Destination with a difference
It’s not enough forsometo just sponsor a child or donate to charities, they want to do the work themselves. KIMBERLEYROTHWELL looks at the rise of volunteer tourism, where people mix an overseas holiday with helping out.
On Espirito Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu’s archipelago, there’s a 2000-hectare tropical forest that is being over-ridden with a vine called big leaf. It’s swallowing up the trees, smothering the canopy like a blanket.
The problem is too big for the locals to deal with, so extra hands are needed. Solution? Get in volunteers from New Zealand to work out how best to eradicate the vine and do the physical work involved. Not just volunteers willing to give up their time for a project, but people willing to pay for the experience and have a holiday in an remote rural village at the same time.
Around the world, volunteer tourism projects, such as the vinecutting excursions offered by Forest & Bird, are taking off, with more Kiwis ditching the traditional holiday to work for free in orphanages, build homes and schools, and teach English in impoverished areas overseas. And they’re paying for the privilege.
It’s a trend that has been popular in United States, Canada, Britain and Australia for almost a decade – spurred on by the likes of actress Angelina Jolie and her work in Third World countries – but it’s only just catching on here.
Projects are as varied as the people wanting to do them; from saving endangered turtles on the Greek island of Zakynthos, promoting safe sex and HIV/Aids awareness in South Africa, to recording oral history in rural Nepal and looking after Guatemalan children in a women’s refuge.
Phil Ryburn, a 21-year-old student from Palmerston North, worked in the Peruvian city of Huancayo for three months late last year, building a volleyball court at an orphanage and helping with the day-to-day chores. ‘‘I think I just knew I wouldn’t be finishing my degree last year and I wanted to give myself a bit of a break. I wanted to do something different.’’
He went through International Volunteer HQ, a New Zealand-based organisation that places people in volunteering programmes in Tanzania, Thailand, Ghana, Kenya, Costa Rica and Nepal to name a few.
Volunteers pay a one-off registration fee, and a fee based on the length of their stay to cover accommodation, meals, transport from the airport and administration. For most destinations, costs start at US$250 (NZ$392) for a week to US$2500 for six months. Volunteers pay for their own flights, vaccinations, visas and insurance.
Ryburn stayed with a local family and says the amount of money he forked out was not a problem for him. ‘‘Not only are the host family giving up their houses, in a way they’re working for us in terms of being available to help us with speaking Spanish, and there’s a donation made toward the orphanages.’’
He had clear ideas of what he wanted to achieve from the experience, including learning Spanish. His other aims were more altruistic.
‘‘I wanted to know I made a difference. Just sending money away to organisations like Oxfam or World Vision, you don’t see where it goes.
‘‘I don’t think I did make the difference I was hoping to make, but then again I wouldn’t say I really had too many expectations. In my opinion, short-term programmes overseas are always going to suit the volunteer more than the people he or she goes to help. Not only are there cultural barriers, but language, ethnicity and historical ones as well that I can imagine would take years to journey beyond in some cases.
‘‘I was lucky, I went with an organisation that encouraged learning Spanish as quickly as possible but, in reality, if you expect to volunteer in a country for only a short period and make a big difference, but spend large amounts of that time simply learning their language . . . you’re dreaming.’’
Kathryn Baldwin spent three weeks in northern Thailand late last year teaching English and says if she went again, she would go for longer. By the time she got to the town, settled in and started to get to know her students, she was off again. ‘‘I feel a bit sorry for the kids, they get to know one person and then they’re gone.’’
Rosemary Jorgensen, left, with other volunteers, takes part at awedding in Vanuatu.
The 24-year-old says she was motivated to go because she wanted to help people, and see what teaching was like. She also went because it was a chance to see another culture more authentically than if travelling as a tourist. She stayed in a house with other volunteers, most of whom were Australian, as well as Thai students wanting to learn the tourism trade. She taught Thai children and children from neighbouring hill tribes. The tour wrapped up with a homestay in a hill tribe village.
‘‘The biggest thing for me was they learnt quite a lot about us as well, especially when we were tutoring. They wanted to know about New Zealand and what our culture was like. It was like an exchange.’’
Volunteers were given a choice each day of what they wanted to do: childcare, teaching or construction work. Some volunteers with time on their hands would help out in the rice fields or do other day-to-day chores.
‘‘If you stayed back, you’d probably find it quite a boring experience.’’
Golden Bay’s Rosemary Jorgensen was one of 12 volunteer tourists to go to Vanuatu with Forest & Bird’s Sue Maturin, who knows the locals and speaks the language. The two-week trip, which Maturin takes once a year, visits Vatthe Conservation Area, where big leaf is strangling the forest. For the first week, volunteers help locals cut the vines and then they try with potentially more efficient eradication methods, such as herbicide gels. The second week, they relax on another island, and work on big leaf eradication there as well.
The villages they visit are very remote; there’s no shop, no electricity, no running water and people are selfsufficient. Jorgensen says the trip appealed to her because of the chance to get involved with the people of the country.
‘‘You get to meet the people of the village and learn about their way of life, and have a better understanding of how and why they live like that. I’m a bit tired of visiting countries where you feel you’re just an onlooker and you can’t take part.’’
That sometimes means discovering aspects of the culture that traditional tourism sometimes filters out.
‘‘The knowledge that there was quite a lot of violence against women was a real shame,’’ she says.
It can be a delicate balance for communities offering volunteer tourism experiences, Maturin says. If it weren’t for tourism it would be very hard for the local landowners to have protected the forest in the first place as they would probably have turned to the income generated by logging instead.
‘‘Our tourists provide income which is used for school fees, employment for some school leavers and it’s revived a lot of customs that were bring neglected, such as weaving and dancing.’’
Still, the volunteers have had an impact on the villages. No 1 on everyone’s wish list is a digital camera, Maturin says. ‘‘We have had six or seven members who have gone back under their own steam and four of those have helped map out the full extent of the big leaf.’’
The trips have also raised awareness of the problem, and led to donations being made for the programme.
Although volunteer tourism may not be saving the world, Ryburn argues that the funds tourists bring, and the experiences they leave with the locals, are beneficial. ‘‘But the problem is, when people go and come back thinking they have done their bit for humanity, in a way they think they have worked for one or two months and are now free from the obligation of serving in their own community. If the experience opens their eyes to the need beyond themselves, then go. But if you are going to hide behind the times that you were selfless once, you might as well just send your money.’’