Voluntourism is a hot topic, but what do you need to know before you try to fit some altruism into your vacation? Andrew Mersmann, author of Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, joins host Kelly Regan to discuss volunteer vacations and offer his advice on asking smart questions before you go, choosing the right experience for yourself and your trip, and knowing what to expect from the trip. You can learn more at Andrew's blog: http://changebydoing.com/.
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Announcer: Welcome to the "Frommers.com Travel Podcast." For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides, and I'll be your host. My guest today is Andrew Mersmann, who's the author of our new book, "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference." This is another title in our successful "500 Places" series, which includes "500 Places to Take Your Kids before They Grow Up," "500 Places to See before They Disappear," and also "500 Places for Food and Wine Lovers."
This book involves places where you can make a difference, which is really about using travel as a way to help other people. So, Andrew is with me to talk about what we call "voluntourism," and about how to choose a volunteer group, and certainly about the vast array of trips that you can take when you're traveling in this way.
So, Andrew, welcome, and thanks for being here.advertisement
Andrew Mersmann: Thank you so much. It's good to be here.
Kelly: Great. I've talked about voluntourism in previous podcasts, but it is really something that we're seeing as a trend. Certainly, in 2008, we saw studies commissioned by organizations like "Conde Nast Traveler," and other places where really they're saying that up to 40 percent of people who were surveyed were saying that they are planning on taking a volunteer vacation, or at least a vacation in which volunteering plays some kind of central role. So, people are definitely interested in this type of traveling. I guess I'm wondering what it was that sparked your interest in this type of travel?
Andrew: Well, that's a great question, and also a great trend, by the way. I love hearing that.
Andrew: And the more we're all studying this, the more we see that these are some easy to access opportunities, which is great. My own involvement has been, you know, I was raised by a family that made volunteering an important part of just life, everything from working on the weekends at a shelter, or doing walkathons and bikeathons with the neighborhood kids, and stuff like that. So, I was just brought up that way. And then I also slowly but surely, without realizing that I kept on doing this, or without intentionally seeking it out, was finding volunteer project opportunities when I was traveling. So, there were opportunities when I was out on the road to suddenly see a flyer up at a museum, and go help out when whales were beached in Key West or something like that. You know, amazing experiences. I was just like, I can do that. I can derail my bus tour itinerary item, and I can just do that. And then I also had the opportunity more recently to book specific organized volunteer vacations, which is great.
Kelly: Well, I think that the easy access that you've been talking about, that's a key thing to tell people, because I think - for Americans specifically, for American travelers specifically - I think people are chronically pressed for vacation time. So, I think it's probably a logical question to ask. What if I only have one week? If my time is limited, are there still opportunities out there for me to volunteer?
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely, and I would hate for people to get turned off by the concept of this kind of travel, thinking that it has to be a 24x7 commitment for all of their vacation time. There are some people who want to travel that way, and that's great. Those opportunities are easy to find as well. But, you can also do an afternoon before you go see a Broadway show when you're visiting New York City, or you can do a morning before you have a commitment to hop on a tour bus, and go see some temples, and shrines, and things. You can do a day, you can do a week, you can do a couple of days, you can really fit it into your thing. This book of 500, probably 90 percent of them are two weeks or less, and a whole lot of those are one day and one week opportunities.
Kelly: Yeah, and I think that's the important part, to say that you're going to these places because you are interested in the volunteer opportunities, but we still want people to experience the destination, so that you don't see only the inside of the four walls of an office building or a shelter. Not that what you're doing isn't important, but that you do get a chance, both through the volunteering and through the other time that you spend there to really get out and experience the destination.
Andrew: The beauty of this kind of travel is also the flip side of that equation, is it gets you outside of resort walls, for instance. And you start having a really authentic experience when you're rubbing shoulders with locals who are working together with you on a project.
Kelly: Sure, and that's really back to what we always say, that was Arthur Frommer's original guiding concept of traveling, which is getting off the beaten path, getting off the beaten tourist path, which brings you up close and more personal to a culture. With this kind of experience, I think you're getting the additional satisfaction of being able to help, to help the people while you're there.
Kelly: You do recommend an incredibly wide range of trips in this book, everything from teaching English, to working on a farm, to working with orphans and seniors, to even helping on archaeological excavations, or disaster relief. So, there is a lot for people to decide as they're trying to plan their volunteer opportunities. So, I'm wondering what kind of questions you think travelers should ask a trip organizer before deciding on the kind of trip they want to have?
Andrew: Well, when you get to the point of actually interviewing a trip organizer, and I do highly recommend that you really have a conversation with the people who are providing the travel opportunity, not only because you want to feel comfortable with them, but you actually want to be totally inspired. You are teaming up with these people to change the world. That sounds simplistic, but it's really very true. So, you've got to hang up the phone, or log off the Internet after having a conversation or a dialogue back and forth with them, so excited that you can't go to sleep that night.
Andrew: Just got to fire you up that way, because you really are going to have this incredible experience. And there are a lot of practicalities that you want to know, because every tour provider is different. So, you want to know, for instance, what the housing is like. Are you staying with a local family? Are you staying at a hotel or a bed and breakfast? Are you camping out under the stars or some other version? Or does it change? Do you move from one location to another day to day?
Kelly: Place to place.
Andrew: What's the food like? Is food provided in the fee that you pay, or are you going to have breaks and find local restaurants? If so, how do you find that? What's the language spoken on the program? Do you have to be fluent in another language or not? What is security like? If a whole group of volunteers is living together in a group house, is there security there? Do I feel comfortable if there is or isn't? There aren't right or wrong answers to any of these questions, but you do want to know what to expect when you get there.
Kelly: Yeah, it starts to flesh out what your expectations would be. I think there's another aspect of it too, which is one important part of voluntourism is really what is the group that you'd be going with? What's their connection to the community? Do they have ties with the community? Are the benefits that you're going to be trying to bring to this community going to stay there, or are they going? Is it a multinational corporation where there's a more remote connection between the good that you're doing and the benefit that's received?
Andrew: Exactly. And you also want to know what's local staff like. If you're in a foreign destination, have they hired people form the community, or is it an international team who just drops in, and does a project, and disappears, like you said. You want to know that. You want to know if there are locals that are part of this project. You also want to know how they decided the need. Was it done with the local community, or did somebody from the outside say, "You know what, they need a school," and just kind of stick it in, whether the community felt like that was a priority or not.
Kelly: Right, because again, all of this is going to shape your overall experience. Well, let's get into talking about some specific destinations. Many people might start out this process by saying, "I have an interest in having a particular type of vacation." So, say somebody wants, "I want to do a tropical beach getaway." So, what kind of volunteer experience would you recommend that would dovetail nicely with the whole desire for a warm weather, tropical getaway.advertisement
Andrew, Well, the great thing - just to state at the beginning before talking about specific trips - is that that's the beauty of trying to figure out what works best for you, is you really can find the type of work that you want to do in a whole lot of locations.
Now, a tropical beach might recommend or might imply that there are more of certain types of trips, but a lot of populations on a lot of coastlines on a lot of continents all congregate at the water's edge. That's where some of the biggest communities are, so there's a lot of need there. There are a lot of animal projects at beach locations, and there are a lot of social help programs. There is a huge list of different things throughout the book that are beach locations. There's a great opportunity in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific to build a library and schools.
Andrew: There's a school building project in Jamaica. You want to start working with eco-programs, there are coral reef research projects with scientists in Belize, a dolphin study in Oahu, there's trail and habitat work in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I mean, there are tremendous opportunities. There's a shade grown coffee project in Costa Rica on the beach, trail improvement in the Galapagos Islands, working with disabled children in Phuket, Thailand. There's a whole chapter on sports programs, and using sports as teaching.
Kelly: Right, coaching and sports, yeah?
Andrew: Yeah, and there are programs in Bolivia, and Rio, and Fiji, and amazing opportunities to work with predominantly kids, predominantly young people, but also some adult programs and disabled adult programs. There are elder care programs, like in Goa, India, which is a beautiful tropical beach place. There's the kind of work you want to do.
Kelly: And destinations, really like Phuket and Goa, are not destinations that carry the reputation of a sybaritic sort of experience. It's surprising and really rewarding to find out that there are opportunities to go to places like these that are normally perceived as fly and flop destinations, and then to get there and to know that there's something else that can be done.
Kelly: A big part of this book, whether it's working on a certain kind of scientific project, or actually working in the local communities, I mean a lot of what you talk about in the book is working with animals. I think that's another type of experience that people would really... they'd start out with this notion, and they would want to drill down a little deeper. So, what are some of your favorite, and also maybe some of the more exotic kinds of experiences you can have volunteering with animals?
Andrew: Yeah, that's a hard category for me to narrow down, because it's one that's really close to my heart. I love the animal projects, and there are so many of them. There are just so many of them, both marine animals and land animals, and projects working with endangered species or habitat, and research or actually hands on work with the animals are incredible opportunities. I'm really big into what biologists call charismatic megafauna.
Kelly: What is that? [laughter]
Andrew: It's a term that biologists use, and it's kind of like, "Oh, there's the adorable, or exotic, or amazing animal that makes people get involved." They use it talk about, for instance, whales, or lions, or...
Andrew: ... gorillas, the kind of animals that everybody goes "Ooh" about. Kelly [laughs]
Andrew: I too am one of those. I go "Ooh" about those all the time. One of my favorites that I so want to do, there's an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka.
Andrew: And you spend all day with these little, tiny baby elephants, taking them down to the river to wash them, bottle feed.
Kelly: I can't imagine they're too tiny. [laughs]
Andrew: Well, they start off pretty tiny. They start off like Great Dane sized, but they grow pretty darn quick. And there's so much poaching that still goes on in that area, that there are a lot of orphaned baby elephants. And the Amazonian pink dolphins in Peru in the Amazon are an amazing species, and they're just stunning.advertisement
After the 2008 earthquake in China, one of the biggest panda bear...
Kelly: The panda sanctuary.
Andrew: The panda sanctuary, one of the two was pretty much decimated, so they had to move a lot of these pandas, all sort of wedged into one of the sanctuaries that was still OK. So, there's a lot of work there to try and rebuild the other sanctuary, and also expand the one where they've all been relocated. So, hanging out with pandas all day is pretty cool.
Kelly: That is very cool.
Andrew: There's a cheetah program in the Namibia. There's a lion program in South Africa.
Kelly: What is the cheetah program?
Andrew: The cheetah program is a cheetah conservation program. There are some injured and sick animals that have been rescued from the wild that they're trying to rehabilitate, some of whom can eventually be re-released back into the wild, and some of them can't. But, you're spending every day with the cheetahs, which it's not that you're necessarily rubbing their bellies all day. [laughter]
Andrew: But, you're in and out of enclosures, and feeding, and working with veterinarians, and stuff like that.
Kelly: So, there really is the opportunity. It's not just in the background. There really is the opportunity to get up close and personal, to the degree that it is safe, to work with the animals.
Andrew: Almost any of these projects, especially the animal ones, because they are such a big wow factor, there's an opportunity to get your hands dirty a lot. And not only get your hands dirty, but get your hands hard at work, and really doing what's most important for the animals, whether they're endangered species, or individual animals that have been hurt. There are also great programs with domesticated animals: stray dogs and cats...
Kelly: Working at shelters.
Andrew: Working at shelters, and working at spay and neuter clinics, and stuff like that, in both American destinations and foreign destinations.
Kelly: Well, you mentioned getting your hands dirty, and I think this is something also to underline with people. Some of the trips that you recommend in the book do carry some degree of risk, whether it's things that could be potentially risky, like working construction and needing to be careful, or as you said, working with animals. There might also be the opportunity to volunteer at places like refugee camps, or places that might be in more troubled regions of the world. So, I'm curious about the issue of insurance. Do you recommend that travelers purchase insurance before going on a vacation like this, or do some trip providers offer insurance as part of their overall package? How does that work?
Andrew: Well, the second part of the question first. Yes, a lot of tour providers do offer medical and evacuation insurance, as well as trip cancellation insurance, as part of the package that you would be getting for yourself. And a lot don't. For every one of these trips, the circumstances are different, and every tour provider's circumstances are different, but that is something that a lot of folks are doing. Do I recommend whether or not people get travel insurance? Well, that's what everybody makes up their own mind about for travel regardless of what they're doing. Does it make sense to want to make sure that if you tumble down and break your leg, whether you do that when you are hiking and having a luxury trip, or if you do that when you're having a volunteer trip, that's a decision you have to make?advertisement
I certainly, when I'm traveling international, I tend to personally have travel insurance. It's one of those things that you love spending money on knowing you're never going to need it. [laughs]
Kelly: Right, as with any insurance. [laughter]
Kelly: You pay for it, and you hope it never needs to be used.
Andrew: Yep, you're like, well, there you go. And good for the insurance industry, and they just made a couple bucks off of me.
Andrew: But, there is some peace of mind that comes from that.
Kelly: So that this will take care of, hopefully, anything that might crop up.
Kelly: Well, we're about of time, but I just wanted to ask you finally: I know that you're leaving today on a trip to the Maldives, and that you'll be volunteering while you're there. So, I'd love to hear a little bit about what you're going to do.
Andrew: You and me both. [laughter]
Andrew: I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be an amazing trip, and the Maldives are one of, if not the most, eco-threatened countries in the world right now, if global warming continues, and water raises, because the highest point...
Kelly: Right. I mean, that's been a very popular story, just a very recurring story about the water levels rising, and basically the islands shrinking.
Andrew: Exactly. There are 1149 islands and islets in the Maldives, and the highest point in the entire nation is only seven feet above sea level.
Andrew: So, if the ocean rises, there's a whole lot of trouble there. So, in addition to just a lot of eco-focus and all of the resources, as well as the small towns, are working on rehabbing energy systems, and trying to get more green systems. It also happens to be the launching point for one of the most known whale shark research areas in the world.
Kelly: Wow. OK.
Andrew: It's one of the only places where there's a year-round population of whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea. They're these incredible... The word "shark" scares people, but they're vegetarian, plankton eating, giant fish. They are able to be studied there better than most other places, because other places they migrate so much, and they move through - they cover a lot of distance. But, in the Maldives, there's a population that lives there year-round. So, I'm going there.
Kelly: Right. And for people who don't know, the Maldives are sort of due south of India and Sri Lanka.
Kelly: An island chain.
Andrew: Exactly, off the lower southwest coast of India.
Kelly: So, there's an opportunity to work with whale sharks?
Andrew: Yes. I'm hoping to go out on the boats with the science team, and work with them. Whale sharks have very specific spot patterns on their tails, so you identify individual animals, and you do health stuff, and you do some tagging, and following them on sonar and radar, and kind working research stuff.
Kelly: Oh, that's terrific.
Andrew: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it.
Kelly: That's great; that's great. And sort of piece of mind knowing that they're mostly plant eaters. [laughs]
Andrew: Yes, they are exclusively plant eaters. They don't have those big old "Jaws" teeth like the great whites, or anything like that.
Kelly: There you go.
Andrew: They strain plankton.
Kelly: Well, OK. So, that's about all of the time we have for today. I've been talking with Andrew Mersmann, who's the author of our new book, "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference," which is on sale now. Andrew, this was a great conversation; I really enjoyed it. And thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Andrew: Thank you so much.
Kelly: And have a great time in the Maldives. [laughs]
Andrew: Oh, thank you. [laughs]
Kelly: Join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon. [music]
Kelly: This podcast is a production of Frommers.com. For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the web at www.frommers.com. And be sure to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or suggestions. [music]advertisement
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