Choosing The Ultimate Working Holiday

Voluntourism is an appealingly altruistic way to travel but you need to think carefully about your motives and those of the host organisation before selecting a project.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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Voluntourism is an appealingly altruistic way to travel but you need to think carefully about your motives and those of the host organisation before selecting a project.

My Reading Room

There are some things you just can’t unlearn. Like being told that cat poo has pointed ends, while dog poo is rounded, for instance. This choice factoid was imparted to me at a briefing for a wildlife survey project in Sumatra in early 2015. I was among the first group of paying customers on the project aimed at looking for tigers and their prey species in the Rimbang Baling area of Sumatra.

The seven of us – six Western Europeans and one Aussie – were all volunteers who had paid for the privilege of contributing to essential fieldwork. This sort of conservation-based project is just one example of volunteer tourism, or voluntourism for short. It’s a niche of the travel industry that has grown quickly in recent years, though no one is quite sure just how much or how big it has become as it is difficult to tease apart from true volunteer work.

Earthwatch is the longest running and biggest name in the field, having sent around 100,000 people out to close to 1,400 projects since its founding in 1971. They run seven offices around the world, funnelling volunteers into 50 to 60 projects at any given time. Many of these have a focus on the natural world or climate change, but others target archaeology or cultural fields.

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Since the 1970s, the field has ballooned. Besides generalist organisations like Earthwatch that act like altruistic temping agencies, connecting a pool of motivated and paying labour with qualified projects, there are thousands of far tinier dedicated operations. Focused on specific issues or communities, these tackle everything from conservation to poverty reduction and disaster relief. One example is the Marine Conservation Programme run by the Song Saa Foundation in Cambodia.

Ben Thorne, project director, says: “We initiate projects that support local communities and environments of the Koh Rong Archipelago. Our volunteers aid the conservation of local marine resources while engaging in community engagement activities, such as children’s education, organic farming, health and well-being and beach clean-ups.”

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This page: Energising the kids on World Ocean Day; survey work requires a patient and thorough approach. OPPOSITE PAGE: Biosphere Expeditions’ temporary base in South Africa.

My own experience in Rimbang Baling was set up by Biosphere Expeditions. They specialise in conservation-based trips, often working together with a local partner, in this case WWW-Indonesia. Matthias Hammer, founder of Biosphere says, “The market splits itself into two segments: one is gap year – young people – and the other is adults with jobs who want to dip their toe in, to ‘give back’.”

They all face a challenge in choosing an organisation with an approach that optimises the impact of their skills and commitment. Hammer says they often get enquiries from people who have done trips with other groups. “Sometimes they say it was brilliant because the scientist was very good, but often they say ‘I would never go again because I wasn’t really needed, I didn’t understand the contribution I was making, they were just after my money.’” Dismayed by the misinformation out there, Biosphere offers its own top 10 tips for would-be volunteers. “For me it’s visceral,” Hammer says.

“We are not a company, we are a non-profit. That’s right at the top of the 10 tips: look at what set-up they have. Are they a non-profit? Do they publish their results? Is the website full of people cuddling animals which you shouldn’t do? Are they transparent, do they show where the money goes?” With many voluntourism projects costing £1,000 a week, the money can be transformative if enough of it is passed on. But don’t be fooled by a high price tag.

In early 2014, a study by Leeds Metropolitan University, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, looked at comparable volunteer tourism products on a price-per-day basis, and found that the more expensive the product, the less it communicated about its responsibility. The lead author of the study, Victoria Smith, also cautioned that being a non-profit is no guarantee of the organisation’s integrity: “It cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates better practice, or that a for-profit business automatically is worse.

The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.” As for the difference between voluntourism and pure volunteering, that is often, but not always, apparent in the length of commitment. Framing it as a form of ‘travel’, albeit a working holiday, usually implies a period of days or weeks, rather than months.

To its critics, this is one of voluntourism’s biggest failings: that the commitment is too short, that it is too much tourism and not enough volunteering, that is not much more useful than hanging your hotel towels back up or leaving your bed unchanged for a day or two.

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To its critics this is one of voluntourism’s biggest failings: that the commitment is too short, that it is too much tourism and not enough volunteering.

Such criticism has organisations looking to distance themselves from the term ‘voluntourism’. Like Biosphere, Coral Cay Conservation uses ‘citizen science’ to collect the data needed to drive better management and conservation of underwater habitats. Tessa Dawson, volunteer coordinator with Coral Cay says: “Voluntourism covers such a broad spectrum of activities.

In addition, the balance between volunteering and tourism activities is different for every single organisation...Coral Cay Conservation has its own mission and projects and we employ scientists to manage them...Although we have set start dates, volunteers can join us for as long as they wish.” Often key to this question is what skills need to be imparted to volunteers before they are able to do what is required.

In Song Saa’s case, the minimum requirement is a four-week commitment: “This allows us to complete the required reef ecology training before they go into their survey dives,” says Thorne. Biosphere’s landbased survey in Sumatra required little more than basic familiarity with the equipment, which was taught in a morning’s introduction session, so our two-week commitment was still enough to make a worthwhile contribution.

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This page: Wildlife surveying can bring breathtaking vistas; rewarding sightings are a perk of the job. OPPOSITE PAGE: Learning to use a camera trap

There are even cases where voluntourism may be worse than doing nothing at all. Natural disasters typically produce a flood of enquiries from do-gooders wanting to rush to help. Yet their skills may be a poor fit. There have been instances when groups of volunteers have helped build or rebuild schools and homes in impoverished places in the world only to have them taken down again later as poorly built or not fit for local needs.

This is an especially important issue where people, and particularly kids, are involved. Volunteering in orphanages, for example, is best avoided. The last thing that children who have been abandoned need is an endlessly revolving set of new people in their lives. Yet the desire to work with such kids is so strong that unscrupulous operators have set up bogus orphanages. Haiti is one example, where there was a lack of orphanages before the huge quake in 2010.

Once entrepreneurs there saw how outsiders reacted to the sight of thousands of parentless kids, they set up fake institutions, even recruiting kids that had parents. Cambodia is another case in point, where NGOs and child protection services have had to start telling tourists to stop connecting with ‘orphanage tourism’.

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Ideally of course, the majority of the knowledge and skills transfer should be to the benefit of the host community, rather than the volunteer. Everyone knows the adage about teaching someone to fish, rather than simply gifting them fish, but the truth is that in less developed parts of the world, many people know how to fish – or build their own home using locally available materials, say – better than someone from a more privileged background.

The skills and knowledge most of us have to offer are more likely to be connected to what we do for a living back home. In my case in Sumatra, skills as a writer and editor were not in high demand. Our task was simple, slogging up and down the forested hills to improve WWF-Indonesia’s knowledge of the habitat.

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We were there as willing labour, at the beginning of a multi-year effort, the size of which became apparent early on. The terrain was so difficult and access took so long that often we could survey only a single new 2x2km cell in a day. That points to another area of concern: is the project’s lifespan long enough to achieve measurable results? Wildlife surveys are among the most straightforward projects in many ways, especially in areas with low human population, but may still require years of effort.

Coral Cay’s Dawson says: “We keep a maximum of three permanent sites at any one time and these are long-term projects lasting for an average of around five years.” Hammer of Biosphere gives the example of a project in Poland: “There was a dispute between the hunting lobby and the biologists about how many wolves they had in a national park. The hunters said, ‘120, so we can shoot 50 and we’ve still got lots left’.

The biologists said, ‘50’. So we came in as an independent body to do a survey. It took us two years and at the end we said, ‘You are lucky if you’ve got 30’, so no licenses for hunting were issued. The full process took three years and that is a really quick result.”

Questions to ask

Where will my money go? Look for transparency about their finances on their websites and ask for details specific to any project you are interested to join. Typically you are paying for your room and board, but the larger the organisation, the greater the chance that you are also contributing towards their overheads. Not necessarily a black mark, but better you know.

What does the host community gain? This could mean in a purely financial sense, but ideally would include a transfer of useful knowledge or skills. In some cases, there are also broader benefits in the connectedness your presence offers: the idea that someone out there in the rest of the world cares. What have previous projects achieved?

Organisations should produce reports that they can share and you can also use their social media channels to question past volunteers. What are the aims of the project and how will its impact be measured? Are the benefits lasting and sustainable? This should include whether the project leaves a legacy of dependency in the host community, or even whether the work done by volunteers might mean less paying work for locals.

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This page: Planting the message early; reef surveys call for solid dive skills. OPPOSITE PAGE: Looking for snow leopards in the Altai

In May this year, Biosphere issued a report detailing the 2015 season. The most accessible terrain closest to base had been surveyed and no tigers – or even tiger poo – was found. But there was a stream of anecdotes from those living in the park’s several villages, or working on oil palm and rubber plantations, about tigers. That suggests the next phase will split into groups doing deeper surveys, and others focusing on trust building with communities to better understand their needs and to work with local schools.

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I think quite often of my time in Sumatra and hope one day to return to Rimbang Baling. In such a populous country eager for development, the area faces real pressure from poachers, loggers and others. Volunteering there brought me face-to-face with aspects of conservation I had previously only read of.

I certainly gained from that. Ultimately though, you should volunteer for what it does for the host community, for the stakeholders on the ground. Self-interest is fine to a point but ‘making a difference’ is not about making yourself feel good, it should be measurable. Think of voluntourism as more like choosing an employer, than a holiday.

Further info

Biosphere Expeditions

Coral Cay Conservation Earthwatch

Song Saa Foundation

For further inspiration see or search the database of smaller projects at