Adding Impact to Your Next Vacation

In many communities around the globe, the idea of a “vacation” is a completely foreign concept having nothing to do with understanding the English language. Indeed, there are many families here in the United States that can’t begin to afford to take time away from a job, never mind pay for the privilege of traveling away from home. For those of us who can afford to plan and save for a vacation, it is the very definition of good fortune. Have you ever considered “voluntourism” as a way to give meaning this particular example of good fortune? This web extra to School Nutrition’s January 2020 issue on volunteering offers some food for thought.

Two decades ago, voluntourism was a relatively new concept, rising in the 1990s and seen by some at that time as something of a cross between the Peace Corps and a religious mission trip. By 2013, Conde Nast Traveler had named it a top travel trend. Today, there are numerous organizations that offer opportunities to combine travel and service all across the globe.

Love to dive? You could do that by spending a week in Malaysia, living in a local village and diving to collect research data about seagrass beds and coral reefs. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to see Italy’s art treasures—and take a vacation where you learn how to help restore ancient frescoes. Voluntouring can be as simple as speaking English—and helping those in another country to learn this international language. Many trips build in downtime that allow you to take in some of the area’s top cultural sites and natural sights.

Have anxieties—or budgetary limitations—about voluntouring abroad? You can find opportunities here in the United States, too. These can range from environmental (clearing hiking trails, conservation efforts), animal rescue, housing and homeless support, arts and community outreach, historic preservation and neighborhood renovation.

Be warned that the privilege of volunteering on your vacation typically comes with a cost. Although your services are valuable, they don’t offset the costs of ensuring your accommodations, meals and safety, as well as the equipment, resources and personnel required to carry out the project.

Like any vacation—and any service activity—finding the right opportunity will take some research. Don’t skimpon this step. Given your desire to make an impact, you want to be sure you’re working with a reputable company and that the service project is legit and not something with little value that was devised solely to make volunteers feel good. Some areas, particularly in developing nations, have been exploited by bad players in the travel industry. And while there are well-intended organizations in the market, sometimes the programs they offer aren’t truly impactful or sustainable; they might even cause unintended harm.

Research the organization, seeking independent recommendations and references. If you can’t rely on the veracity of references, ask discerning questions of the sponsoring organization. How long have they worked with local partners? Test their knowledge about placements. Be sure you get every question answered. If you feel you are getting vague or impatient answers, take that as a bad sign. Read other articles about voluntourism—pros, cons and what you need to know.

For every horror story about a terrible resort or bad cruise line, there are a thousand stories of happy and successful vacations. Voluntouring is no different. If you invest time in your research and manage your expectations, you increase the odds of having a one-of-a-kind experience. But we’ll end with one more advisory: Veterans say that voluntourism is addictive! The good feelings of volunteering combined with the wonders of exploring a new destination are a heady combination.

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