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Volunteer tourism: getting it right

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The voluntourism trend is growing, and there’s plenty of opportunity for properties to get involved. Here’s what you need to know

With purpose-driven travel at the forefront of many tourists’ minds these days, volunteering holidays are gaining in popularity. A recent survey showed that 54% of Gen Z travellers would consider a volunteering trip, and it’s estimated the volunteer abroad industry is worth over US$173bn worldwide.

“20 years ago most voluntary options were long term – Peace Corps and many UK programmes like Project Trust were one or two years long,” explains Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel. “Then the tourism industry realised that there was a market for it as a one or two week break.”

Today, whether it’s teaching English at schools in Fiji, or contributing to conservation projects in Costa Rica, there is literally a world of possibility out there for the discerning, altruistic traveller.

“Vacations where tourists are able to learn a new skill or participate in meaningful projects constitute one of the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world,” explains Ashleigh Dunn, Hospitality Manager for Thanda Safari. “All indications are that by 2020 this group of ‘experience seekers’ will command the dominant market share.”

Thanda Safari is a private game reserve and luxury lodge complex in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Aside from the classic game drives, bush walks and luxury accommodation, it also offers travellers the opportunity to spend two to four weeks aiding conservation within the reserve. As part of its Ulwazi Research Programme, volunteers spend up to seven hours in the bush each day, getting hands-on wildlife and veld management experience, as well as the opportunity participate in basic data collection and conservation activities.

Car riding into the sunset

Photo: Chen Hu

Of course, to set something like this up is an enormous undertaking – it requires specific expertise and significant investment. But there is great reward for travel companies, hotels or operators, that do decide to incorporate volunteer programmes into the offering, says Dunn. “[It] has the potential to increase a hotel’s market share by incorporating products which differ from their traditional offerings. It also affords them the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with communities and the environment.”

Smaller scale opportunities

Of course, not all volunteer abroad opportunities need to be such big projects, and with the popularity of the ‘giving back’ concept on the rise, there are ways accommodations can get involved on a smaller, simpler scale.

At Volcanoes Safaris – a collection of luxury lodges in Uganda and Rwanda – for example, guests are offered the opportunity to help regenerate a local wetland area during their stay. Near its newest property, Kyambura Lodge, a former illegal brickworks is being returned to its natural state thanks to guests who have volunteered their time to plant trees in the area.

Even small initiatives such as organising beach clean ups can appeal to the traveller that wants to give back and have an enriching experience.

Responsible engagement

Getting it right can be tricky, though – the voluntourism sector isn’t without its problems. Volunteer abroad organisations have been criticised for profiting from illegal or unsustainable projects, and there are concerns about the authenticity and intent of some providers.

It’s important to create sustainable projects that truly offer benefit to both the people undertaking the experience and the environment

Responsible Travel’s CEO, Justin Francis says: “The critical issues facing this area are child protection and CRB screening of volunteers, and skills matching. For example, it’s deeply unethical for someone with no training or experience to have unsupervised contact with children or vulnerable people.”

Beyond that, the project itself needs to be suitable too. “It’s important to create sustainable projects that truly offer benefit to both the people undertaking the experience and the environment,” explains Thanda Safari’s Dunn. “Community involvement projects must be meaningful and long-term so as not to fall into the trap of voyeurism.”


If setting up your own volunteer opportunities isn’t an option, there are a number of ways accommodations can still get involved, says Francis: ”For example, promoting community projects to guests and encouraging them to get out into the community to support them. Some hotels offer cut price rooms in off season for volunteers who are working on local projects.”

Abode Boutique Hotel in Mumbai, for example, supports a local school for the blind by employing its students as massage therapists for in-room guest treatments. In the Seychelles, Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort & Spa launched a coral nursery, helping to protect and preserve the marine and reef life along the island’s north-west coast. Guests can visit the coral nursery to see first hand what’s behind the project, and even adopt a piece of coral to give back to the conservation efforts.

Ultimately, in such a huge sector there are plenty of ways hotels can take part, but as Francis says, it’s essential that it’s all properly researched and managed responsibly.


If you like this you might also want to read, Making a positive impact with your property

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The volunteer holidays sector is estimated to be worth US$1.8bn, with 54% of Gen Z travellers considering a voluntourism trip
The industry isn’t without its problems, though – there are concerns around ethics, sustainability and negative impacts on local communities
Some hotels offer their own volunteer programmes, but they needn’t be big projects – it can be as simple as organising a beach clean up or planting trees
Hotels can tap into the voluntourism sector beyond organising their own initiatives, by supporting local charities and connecting travellers with those in need