AW Media Inc. of Austin, Texas publishes austinwoman Magazine, Austin Man Magazine, Pink Pages, Guide to Good Health and produces an annual AW Aniversary Event as well as numerous other events throughout the year. In the April 2014 edition of austinwoman Magazine, the focus was on volunteer travel and vacations and on Dallas’ own Globe Aware.
Holidays That Help
Want to take a holiday that benefits the world? Here’s how to do it right.
By Carla Avolio
It was during a trip to Croatia’s gorgeous, glittering coast that Misha Donohoe realized she wasn’t enjoying her holiday.
“I just had this uneasy feeling that I wasn’t contributing,” says the science communicator and travel lover. “The culture there is so rich and yet, by doing the typical touristy thing, I was just an outsider. I really wanted a holiday where I could give to a society rather than take away from it.” For Donohoe, the solution was to combine travel with volunteering. She signed up with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and went to work on a goat farm in the Yukon, on Canada’s Western frontier.
“I forged deep connections with the land and people, which made my stay so much richer than your average holiday,” she says.
Donohoe is one of millions of travelers who are seeking more from their vacations than the usual sightseeing and relaxation. This growing breed of conscious traveler wants to know that spending their tourist dollars somewhere might also mean that wildlife is better protected, more homes are built in disaster-ravaged communities or fewer trees are cut down.
It’s a concept that has been gaining momentum since the early 1980s when the term “eco-tourism” was first coined. Defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people,” eco-tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the global travel industry, increasing 20 to 30 percent every year, according to TIES.
While eco-tourism generally focuses on natural areas, another increasingly popular form of tourism seeks to help people in need. Volunteer vacations, also known as “voluntourism,” see philanthropic travelers combining short-term travel with contributing labor or skills. Unlike simply donating money, volunteering shows you exactly how your efforts are helping to build wheelchairs for landmine victims or more village schools. And it’s no longer just for skilled professionals like doctors and engineers. The volunteering industry now offers a wealth of opportunities for all kinds of passionate and adventurous people. With the huge growth in this sector, there are literally thousands of eco-lodges and charities offering holiday experiences for conscious travelers. So how do you know where to go? To find out, we asked the experts to list their top tips on doing conscious traveling the right way.
Andy Drumm, a sustainable tourism and eco-tourism expert who has been working with indigenous communities for more than two decades, says while many tour companies offer trips to natural areas, sadly, most are contributing to the pressures rather than helping.
“Surprisingly, it’s usually the cheaper tours that actually pass on benefits to the community and environment, rather than just to the tourists,” he says.
- Drumm suggests asking the following questions to identify responsible operators: R How do they contribute to conservation? For example, do they give money back to conservation projects and national parks in the areas they visit? Legitimate operators should provide clear evidence of this on their websites.
- Do they engage local communities? Responsible operators will provide social benefits to the indigenous community either by hiring local guides, contributing financially or providing skills training. They also should have safeguards in place to protect the cultural integrity of the community.
- Where are you staying? Accommodation must have sound waste-management strategies and employ sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind or hydro.
ECO-OPERATORS MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The Cultural Experience: Huaorani Ecolodge, Ecuador
This multi-award-winning operation, conceptualized and developed by Drumm, is the gold standard in eco-tourism. Tucked in to a remote corner of the Amazon jungle, the lodge is owned and operated by the Huaorani, an indigenous tribe that has been in contact with the outside world for less than 60 years. This truly environmentally and socially sustainable operation provides visitors with a rare glimpse in to the culture of one of the most isolated tribes on earth.
- Do: Huao-guided rainforest hikes, kayaking and experiencing the Huaorani way of life.
- Sleep: one of five palm-thatched cabins built by the Huaorani from wood handpicked by a forest engineer.
- Operated by: Tropic Journeys in Nature, an award-winning eco-tourism company specializing in Ecuador. destinationecuador.com
With 10 days of elephant spotting, bush walking and sipping gin and tonics at sunset, this trip has all the trappings of a luxe safari. But don’t be fooled; conservation is the main goal of this eco-tourism experience. Ingwe Leopard Research teamed up with a tour company to create an unbeatable trip that raises awareness and funds for threatened leopards
- Do: game drives, bush walks, behind-thescenes tour at a wildlife rehabilitation center, setting camera traps to help track leopard movements
- Sleep: stylish, tented camps with plunge pool overlooking a mountain gorge
- Operated by: Tribes, a U.K.-based tour operator offering tailor-made eco-holidays. tribes.co.uk
VACATIONS WITH A PURPOSE
Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of volunteering site Globe Aware, says there are countless benefits to voluntourism, from gaining deeper cultural understanding, to increased personal happiness.
“It’s such a unique, fulfilling sense of empowerment that there’s simply nothing else like it!” she says.
To gain the experience of a lifetime, Haley-Coleman suggests considering the following:
- What’s your story? Good organizations will assess your interests, language skills and how much travel you’ve done before suggesting a destination. For example, an English speaker who’s never left the U.S. might be better matched to Puerto Rico than Cambodia. Deciding on a culture is probably more important than the type of volunteer service, be it building homes in Nepal or stoves in Peru
- Show me the money. Volunteering organizations charge a huge fee, so you should find out how much of this is actually going to the community versus administration costs of placing volunteers. All nonprofits are required to publish their financials, which you can read on the website Guide Star. guidestar.org
- They know best. Make sure the volunteer project has been determined by the community rather than a foreign charity. It’s far more likely that your work will have real benefits that way
- Safety first. Your selected organization should come with medical insurance, liability insurance and a crisis plan in the event of a disaster.
Zábalo Cofán Community, Ecuador
Eco-tourism is just one of many innovative programs coming from the Cofán indigenous community in Northeastern Ecuador. In addition to tours, the Cofán run programs for training local rangers to protect 1 million acres of land, turtle repopulation, carbon management and making sustainable eco-canoes using traditional methods.
- Do: trekking, canoeing, fishing, rainforest camping.
- Sleep: swinging hammocks strung up in thatched roof huts.
- Operated by: Cofan Survival Fund. cofan.org
TOP TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
The book: Recently updated in 2012, Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon is packed with 150 in-depth profiles of select organizations.
The website: Catering to families and the time-poor, Globe Aware offers weeklong programs in 15 countries. globeaware.org
The international option: In Habitat for Humanity’s international program, Global Village, volunteers build and renovate homes to create sustainable communities throughout the world. habitat.org
The domestic option: The American Hiking Society offers 60 volunteer vacations each year, contributing to the beautification of trails in America’s most iconic natural landscapes. americanhiking.org
On the cheap: While volunteering usually comes with a hefty fee, Peace Corps (peacecorps.gov) pays you a stipend for 27 months service and WWOOF (wwoof.org) provides board and lodging in exchange for a day’s work on the farm.
Great article in Money Talks News on how to volunteer overseas if you are a retiree:
August 16, 2013 – 2:30 AM
By Susan Ladika
Remember when you were young and idealistic, and wanted to make a difference in the world?
Now that you’re retired, you have your chance.
Baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation are flocking overseas to take part in volunteer vacations.
You’ll be in good company if you head abroad to volunteer. Those age 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of international volunteers, soaring nearly 75 percent, from about 73,000 in 2008 to 127,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. For those between the ages of 55 and 64, the number of people volunteering internationally jumped from about 102,000 in 2004 to 161,000 in 2012.
Where to look
So how do you find opportunities to volunteer abroad?
There are two good places to start – the Internet and a religious organization. In fact, of all those who volunteered abroad, regardless of age, nearly half were connected to a religious organization, the Census Bureau found.
You’ll find opportunities detailed online with organizations connected to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic faiths, or perhaps with your own church, synagogue or mosque.
Your other option is to plop yourself in front of your computer to search out organizations, and you’ll come up with a wealth of opportunities. These were recommended by SavvySenior.org founder Jim T. Miller on The Huffington Post:
- Earthwatch Institute. “Expeditions” focus on environmental research and conservation.
- Globe Aware. This group offers volunteer vacations of a week or more.
- Global Volunteers. It offers volunteer vacations of one to three weeks.
- Road Scholar. This group used to be known as Elderhostel.
- Habitat for Humanity. You can volunteer with this well-known charity overseas.
- Another site we recommend is Projects Abroad.
What to expect
Where you go and what you’ll be doing on your volunteer vacation depends on your own interests and skills. You can find opportunities in dozens of countries, from Poland to Peru.
You might be able to tap into the skills you’ve honed in your professional life, or choose something that simply appeals to you. Tutoring, general labor, mentoring youth and providing medical care are some of the most common ways that volunteers spend their time abroad, the Census Bureau survey found.
Once you’ve found something that piques your interest, you’ll need to fill out an application for that position.
In many cases you’ll work alongside locals as you do your tasks, so not only will you be able to share your skills with others, you’ll likely be developing new skills, while having the chance to immerse yourself in the local culture. Many programs also set aside time so you can take part in cultural activities.
What are the costs
It often will cost you a couple of thousand dollars to volunteer for a week or two abroad. Typically that will cover your accommodations, food and local transportation, and you’ll usually need to pay your airfare separately.
If it’s not included in the fee you pay to the organization, make sure to purchase travel insurance in case your travel plans go awry, and health insurance if your coverage doesn’t apply overseas.
While the costs of an international volunteer vacation may seem steep, because you’re volunteering with a nonprofit you’ll be able to deduct your expenses from your taxes.
Retirees, does the idea of volunteering in a foreign country appeal to you? Have you done it? Share your experience on our Facebook page.
Spring 2013 David Cohen took his 11 year old son Andrew to on a Vacation to China for 10 days. Inspired by Mark Solon, and organized through Globe Aware, David and Andrew worked in a school for the children of migrant workers who have no government services. David’s goal was for his son to experience more of the world and to learn how many others are not as fortunate as they are. “Mission accomplished,” relates David.
Globe Aware is pleased to share their daily observations, impressions and experiences while on their volunteer vacation in China:
friday. our sleep is now normal (of course) and we wake up at 645a for school. we are packed and checking out of the dumpy hotel. i decided mid week that we needed one night in the airport hotel before our flight on saturday. marcus comes to get us at 730a for our final day at the school.
we learn the chinese game GO from the older dude with the abacus. another english class. more basketball. lunch, this time andrew just skips it completely. usually he eats a little rice. time for the farewell party. this is very touching. everyone has to perform. the chinese kids read english tongue twisters for us. she sells sea shells, peter piper, we all scream for ice cream. andrew leads the room in his dance one last time. i juggle for the kids. then the kids sing us songs. tears are welling up at this point since this is goodbye. then they play a 3 minute video that marcus has made of me and andrew at the school and sightseeing. i have it but only on a cd. we get handwritten english notes from the kids thanking us for coming, and a special pillow to keep us more comfortable on our journey home. now it’s time for photos in the front yard with the kids. this seems to be their favorite part. they take our camera and start taking a billion photos. us with them, us posing silly poses, group photos of our class, the kids are very excited to have control of the camera. there are lots of cutouts that have randomly been placed on the playground, so we are all taking photos of us with our heads in characters like rabbits, etc. everyone is clowning, arms around each other (us and them). pretty awesome.
only one thing left before we go. a home visit. marcus, andrew and i go to one of the students homes. remember they are at the school all week and only see family on the weekend. the little girl is really excited to go home. she’s 13. home is just a mile or so away. we get there, there are 7 people in the family including her, across 3 generations. they all live here. it’s two rooms, more like one normal sized room with a divider in the middle. cold stone concrete. i thought it was a garage, in fact maybe it used to be. but it’s their home. one bed. they must take turns sleeping. the family moved here 7 years ago for work. the father fixes cars for a living. the family is very nice and you can tell they’ve tried to clean up a bit. the bed is made, toys are put away. they do have a computer with internet, which surprised me. the second room without the bed is really a panty of sorts. they have some eggs and water, etc there. the neighborhood is the typical war zone feel. i’m not sure where they go to the bathroom, there is not one in the house. andrew sits on the bed and i can tell he’s in shock. this hit home for him – and me too honestly.
back into the car and we drop marcus back at school and say our goodbyes. he is a very nice kid – just 23, and does a good job. our driver takes us to the airport. its 2 hours in nightmare traffic, but finally we arrive. the contrast is stark. our hotel room is 5 times larger than that home, and 1000x nicer. that family has never seen anything like this. we order room service, pizza! it tastes like the most amazing thing ever. andrew has a sprite. we talk about that family, the school, and how lucky we are and how it’s important to try to think of and help others. i feel like he got it.
he falls asleep at 8. i make it until 9, barely. in a weird way, we miss those kids already.