If your 2012 New Year’s resolutions included a commitment to travel more, to learn new things or to volunteer your time, you’re in good company—these are three of the most common resolutions people make. Why not put a check mark next to all three with a volunteer vacation?
Volunteer vacations, or “voluntourism”, combine the best of travel – arts, culture, nature, heritage sites, and recreation – with the opportunity to enrich the people, wildlife or environment of the destination. To put it simply, a voluntourist is someone who takes a trip with the intention of spending some or all of their time engaged in meaningful volunteer work. It’s a great way to combine your interest in travel with other passions you may have or to try something new.
When people think about volunteer vacations, they often conjure up images of helping impoverished people in third-world countries. While those are certainly rewarding options to consider, there are plenty of organizations in the U.S., many right here in Texas, that rely heavily on volunteers and in return, offer unique and interesting experiences. There are choices for every level of ability and most don’t require special skills since they will teach you whatever you need to know. Often, you can a find a trip that ties in with a specific interest, such as camping and hiking, wild animal care or bird-watching. (In part 2 of this article, we’ll explore a few specific Texas opportunities.)
So, why would someone choose to spend their precious vacation time working rather than sipping margaritas on the beach, playing golf or shopping? I asked a friend who spends one week each year working to repair hiking trails in a national park why he did it. He told me that he enjoys the rewarding feeling of accomplishing something. “It’s such worthwhile work and there is so much to do. When I leave at the end of the week, I know I made a small impact.”
Another major benefit that all voluntourists mention is the friendships that are forged. Volunteers come from all walks of life and varying backgrounds, but they join together with a common goal during their trip. Throughout the day, you’re working side by side and in the evenings, you all relax together, feeling your well-earned exhaustion and reflecting on the day. It’s a unique bonding experience and many people report making friends that they’re still connected with years later.
Does voluntourism mean a cheap vacation? Depending on the organization, free or low-cost housing may be available and meals are sometimes included too, so it can be a way to explore a location without spending as much, paying in sweat rather than cash. However, in some cases, a volunteer vacation can cost about the same as a regular trip. One thing to keep in mind, though – expenses for a volunteer vacations are often tax deductible, as long as you meet certain requirements. It’s important to do your research before making your plans.
In just a few days or weeks, volunteer vacations will give you a renewed sense of energy and purpose. You can learn new skills, gain enriching experiences, memories, and friendships that last a lifetime. Each one leaves you with a deep connection to a place and the people you meet.