Voluntourism: How Volunteer Tourism Is Changing World Travel

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It would be a mistake to believe that travelers are interested in simply seeing the world. In fact, it’s quite common for the intrepid explorer to develop a soft spot (if not fall completely in love with) the places they visit. It’s only natural then that they might want to volunteer some time and expertise while on their travels. It’s from this trend that one of the newest tourism phenomena, Voluntourism, has emerged.

From building schools to developing well and clean water systems for whole communities, Voluntourism is flourishing and is not only benefiting disadvantaged communities across the developing world, it is also delivering high quality experiences for tourists interested in making a difference.

It is estimated that more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year. There are claims in the US that, in 2007, as many as 3.5 million US travelers were engaging in the volunteering activities while on vacation, a figure that reportedly tripled by 2014. Most amazingly, however, is the idea that as many as 20 million US travelers will partake in Voluntourism by 2020.

According to a 2014 report compiled by GoOverseas.com, the top 5 countries searched for volunteering are the Philippines, India, Thailand, Nepal and Cambodia, making Asia by far the most popular destination searched and chosen.

So, What Exactly Is Voluntourism?

Basically, ‘Voluntourism’ is a combination of volunteering and tourism.  But if you have never heard the term before, don’t feel too bad. As a concept, it only came into existence in the early 1900s, when the British Red Cross set up the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD),  allowing volunteers to travel to places in need of medical help. Volunteers even went to battlefields in Europe and the Middle East during World War I .

By the 1960s, at a time when international travel was still a rare luxury for most people, organizations like Australian Volunteers International, the UK’s Voluntary Services Overseas, and the US Peace Corps were operating similar programs around the world.

By the 1980s, it became a philanthropic endevour that the rich enjoyed to embark on, but by the 21st century, with the explosion of gap-year and graduate travel, volunteering while seeing the world became a hugely popular trend.

But while these organizations were linked heavily with government or profession-specific initiatives, today, the opportunity to travel and volunteer is as open as any other vacation package. Expertise is not essential (though much appreciated), so anyone from any background can make their mark in in-need communities in the poorest countries.

Charity And Tourism

With international charities always in need of volunteers to help get their projects done, and individuals looking to help, it makes sense that some charities are dipping into the tourism market to make the most of the available opportunities. In some cases, charities have even opened their own tour companies to capture the market.

Since the 2015 earthquakes that devastated the small Himalayan country, destroying several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and killing 8,000 people, Nepal has been the center of attention amongst international voluntourism operators.


The Earthbag Rebuild Project

One of the leaders of the charge is New Zealand-based First Steps Himalaya, which has worked in rural Nepal since 2008 to provide communities there with greater education opportunities and child development services. It’s most recent initiative is the Earthbag Rebuild Project, a project which will see it reconstruct schools and training centers destroyed during the earthquake using earth-filled bags instead of concrete blocks.

What is different about this charity, however, is that it uses its own travel agency – Beyond The Clouds – to fundraise and attract willing volunteers, offering an unforgettable experience to travelers, as well as flights, accommodation and everything else a traveller expects for periods of as much as 17 days (depending on the package bought).

Of course, as the charity’s official fundraising arm, Beyond The Clouds knows it has to reach the widest market it can to raise the maximum funds it can. AS such, it offers more tourist-focused trips to Bhutan and Tibet as well.

  • In Tibet, they offer a range of overland treks to introduce travelers to the unseen country, pilgrimages to Mt Kailish – Asia’s not sacred mountain – and tailor-made tours for groups of 2 or more people.
  • In Bhutan, they offer a range of packages designed for photography enthusiasts through the most stunning countryside, treks through the heart of the country, and even yoga packages for travelers who are looking for a more spiritual experience with the Himalayas in the backdrop.
  • Meanwhile, in Nepal, there are also trekking and yoga packages available, as well as tailor-made tours.


The value of the tourist-focused packages is pretty clear, with profits from the tour operation going to the charitable projects run by First Step Himalaya. But it’s a model that is likely to attract even more converts, making it more possible than ever before for a responsible traveller to make a difference while succumbing to the travelling bug.


Image: Nepal is one of the scenic countries in the world. Photo from FirstStepsHimalaya.org

First Steps Himalaya is based in New Zealand, but works alongside rural Himalayan communities to improve the standard of education through classroom refurbishment, teacher training and development. For more information on First Steps Himalaya, visit their MyCharityMap Profile Page, our Outreach feature on them, or their official website.

The first ever Earthbag Building Summit was held in Kathmandu in September 2015, attracting people from all walks of life interested in earthbag building. A second summit is planned for September 2016. To register your interest in Earthbag Rebuild Summit 2016, contact First Steps Himalaya us at admin@firststepshimalaya.org