Once upon a few decades ago, if you wanted to do good while gallivanting around the world, the chances are you did it on a gap year between school and university, and most likely with the charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Founded in 1958, worthy sounding and worthier-doing VSO definitely puts the emphasis on service: it will have you digging ditches in India or water wells in Africa, with no hint of lounging about in your skimpies on a beach.
Now, though, the possibilities for doing good while travelling – with or without your family – are vast, ranging from VSO and others like it at one very involved end, to super luxurious stays where you can keep your virtuous involvement to a minimum – a day’s visit to a school, say, or simply through knowing that your travel company donates a percentage of its profits to local charities. How much or how little you do is up to you. Here are some voluntourism projects to get you thinking.
Rainforest conservation at Taricaya Reserva Ecologica
The Amazon is the lungs of the planet and right now it’s gasping. You can do your bit to help one part of this incredible ecosystem heal by volunteering at Taricaya, a 500-hectare protected zone on the Madre de Dios River and bordering Tambopata Natural Reserve, one of Peru’s most precious natural landmarks.
Access to Taricaya is by motorboat only and once on the reserve you will be involved in a diverse range of projects that might include looking after animals that have been rescued from poachers and taking part in their release into the wild; preparing artificial beaches and relocating the nests of the precious yellow-spotted river turtle to them; and seed collection and planting. Accommodation for the duration is in shared bedrooms in a lodge.
Go do good: $1,870 (£1,460) for one week, $2,120 (£1,660) for two weeks, $2,370 (£1,850) for three, and $2,620 (£2,050) for four, excluding flights to Puerto Maldonado; taricayaecoreserve.com
Unusual places to stay combined with conservation activities
The National Trust has been running working holidays for more than 50 years and offers an extensive list of opportunities – for families with children aged from six years up; for single travellers; and for people with learning difficulties, as long as they are accompanied by a carer.
Among the activities on offer are building and repairing walls, footpaths and storm drains; gardening; cleaning beaches; clearing invasive plants from ponds; helping at events; archiving historic collections; or even reading stories to younger visitors. Accommodation is basic – in National Trust bunkhouses, farmhouses, cottages or stable blocks – and often shared.
Go do good: prices vary, but a two-night hedge-laying break in Golden Cap, Dorset, this December is £90; nationaltrust.org.uk
Help in a medical camp and/or deliver livestock and school supplies
Relief Riders International, a past winner of the United Nations NGO Positive Peace award for combining adventure travel with humanitarian aid, leads three expeditions per year on horseback or motorcycle to remote areas in Ecuador, India and Turkey, to deliver medical care, educational supplies and livestock. Each trip lasts 10-16 days, during which small groups of riders will help treat up to 2,500 people at medical camps, schools and mobile eye and dental clinics. Accommodation on all trips is in luxury, boutique hotels whenever possible.
Go do good: the Khimsar trip (19 February-2 March 2019) will take you through the dunes of northern Rajasthan to the isolated Bishnoi communities, where you’ll help deliver aid and supplies. From $6,700 (£5,240), excluding flights to Delhi and single supplement; reliefridersinternational.com
Teach disadvantaged and/or refugee children how to play cricket and learn English
Responsible Travel is one of the biggest names in volunteer holidays and its extensive programme covers everything from tracking bears in northern Greece for five days to a 24-week rainforest internship in Peru. This sports coaching trip to Perth is one of several PE-based placements available throughout the world and combines teaching football and cricket, as well as English, art and maths, to disadvantaged teenagers or younger refugee children who’ve fled from war zones. There are four, four-week trips per year. Accommodation is in a lodge in the central business district, sharing with other volunteers.
Go do good: from £2,400, excluding flights to Perth; responsibletravel.com
United Arab Emirates
Monitoring Arabian oryx
“Make your holiday time count as a wildlife volunteer and share in our vision of a healthier planet,” is the compelling message on Biosphere Expeditions’ website, and with conservation and research projects to safeguard wolves (in Germany); cats and elephants (Malawi) and leatherback turtles (Costa Rica), among others, you can do just that.
Founded in 1999, this citizen science wildlife conservation and non-profit organisation also runs trips to Arabia where you will work with scientists from the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, to monitor, film and study the herd behaviour of mountain and sand gazelles, Gordon’s wildcat, Arabian oryx and other desert species. Accommodation on your trip is in oasis field camps.
Go do good: eight-day expedition: €1,480 (£1,330), excluding flights to Dubai; biosphere-expeditions.org
Put your ACA to good use
Accounting for International Development offers accountants the opportunity to use their skills to build the financial management capacity of charities in more than 50 countries. Placements – from two weeks to 12 months – are with one of more than 500 organisations, including street child centres, women’s empowerment programmes, hospitals and HIV charities.
Go do good: an initial fee of £625 is required to help source the right placement for you, and other costs will apply depending on placement; afid.org.uk
Preserve the Belize Barrier Reef
You can do as much or as little voluntary work as you please on this Much Better Adventures diving trip to the private island of Tom Owens Caye. Though there’s plenty of opportunity for “citizen science”, you can spend your time instead in a hammock on the beach. If you’d rather help preserve the reef, then you’ll go on dives to identify fish, conduct marine life surveys, document coral reef bleaching and spear-hunt non-indigenous lion fish. Accommodation is basic but the views of the sun rising over the reef will more than compensate for that.
Go do good: five days from $967 (£757), excluding flights to Placencia; muchbetteradventures.com
Work on your tan
If you’d rather get your nails done than your hands dirty, you can still do good while holidaying by travelling with one of an ever-increasing number of operators who have put sustainability and supporting local economies at the heart of their business. Travel Corporation (ttc.com), whose brands include Insight Vacations, Trafalgar, Luxury Gold, Uniworld and African Travel, established the TreadRight Foundation to ensure the prosperity of the regions and communities it visits.
The Foundation supports heritage initiatives such as the Village Weavers Project, Laos; Iraq Al-Amir Women’s Cooperative in Jordan; and the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, Peru. It also backs wildlife organisations including the Wilderness Foundation Africa, The Cape Leopard Trust and WildAid.
Other tour operators putting your money to good use include Inside Asia Tours (insideasiatours.com), which is donating 20% of the cost of its nine-night Trekking the Cloud Forests of Laos tour to local communities and their conservation efforts in the Nam Et-Phou Louey Nationa Protected Area; and Audley Travel (audleytravel.com), which donates to several causes across the world, including The LATA Foundation, set up by the Latin American Travel Association; children’s charity Magic Bus, India; and the Fjordland Conservation Trust, New Zealand.
Renovate, repair, rebuild for others
Hands up Holidays creates tailor-made luxury volunteering itineraries for families. The scope of their projects is very wide reaching, but might include building homes for disadvantaged people in the favellas of Costa Rica; maintaining homes for single mothers in Mexico; constructing a classroom or library for the Berber communities of Morocco or caring for refugees and the homeless in Italy.
But it’s not all hard work: after labouring during the day, you’ll be staying in eco-friendly, luxury hotels at night.
Go do good: trips are created especially for you, so price will be on application; handsupholidays.com
Finding an ethical project
Lots of companies have jumped on the voluntourism bandwagon – not all of them good. Before you book, do some preliminary checks, particularly if it’s a travel company or organisation you’ve
not heard of, and don’t be afraid to ask the following questions: How much of your trip fee will go to the project you’re working on? Can you provide me with a breakdown? What will I be doing, exactly? And what will the long-term gain for the local community be? Have I got the necessary skills the project needs?
It’s tempting to get caught up in the moment and to jump in, but stand back to assess your abilities and your physical fitness. Will you really be able to trek to remote mountain villages and build breeze-block outhouses? If you’re unsure of what the experience will entail, ask to speak to previous volunteers.