Melanie Dow was always the beach and spa type. But you can really spend only so many vacations lying around, she says, as our taxi weaves up a pitted dirt road crowded with trucks, gas-powered rickshaws, and young boys with livestock in tow. She's 32, she tells me, and until a few months ago she had a great job at Goldman Sachs in New York City. She liked her colleagues; she liked the money. One Saturday at the office, though, she decided she was tired of fluorescent-lit, carpal-tunnel weekends. She needed a vacation—but not just any vacation. She needed a change.
Our driver speeds into a narrow, blind turn (as most turns are here in the foothills south of Dharmsala, India), then jams on the brakes and jerks us to the shoulder of the road so a freight truck can pass. Around the bend, the road narrows and drops away into a valley. Only a shallow river and a clutter of boulders come in anything but a shade of monsoon green.
When we get to Dharmsala, a slow-paced town of 19,000 not far from Tibet, Melanie will swap her jeans and T-shirt for a traditional Indian salwar suit—loose cotton pants and a flowing, square-cut top that falls to her knees—and report for work at the local Red Cross building. She hadn't volunteered much back at home ("I couldn't even find time to talk to my mother," she says, laughing, "so how could I find time to work with kids?"), but for the next few weeks she will spend her mornings leading a group of Indian police officers and soldiers through drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Cross Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit New York-based tour company that specializes in such increasingly popular "volunteer vacations," arranged all the details: the job placement, the modest house where Melanie and I and half a dozen other American volunteers will live, daily home-cooked meals, translators, afternoon field trips—even the taxi ride into town.
By now, Melanie knows what to expect. She gave up her apartment and quit her job to spend the past five months on one CCS trip after another, moving from an orphanage in Brazil to a home for the mentally disabled in Thailand to here, the Indian countryside. I ask her about the cost—approximately $2,400 for each three-week trip, not counting airfare. She laughs. "I would have just wasted the money going out to eat in New York."
Until recently, volunteering abroad had far more to do with activism than with tourism. French pacifist Pierre Ceresole organized the first formal volunteer trips shortly after the end of World War I. His organization, Service Civil International, rallied groups of young people from France and Germany to rebuild towns wrecked by the war. Although volunteer work camps later appeared across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and some travelers set off on kibbutz or missionary trips, international volunteering didn't really hit the mainstream in the United States until Operation Crossroads Africa sent its first wave of workers on a six-week trip to Ghana in 1958; three years later, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Still, these programs were largely for idealistic kids, not affluent adults.
An organization called Earthwatch began to change that in the seventies, though entirely by accident. Federal funding for scientific field research had ebbed, and foreign research stations were struggling to keep their projects alive. Earthwatch emerged to try to make up the difference with tourist dollars. Travelers would pay generously, the founders believed, for the chance to watch scientists track wild animals or dig up ancient ruins. They were half right. Donors did sign up for the trips. "But they decided they didn't just want to observe—they wanted to participate," says Earthwatch president Roger Bergen. "And scientists discovered that the volunteers, surprisingly, had the ability to do a lot of data collecting."
Although Earthwatch started pitching itself as a kind of scientific Peace Corps, it was, in fact, something quite new: a first stab at work-based tourism. Unlike the Peace Corps, Earthwatch demanded only a few weeks from its volunteers, so most traveled during their regular vacations; unlike a work camp, an Earthwatch trip was relatively costly, something only older professionals could afford. A decade later, St. Paul-based Global Volunteers brought the Earthwatch approach to Peace Corps-style projects—building houses and roads in developing countries, assisting in health clinics, teaching English—and a volunteer-travel industry began to mature.
Saul and Ann Goldstein, two other participants in Cross Cultural Solutions' program in Dharmsala, have watched it happen. They're on their 15th volunteer vacation—the first 14 with Earthwatch. "When we started, in 1986, nobody had heard of Earthwatch," Ann says. "Now we have to register early. The trips fill up way in advance." Bill McMillon, who first published his popular guide Volunteer Vacations in 1987, has seen that growth play out in unexpected ways. "In the first couple of editions, I had a lot of religious organizations," he says. "After about the fourth or fifth edition, they started asking to be taken out." They worried about secular vacationers muddling their evangelical, and often denominational, message. "One organization not only got out of the book but on its Web site and printed material it says, 'This is not a volunteer vacation.'"
The rise of volunteer vacations seems to be the product of a serendipitous alignment: 10 to 15 years ago, at the same time that trips abroad became easier and less expensive and better-traveled Americans began to seek out more unusual travel experiences, volunteering also became the stuff of national conversation. Every president since Ronald Reagan has pushed service as a high-profile campaign issue, from George Bush Sr.'s Points of Light to his son's faith-based initiatives. Today, somewhere between one in two and one in four Americans volunteer, and according to Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks volunteering, most of the growth lately has been in "episodic" service—short-term commitments including volunteer vacations. An IS survey has found that 70 percent of volunteers do it for the same reason many people travel: to gain a new perspective on things.
Much of the recent growth in volunteer travel has come from trips that emphasize social work, many run by relatively young organizations like Cross Cultural Solutions. Founded in 1995, CCS has tripled the number of volunteers it sends abroad since 2000. "This year we're going to send maybe fifteen hundred," says executive director Steve Rosenthal. CCS plans to double the number of programs it offers within the next five years, to more than 20. "Can we send fifteen thousand volunteers?" Rosenthal asks. "Easily. There's massive potential here."
Volunteer travel is still too new to the mainstream for reliable statistics to exist, but according to Kristalina Georgieva, a director at the World Bank, ecotourism and cultural tourism, both closely related to volunteer trips, are the fastest-growing segments of the global travel industry. Every volunteer outfitter I talked to, from CCS to older companies such as Global Volunteers, has drawn travelers in record numbers the past few years, with only a brief lapse in interest following 9/11. "Initially, we figured this would be a novelty," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village arm, which runs trips to build houses in poor communities. "Someone would do this in place of a fishing vacation, or a trip to Cancún, but wouldn't necessarily come back. What we find is people return a third time, a fourth time, a fifteenth time. They realize this kind of travel is how you really get to see the world and experience more of the food, the culture, the camaraderie."