According to The International Ecotourism Society, volunteer travel is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism market. Environmentally and socially aware travellers now require more from their overseas trips than lounging on a beach and checking out the local watering holes. As a result, the number of initiatives that combine traditional sightseeing with helping local communities is growing.
For whl.travel, a company dedicated to improving the travel experience and the ethical standards of tourism from the bottom up and for everyone involved, it is hardly surprising that many local partners are actively involved in voluntourism initiatives.
Here we spotlight a few whl.travel destinations that encourage travellers to get involved in local projects with the promise of a true cultural experience and exchange.
Zenith Tours, a local operator in Zanzibar, Tanzania, is very active in voluntourism. As a key part of World Unite! – a network of seven local tour operators and partners around the world providing short- and long-term volunteering opportunities – Zenith work with numerous social and conservation projects on the island and mainland Tanzania.
Popular initiatives include teaching local adults and children on the island of Uzi in southern Zanzibar and a project in Moshi, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, called the Social Reality Tour developed in partnership with KIWAKKUKI (Kilimanjaro Women against AIDS), a local nongovernmental organisation.
The Social Reality Tour is a way of funding the work of KIWAKKUKI through tourism. Zenith Tours works directly with volunteers to improve the tour and the situation of families affected by HIV. One area of development in which volunteers help is the design, construction, packaging and distribution of souvenirs. To this end, Zenith Tours has bought some solar cookers and, together with volunteers, gives classes in cooking exotic jams and marmalades.
There are many volunteer groups at work in the Yucatan of Mexico. The range of focus runs from environmental and cultural sustainability to orphanages, schools and community projects. A local tour operator, Adventures Mexico, works together with Cuerpos de Conservación, a large network of volunteer groups in the region that has varied programmes, including everything from conservation, environmental education and natural resource management to strengthening social organisation and the development of natural and cultural resources. There are also programmes to support human rights for children, gender and class.
Adventures Mexico and Cuerpos de Conservación have teamed up to build volunteer-vacation and service-learning programs that immerse travellers in Yucatecan culture as they help locals improve the quality of their lives through efforts such as painting an orphanage or teaching at a rural school. During the trip, travellers stay with host families, which makes the experience more meaningful and personal, as there is ample opportunity to learn Spanish, try new foods and bask in the total immersion in Mexican culture.
The Yachana Foundation, the whl.travel local partner in Quito, was established in 1991 with the aim of improving the lives of people from the Amazon region and protecting the rainforest. In 1997 they built the Mondaña Medical Clinic, which is now run by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health and provides free medical care to more than 8,000 inhabitants of the region.
The only way you can reach the clinic is by canoe and the Yachana Foundation runs a medical volunteer programme at the clinic open to enrolled medical, nursing and public health students, as well as practicing healthcare professionals. There are also volunteer opportunities at the Yachana Technical High School and the new technical institute they will be building with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Yachana endeavours to design voluntourism programmes based on volunteers’ talents and interests, so when they are not working they can participate in regular tourist activities like jungle trekking with multilingual guides, tubing on the river, visiting the local healer or medicine man and excursions into the Yachana reserve.
Phongsali Province, Laos
One of them is a pioneering volunteer program set up collaboratively by adventure and sustainable travel specialist Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures, UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) and the Lao government to generate alternative income for former opium-growing communities in Phongsali Province, the northernmost, poorest and most remote region in the country. As part of a six-day tour, volunteers live with local families in an Akha ethnic minority village and immerse themselves in ethnic Akha community life, undertaking routine tasks include supporting villagers working in the fields and at home by collecting firewood, carrying water, planting rice, harvesting, feeding chickens, cooking, looking after kids, and teaching English while learning Lao and Akha, as well as learning traditional ethnic handicrafts like weaving or basket making. Itineraries can be tailored within reason to the needs and wishes of the volunteers and villagers. Support is provided in the form of an experienced local guide/interpreter.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
WHL Cambodia is keenly involved in sustainable and responsible travel initiatives in Cambodia and works closely with a number of local community projects, especially in Siem Reap. One of these is the Sangkheum Center for Children, which provides teaching, training and care to disadvantaged kids. As a service to the centre, WHL Cambodia has organised a number of projects, including a rehabilitation program currently in need of skilled support.
In the past, a volunteering fourth-year Occupational Therapy student from the University of Sydney noticed the relative lack of facilities and targeted information for people with mobility impairments. As a result, she carried out assessments for hotels and accommodation providers in Siem Reap to determine their level of accessibility by tourists and travellers with physical disabilities, including people with reduced strength and balance, and visual impairments. As a result of her recommendations, a number of accommodation providers have set about adapting their buildings for disabled tourists, who will now be able to make more informed choices when planning their travels.