How Voluntourism Works

Storm Image Gallery Volunteers from Australia and Canada dig a mattress out of the sand to help with tsunami cleanup in Thailand. See more pictures of storms.

What does the word "travel" mean t­o you? Your toes in the sand? Riding an elephant in India? Camping with friends in the Grand Canyon? Everyone's dream vacation may be different, but our reasons for taking one are usually similar. We want a change of scenery, to break from our daily lives and see something we've never seen before. 

And some travelers add another element to vacationing -- helping others. It's called voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and tourism. It's also known as volunteer travel or a volunteer vacation.

Voluntourism is a growing industry that attracts all sorts of people. Everyone from retired baby boomers to college spring breakers are interested in mixing travel with good deeds, and there are voluntourism opportunities available for just about any preference or interest. You can go to South Africa and study meerkats, travel to Peru for a community development project, work with doctors in Tanzania, or remain in your home country and help clean up national parks.

So what's the difference between voluntourism and, say, the Peace Corps or a mission trip? The latter sort of volunteer travel is typically associated with governmental efforts or religious organizations. Peace Corps volunteers may stay with the Corps for up to five years, working on long-term projects like teaching English or distributing medicine. Voluntourism, on the other hand, is short-term. Voluntourism vacations focus on specific and current issues, but also allow travelers the time to experience local culture. For example, one organization offers an eight-day trip to Cambodia, where volunteers help to build a rainwater collection unit. However, before they begin their service, they tour historical sites and visit the country's capital city [source: PEPY].

Voluntourism's recent upswing might be a reaction to significant world events. David Clemmons of points to disasters like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina as placing tourism in a newer context [source: Uzelac]. Tourism dollars are essential to bringing back a weakened local economy, so voluntourists help with both their hands and their money. And many travelers want to interact with a culture in a more meaningful way than tramping through its tourist attractions.

And don't forget the simplest reason -- people feel good when they're helping. Studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between health and volunteering. In fact, people who volunteer tend to have greater longevity and lower levels of depression [source: Grimm, Spring, Diaz].