distinction between what people are calling "eco tours" and things like carbon offsets and staying at eco-friendly hotels and taking public transportation more than driving a big car, but I think this is more about sustainable travel which is preserving the character and the culture of a place that you're visiting. It feels to me more, as you were saying, it's speaking to the notion of having a more authentic experience but also not imposing your own culture on a place that you're visiting.
Jennifer: That's a really great way of defining it. I do think that voluntourism is becoming popular these days because it's an easy way to be a sustainable traveler. People can go to a destination and really get back in just a few days or a week to the local economies and social causes.
Kelly: Yeah. Can you give some examples of some voluntourism trips that you've heard about that you've been exploring?
Jennifer: Yeah. There are a ton these days. So, you can really find anything from panda conservation in China to gardening in the Galapagos.
Jennifer: There are programs out there for skilled and unskilled workers.
Kelly: So you don't need to have metallurgy skills or [laughs]...
Kelly: ... if you want to volunteer.
Jennifer: That hurts, Kelly.
Jennifer: You don't need it for a lot of programs, that's true.
Jennifer: And there are actually a lot of misconceptions about volunteer travel. A lot of people think it's inexpensive.
Jennifer: But if you go through an operator, it can cost a lot of money.
Kelly: Right. Right.
Jennifer: There are definitely ways to go and volunteer on your own for a little money, but it can cost upwards of a few thousand dollars to go through an operator, if he sets up your travel and accommodations.
Kelly: Right. They do a lot of the logistical work for you. And you're showing up as a manual laborer but [laughs] they're planning everything for you...
Kelly: ... so it's all in place by the time you get there.
Jennifer: Right. And if you go through a place like that, another misconception about this type of travel is that it's just for young people. And it's just for people who are willing to "rough it"...
Jennifer: ... for a long period of time. But there are a lot opportunities to stay in really swanky hotels and to do some sightseeing as well as volunteering.
Jennifer: I just read about a trip that's offered through a company called Different Travel and it's available from now through December.
Jennifer: And it combines a beach holiday in India including resort hotel accommodation and sightseeing trip with some charitable work refurbishing an orphanage.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Jennifer: It's 14 nights, excluding the flights, and it costs $2,000.
Kelly: OK. Well, 14 nights in India for $2,000 is actually...
Jennifer: It's not bad.
Kelly: ... It's actually pretty reasonable.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I wanted to talk a little bit about your experience. Although there are these organizations that will help you plan a volunteer vacation, you took more of a DIY approach to your recent trip to Costa Rico. So, can you describe the work that you were doing and what a typical work day was like?
Jennifer: Definitely. I went to Costa Rico to work on an organic coffee farm through an organization called WWWOF, which is World Wide Workers on Organic Farms.
Kelly: OK. [laughs]
Jennifer: This is a self-funded organization so that meant all I had to do was to pay for a listing of farms in Costa Rico. And then I got in touch with one of them to set the time I would be visiting.
Kelly: So, you contacted them directly...?
Kelly: ...and made all of the arrangements?
Jennifer: Yeah. I still had to pay for my flight down there and had to pay to get around the country.
Jennifer: But they set me up on the farm when I was there. And when I was there, it actually wasn't coffee-picking season so I was just put to work planting trees.
Kelly: OK. And how was that? I mean, was it very strenuous?
Jennifer: It was incredibly strenuous. I definitely don't think it's for people who just want to lounge on the beach all day.
Jennifer: I had to wake up at five o'clock in the morning so that we could work before the noonday sun hit.
Jennifer: And I had to carry some shovels and wheel around a wheelbarrow and I was literally digging in the dirt for a while to plant the trees.
Kelly: Sure. Sure.
Jennifer: So, it's definitely not for people who aren't willing to pitch in and work a little bit.
Jennifer: I think anyone in moderately good shape could do it, though.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Did you feel with this kind of a work arrangement that you had down time to do more touristy stuff? Because I think that's another concern to weigh is you are thinking of doing a volunteer vacation. What's the work schedule going to be like? Where are you going to be? Is there going to be time to actually do the sightseeing at the same time or do you plan more discreet chunks of time to do each thing?
Jennifer: That's a really good question and I wish I had asked it before I'd gone. [laughs]
Jennifer: Because I had actually planned on working in the morning. I was told I'd be done by noon and I thought I could take day trips from the farm.
Jennifer: But, it was in a really remote part of Costa Rico and the roads were terrible.
Jennifer: So there was no way I could have really taken day trips.
Jennifer: I think if you are planning on volunteering, the best thing to do is honestly set aside a chunk of time to volunteer and then do your sightseeing afterwards. If you're not going through an organized...
Kelly: Right. If you're not going through an organized tour or an organized company where they are going to be making all of these arrangements.
Jennifer: And I have to say, one of my favorite parts of the whole experience was sitting down and having lunch with the locals.
Jennifer: Speaking to them in Spanish. And I wish I had more days to do that. It was really a chance to get to know the locals and have a meaningful exchange with them.
Kelly: Right. Right. In a way that you may not have experienced had you even been going through an outside organization.
Jennifer: Exactly. Exactly.
Kelly: Yeah. So, while you were in Costa Rico, you also visited Tortuguero National Park and had the chance to speak with some people who were volunteering with the local conservation society. So, I'm curious to hear the kind of work they were doing.
Jennifer: When I was in Tortuguero, I went on a night tour to see green turtles nesting on the beach there and I met some volunteers from the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. They were in charge of tagging the nesting turtles with numbers in order to keep track of how many turtles come back to the beach next year.
Jennifer: But they told me, a big part of their job is just ensuring that no one comes along and steels or harms the eggs. Apparently it's a big problem there.
Kelly: Right. So, for people to do it or animals to do it?
Jennifer: For people and animals.
Jennifer: Unfortunately, people.
Jennifer: A lot of people.
Kelly: Yeah. And that was a local organization that people just contacted directly.
Jennifer: Exactly. And actually there are a ton of opportunities to volunteer throughout Costa Rico, not just in Tortuguero. You can check out the Costa Rica 2008 book.
Kelly: Yeah, our Frommer's Costa Rica book, and Elliot Greenspan our author, does a lot of good reporting on those kinds of opportunities.
Well you know, another place where the volunteer vacations are very popular is Honduras. You went to Honduras recently, though you didn't volunteer while you were there. I just wanted to take a quick conversational detour, because I wanted to just talk a little bit about Honduras, since it's not widely considered to be a popular travel destination, although it's getting there. It's becoming more popular. What was your experience like there?
Jennifer: It was great. I actually ran into a ton of volunteers while I was there. I found out afterwards that of the million or so people who visit the country each year, about 60, 000 are volunteers.
Jennifer: Apparently a lot of people came to volunteer after Hurricane Mitch in 1098, and they just kept coming back. I think that speaks to the number of volunteer options in the country, but just the attractions there in general.
Kelly: Sure. There's a lot of archeological digs where people can volunteer.
Jennifer: Exactly. And a lot of people can volunteer to help preserve the marine life around the barrier reef. It's the second largest in the world.
Jennifer: There are tons of other opportunities as well. You can go to any volunteer organization and find hundreds of listings for helpers.
Kelly: OK, well that's a good possibility as well. As we've talked about, there are several ways that you can do a volunteer vacation. There are established organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or the Rainforest Alliance, where you can join a group that's already going, and they plan all the logistical details of the trip. You can do it yourself, as you've talked about, as you did, by contacting local organizations directly.
We should probably talk about the pros and cons of each one just briefly. First, what about going through an organization. We touched a little bit on pros and cons, but what would you consider to be the pros and cons of going through a more-established organization.
Jennifer: Well, I think the bigger pro is that you're having an expert arrange all the details for you, so there are no surprises, in terms of accommodations or where you're going to be staying, and also the places cater to travelers who want creature comfort. So if you want to do a lot of site seeing and stay in lush resorts, that's a possibility. Finally, the safety level is higher, since you're going to be in a group of like-minded travelers with an experienced guide, and that person will speak the local language, and that will help a lot.
Kelly: OK. What about the cons?
Jennifer: It costs a lot more money. I know I said that it costs $2,000 for the other trip, but you have to factor in the flight as well.
You also need to do your homework to make sure that money is staying in the community, versus going back to a multi-national corporation.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a very good point.
Jennifer: Finally, the whole experience just might be less authentic if you're traveling in a pack of other travelers. It's not that good for independent-minded travelers.
Kelly: Sure. Sure. But doing it yourself, as you did... Having had this experience, what would you say the pros and cons are.
Jennifer: Well, it comes down to money. Again, it costs a lot less. I spent about $15 for the Costa Rica farm listings, and I also love the fact that I wasn't tied down to group activities. So I got a lot more interaction with the locals. Like, I talked about having lunch with them.
Kelly: And the schedule is slightly more flexible because if you're going with a more organized group, they might plan group activities, where as you said, though you didn't even get a chance to do a lot of day trips after you were working, there still would've been that option, because you were working independently.
Kelly: The other thing we should touch on with the do-it-yourself is that the amenities might not be quite as extensive.
Jennifer: Right. That's one of the cons I wanted to bring up, which is that you're really taking a gamble on the accommodations, since there's no vetting them for you. Another thing to keep in mind is you don't know if you're going to be with other volunteers or if you're going to be the only one there. So there was another girl who was staying for five weeks, and I'm sure some of that, she'll be on her own.
Jennifer: Then the other big minus is that, when it comes to deciding what type of work you want to do and when you want to visit, they're very flexible. But you have to make more of a time commitment. I think for most of the working experiences, you need to stay for about one week or two weeks.
Kelly: Sure, sure. OK. So whether you decide to purchase or pay an established volunteer program, or go through and planning things yourself, by making your own arrangements, what kinds of questions do you think people should ask when they contact these groups, whether the independent-minded groups or the more established organizations. What kind of things are important to know at the outset?
Jennifer: Well, I think there are a number of questions you have to ask, because unfortunately, since these trips are getting so popular, there are a lot or organizations that are more into making money than doing good. We already mentioned that you should think about how much time you want to spend volunteering versus sight-seeing.
Jennifer: But in addition to that, you should ask for a list of past participants and try to get in touch with them to see what their experiences were like.
Kelly: Some references, basically.
Jennifer: Exactly. You should clarify what type of work you'll be doing, how long the project is, and it can't hurt to ask what the accommodations and food will be like, and if you'll be required to speak the local language.
Kelly: Oh, OK.
Jennifer: You can also ask how many fellow workers will be on the project, and what the area of the country is like. If you want to work on rainforests, then you obviously wouldn't want to get a placement in the city.
Jennifer: And it helps to ask about their water, so you'll know what to pack.
Jennifer: If you're paying for the placement, you should ask where the money is going, so that you're not endorsing any causes or people, even, and not positively involving the locals. And finally, I think you should ask if the program you're going with has a long-term plan in the community. Your work should be evaluated so that others can build on what you've done.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a good point. So do you feel like your work is going to make some kind of long-term difference.
Kelly: Yeah. Well, there are some overarching organizations or web sites that people can go to to get more information, but before we get to those, I just wanted to also say that Frommers.com has a lot of great articles relating to volunteer vacations and opportunities, and you can search the entire site for the word "volunteer" and you'll get some better ideas and excerpts from our guides to Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala and others that deal with volunteer vacations.
But if people wanted to go beyond that, and get more information, what kinds of places could they go to?
Jennifer: We already mentioned a couple of independent organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Rainforest Alliance, but another one of my favorites is the Earthwatch Institute. They're at www.earthwatch.org, and they have a lot of volunteer trips that focus on conservational projects.
Then there's WWOOF, and their web site is www.wwoof.org, and they have listings for almost 90 countries, from Austria to Zambia, and the work can vary from planting medicinal herbs in Hawaii to building homes in Bulgaria.
Jennifer: There are a couple of general resource sites with links to volunteer opportunities through various different agencies, and just lots of information on the subject too. A couple of my favorites are Idealist.org. That has lists of non-profit, volunteer, and work-for-pay assignments. Then voluntours.org. That's just another great general resource for volunteer options.
Kelly: OK, that's great. Before we go, I wanted to mention that we've been talking a lot about how volunteer vacations can help other cultures and other people. But you can across an interesting study recently, that says it's also good for your own health, as well. So can you elaborate on that?
Jennifer: Sure. The volunteers monitored by a recent Corporation for National and Community Service study were proven to live longer and have lower rates of depression and have less incidence of heart disease than those who hadn't volunteered.
Kelly: Oh, well so there you go.
Jennifer: There you go!
Kelly: Everyone should volunteer. All right, well that's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Jennifer Reilly, who's an editor here at Frommer's, and who just returned from a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica. She was good enough to come on the program and talk to us about this burgeoning phenomenon of volunteer vacations, so Jen thanks for being here. This was a great conversation.
Jennifer: It was great being here.
Kelly: Yeah. So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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