Combining travel with volunteer work is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry. So much that there’s even a new word for it — volontourism. It ranges from emergency help for a community, such as cleaning beaches on the Gulf Coast and clearing rubble in Haiti, to building libraries in Bhutan and maintaining hiking trails in U.S. national parks.
John F. Kennedy Jr. inspired the world 50 years ago today, January 20, 1961, with his inaugural speech that included the memorable phrase “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. You can honor that sense of duty and service by making your next vacation a volunteer vacation. An added bonus to doing something that interests you in a travel destination on your ‘bucket list’, a portion of your trip could be tax deductible — but talk to your accountant about that.
Here are some volunteer vacation organizers that I like and recommend, especially the eco-friendly programs that support conservation and the environment, and children —
Projects Abroad has been sending travelers to countries including Cambodia, Peru, India, Costa Rica and Ethiopia since 1992. Currently, there are more than 100 projects in 25 countries ranging from building performing arts to rebuilding the local environment. One program, in Ghana, educated abused women about their rights. Or, teach English in Brazil and enjoy the world-famous Carnival in Rio. There also are special programs for students on spring break or summer vacation.
Relief Riders International travels through India by horseback to reach isolated rural villages, such as in the Kutch region of Gujarat. In addition to enjoying the scenic mountain vistas, you will provide basic healthcare and donating much-needed supplies to the villagers, especially the children.
Cross Cultural Solutions offers volunteer programs in a dozen countries, including Peru, Tanzania and Thailand.
One of my favorite groups is Myths and Mountains, which operates luxury travel experiences to ‘bucket list’ destinations including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (formerly called Burma) and India. All the trips are designed to to be eco-friendly and leave no carbon footprint. While there are opportunities to do some volunteer work on these trips, the real volunteer program is supported by the company’s separate organization started by company owner Toni Neubauer, who I’ve had the great fortune to travel with. Rural Education and Development — also known as READ Global – has built close some 50 library and community centers in rural villages of Nepal and India. These centers combine education and teaching villagers new skills, including entrepeneurial skills, to help lift them out of poverty.
Sierra Club also has a long list of volunteer vacations in the U.S. and overseas which focus on the environment, such as a spring trip to Costa Rica to help maintain t the rainforest and protect its inhabitants. There also are many local and regional programs run by Sierra Club chapters, such as to help plant flowers in a park in your own city.
Volunteer travel is travel with a purpose. JFK, of course, started the Peace Corps, which sent American volunteers around the world. Volunteer travel is your own private, personal Peace Corps.
Just a personal note here — The man who wrote that famous JFK speech, Ted Sorenson, passed away a few weeks ago. And, the man JFK named to head the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, passed away a few days ago.