Voluntourism: The newest trend in travel

More Israelis are going abroad and helping out at their destinations

By ILANA STUTLAND
February 17, 2019 01:29
Young volunteers clear earth from a medieval fortress above Srebrenica, Bosnia, as "voluntourists."

Young volunteers clear earth from a medieval fortress above Srebrenica, Bosnia, in a "voluntourism" program, 2007. . (photo credit: REUTERS/DANILO KRSTANOVIC)

 
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"Instead of taking another trip to Italy or France, we wanted to do something special this time. We loved the concept of integrating into our trip something good for the soul,” says Miki Rom, who returned home this past July from a trip she took with her husband to Zimbabwe and Zambia. During the first week, the two of them took part in a volunteer effort to save lions in a nature reserve in Zimbabwe, and then during the second week, they toured around the region.

In recent years, there has been a huge increase in the number of tourists who choose to engage in some sort of volunteer activity during their vacations abroad, as a way to add real meaning to their trips. “Vacations that incorporate volunteer activity are becoming very trendy,” says Ziv Rozen, CEO of Gulliver Tourism. “Israelis are always searching for unique and unforgettable experiences.”

“Another new trend is bar and bat mitzvah family trips to Africa,” says Rozen. “In addition to going on safari, though, these families are also interested in helping out in local communities. One of the reasons these trips have become so popular is that with increasing availability of new low-cost flights, people are traveling overseas a few times a year, and they’re tired of going to the same places over and over again. Instead, they’re always searching for new and exciting opportunities to travel to exotic locations, where they can also volunteer.”

This trend is taking place all around the globe as well. Booking.com published a list of travel predictions for 2019, and according to the website, “68% of global travelers would consider participating in cultural exchanges to learn a new skill, followed by a volunteering trip (54%) and international work placements (52%).”

Rom, 65, who lives in Haifa, had many new experiences during her latest trip with the New Meaning Travel Agency, which specializes in voluntouring trips. “During the first week,” Rom recalls, “we would prepare food for the lions every day, and then we would go out and walk with them. The lion cubs were about the size of a large dog. We also spent time with the elephants that live in the nature reserve. Having contact with humans is very important for the animals. They also organized a night safari for us one night. We came home with incredible photos and a new love for Africa.”

What was the most important aspect of your trip?

“We felt like we were doing something good. These animals are all in danger of extinction due to hunting as well as drought. We were there in July, when it’s unbearably hot in Israel. In Africa, in contrast, the weather was extremely pleasant, as were all the people and the food was amazing, too.”

The new voluntourism industry is really taking off, and a number of new businesses in this field were established this past year. New Meaning, for example, is geared toward travelers over 50 who are looking for trips that offer adventures with meaning. This project was started by GoEco, a veteran tourism company that offers trips for a younger clientele.

“We ofer more than 150 different options in five continents,” says Jonathan Gilben, a founder of GoEco. “These are packages for organized tours, but they’re very different from standard tours. When people travel with GoEco, they also get to volunteer in interesting and important humanitarian projects that are making a difference in the world, be it in nature and marine restoration or helping with animals. People don’t want to go to some place, stay in a hotel and visit touristic sites. They want to get their hands dirty, and to actively do something that contributes to society. In short – to have an unforgettable experience. The trend began in 2000 with students and young people, and has now spread to families, the 50-plus crowd and even pensioners. Pretty much everyone has caught the bug.”

Why are people so enchanted by these types of trips?

“It’s a combination of two factors. Firstly, people really are altruistic and want to feel like they’re helping others who are less fortunate. Secondly, they’re looking for new and interesting experiences. Young people might also believe that volunteering gives them a little something extra they can put on their CV and maybe differentiate them from other people applying for jobs. And older people have the time and money to do something they’ve never done before.

“Among GoEco clients, South Africa is the most popular destination,” Gilben continues. “For example, we offer a Wildlife Sanctuary Program in which our clients first arrive in Johannesburg and tour the city with one of our guides for three days. Next, we take them out to the nature reserve, located about 90 minutes from the city, where they sign up for shifts to take care of the animals. Volunteers are responsible for preparing food for the animals and building paraphernalia for them. The guests sleep in a very nice communal lodge and the cost for the 10-day trip is $1,150, not including flights.”

Which other destinations does GoEco recommend?

“We also run an extremely successful enterprise in Thailand, in a village a couple hours from Bangkok, in which we are helping to renovate public Buddhist schools that were decimated in the 2012 flood. Participants spend the first week traveling around exploring, taking cooking classes, learning some Thai words and about Thai culture in general. During the second week, they begin the volunteering portion of the trip, which includes painting the school, offering tutoring help to students in English language, or other subjects. This 14-day trip costs $770, not including flights.”

People who choose to join a New Meaning program will enjoy an experience in slightly more upscale standards. “We’ve upgraded a few of our programs and improved the conditions,” explains Gilben. “We find more exclusive accommodations, which are more appropriate for pensioners. For example, we’ve organized a project with children in Cape Town for which we coordinate with a local humanitarian organization. Our guests sleep in the city in really nice hotels, and each morning we bring them to volunteer with the children, be it in English, swimming or surfing lessons, or with restoration projects. During the week of volunteering, we also take participants on tours around the city. Then the next week, we take them on a safari where they sleep in luxurious lodges. The cost of this tour is $5,000, not including airfare.”

“More and more people are booking tours involving volunteering,” adds Itay Matityahu, founder and CEO of HelpApp. “The internal psychological journey people experience on a trip of this sort is so much more intense than if they had gone on a standard organized trip abroad. HelpApp is an Israeli non-profit organization whose aim is to improve social discourse through volunteering in Israel and around the world. It offers two unique programs: humanitarian aid delegations that are sent to orphanages and schools in Africa, and volunteering projects in Israel.

“Over the last two and a half years, we’ve sent 19 delegations of Israelis between the ages of 17 to 70 who hail from a large range of communities,” continues Matityahu. “Israelis are becoming more enlightened, and people are creating wonderfully close relationships. They learn so much from locals who live in areas tourists don’t usually reach – the real Africa. We run projects in Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda, most of which are 15 days long. But if people choose to stay on longer, they are welcome to.”

Can anyone join these trips?

“Well, for each group of 40 individuals that we send, we had to pick from over 250 applicants. We try to send as many delegations as we feasibly can. Popularity in this type of trip has grown exponentially these last few years. We sent our first delegation in September 2016, and this year, we’ll be sending five, maybe six delegations in August alone.”

Why are people so interested in these New Age-style trips?

“People began understanding the power of volunteering. More than feeling good about helping children in need, they realize that it makes them feel better as people. They go back to Israel with a whole new outlook on what’s important in life. Many of our participants continue volunteering when they’re back home in Israel.”

Adir Lahiani, 29, from Katzrin, went to volunteer last Passover with HelpApp in an orphanage in Bushenyi, Uganda. He paid NIS 5,400 for the two-week trip, including flights and lodging in a local hostel. “I helped renovate a school and an orphanage. We also bought clothes and shoes for the kids,” says Lahiani. “The moment you succeed in helping these people, you realize that you feel so much happier than if you’d just gone on a normal vacation to Thailand.”

Why did you choose to participate in this type of project?

“I wanted to be part of something meaningful. I stayed there an extra two weeks after the group left. I can truthfully say that these were the best moments of my life so far. I took a long trip to South America after the army. I’ve also been to North America and India, but nothing has made me feel the way I felt while helping children in Africa.”

What made your experience so special?

“Seeing how we were able to improve their quality of life during our short visit. We also became very attached to the children and it was very emotional when we left. We really felt like we had made a difference in their lives.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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