Voluntourism: getting away with good intentions

by Dorene Internicola, Reuters

Posted at Jun 25 2010 10:10 PM | Updated as of Jun 26 2010 08:27 AM

NEW YORK, United States (Reuters Life!) - It's not all work and no play for those who prefer the purpose-driven vacation to lying aimlessly on a beach.

Voluntourism, or the practice of combining vacation play with humanitarian work, can mean teaching in Ghana or studying plant life in Peru. Just don't forget the sunscreen.

"You'll still have your time on the beach," said Ben Keene, founder of TribeWanted, a U.K.-based enterprise which has so far sent more than 1100 voluntourists on a village-building mission to the Fiji island of Vorovoro.

"You're there to get involved in the local community life, going fishing, being on the farm. There's not a pressure on you to work," said Keene by telephone from Vorovoro. "What we need is the resources and funding to build the village, create jobs."

TribeWanted's Fiji project was the subject of a five-part BBC documentary. But its next venture, on John Obey beach in Sierra Leone, might be a harder sell.

"Fiji's No.1 source of GDP is tourism," said Keene. "Sierra Leone is not on a travel circuit."

Filippo Bozotti, founder of Shine on Sierra Leone and Keene's partner in the project, said the West African country is seeking a new beginning after a decade of civil war.

He wants this poorest of countries to be known more for its pristine beaches than its blood diamonds.

"Tourists don't often come to Salone, as the locals call it, but we are looking to change that. The negative perception of the country is very different to the reality," said Bozotti, who has been setting up microfinancing projects and computer centers in the area for six years.

The first band of up to 30 intrepid visitors is due to arrive in October, having paid a fixed fee for their stay and meals, as well as their own transportation.

Bozotti expects mostly young people, gap-year students and young professionals, along with the odd couple or retirees.

"Mainly adventurers," he said. "Initially we have nothing except fresh water wells and compost, nothing except pristine beach. Initially we'll be in tents. Within a couple of months we'll have bungalows."

Travel for Good, an arm of travel giant Travelocity, works with non-profit groups to facilitate projects that range from working with AIDS orphans in Tanzania to building recycling bins in Costa Rica.

Each quarter the company awards two $5000 grants to voluntourists who apply with their projects.

"Every person gets to choose their trip," said Alison Presley, director of the program. "Last quarter we broke a new record for applications. We hit 700."

Volunteerism has been strong despite the economic crisis. In 2009, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities, according to a report by the Corporation for National & Community, an independent government agency.

Why does Presley think voluntourism is so robust in hard times?

"You turn on the TV and Bangkok's in trouble, or there's an oil spill, or it's Haiti," she said. "It's been quite a year."

Presley said Travel for Good has already reached out to the Earthwatch Institute, its partner in eco-voluntourism, about projects aimed at the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's really too early," she explained. "They're still in crisis mode. But I hope to see that. "