When Tim Donahue recalls traveling in India, where he volunteered in medical camps among poor Rajasthani villagers in 2005 and 2006, lots of fond memories come flooding back. Like the smiles and laughter of village children when he first demonstrated how to throw a Frisbee; the pungent smells of incense and cooking fires that wafted from their threadbare homes; and the way ailing men and women—many of them blind—patiently waited in line, sometimes for hours, for their chance to see one of the medical camp doctors.
But what amazes Donahue the most about his trips—which he took along with a U.S.-based humanitarian organization, Relief Workers International—is how much they changed him.
“I’d done a lot of traveling before,” says Donahue, “but this was something much bigger than just travel. I have never felt so rewarded for doing so little...and now I’m anxious to do more.”
These days, there are more opportunities than ever for combining travel with humanitarian outreach. The U.S. alone has dozens of organizations arranging “voluntourism” trips—some of them broad-reaching nonprofit outfits with branches all over the globe; others smaller, grassroots operations that specialize in a particular culture or destination.
The programs these organizations offer run the gamut from exotic (living and working in indigenous Amazon rainforest villages) to familiar (helping to build houses for Gulf Coast Americans who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina); and from exhilarating (herding among Mongolian nomads) to harrowing (teaching basic life skills to orphaned Kenyan street children). But all of them share a common goal: improving lives in the communities where they work.
Doing this, of course, requires certain sacrifices on the part of the program participants. Volunteers doing humanitarian work are nearly always responsible for getting themselves to their program destinations; they also pay program fees that cover their room and board and supplies needed for community outreach (like medicines and schoolbooks). Since they often live in the same disadvantaged communities where they work, volunteers also cope with varying degrees of creature discomfort; bucket baths and outhouses are the norm at some programs, while others are a hike or drive away from the nearest phone or Internet connection.
If numbers are any indication, though, these inconveniences aren’t getting in the way of would-be voluntourists; in fact, registration for humanitarian programs has skyrocketed. G.A.P. Adventures and i-to-i, for example—two relatively new organizations—have seen program participation double almost every year since their inception in 2005. Meanwhile, one of the longest-running U.S.-based operators, Cross-Cultural Solutions, started out with a single volunteer in 1995—and now places more than 4,000 a year in 12 different countries. The draw of humanitarian travel, say program directors, is becoming obvious to more and more people, especially in developed Western countries like the U.S.
“People who volunteer with us find their ideas of the world have been transformed,” says Kam Santos, director of communications for Cross-Cultural Solutions. “They wind up coming back again and again.... We have people who’ve gone to eight different countries with us. This is their new way to travel.”
Catherine McMillan, a spokesperson for another veteran U.S. organization, Globe Aware, agrees. “People are realizing that they can only really understand the challenges and see the beauty in a culture once they make some personal connections there,” she says.
“I hear it again and again from volunteers,” says McMillan. “They say, ’I thought I would be traveling to go help people—and instead, I feel like I got even more than I gave.’”