Volunteers help with post-tsunami cleanup in Thailand.

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Voluntourism Takes Off

In the­ 1970s, funding for scientific field research was beginning to dry up, and many projects were in danger of cancellation. An organization called Earthwatch came up with the idea to raise money through tourist dollars. It guessed that travelers would be willing to pay money to watch researchers work in the field, doing things like conducting archaeological digs or tracking wild animals. What Earthwatch didn't predict was that the travelers didn't want to just watch -- they wanted to participate. The organization quickly put their volunteers to work doing data collection, digging through ruins, even trapping animals and insects for study. Since Earthwatch projects were only a few days or a few weeks long, people could volunteer during their traditional vacation time. This sort of volunteer travel began attracting an affluent, slightly older crowd -- people who had the money to spend on a volunteer vacation but who had time constraints.

Today, voluntourism is an industry. And, in a 2005 travel survey, one-quarter of respondents said they would be interested in taking a volunteer vacation [source: Cornell].

Many organizations even open up their trips to entire families -- an alternative to the typical Disney vacation. There are thousands of programs from which to choose, hosted by dozens of different companies. Organizations range from nonprofit, charitable organizations to big-name travel agencies looking for a new marketing niche. Many traditional vacation Web sites now have dedicated sections for voluntourism. Potential travelers can search for voluntours that match their interests, read stories from other voluntourists and hook up with travel groups.