Travel Trends: Voluntourism

A growing trend in leisure and business travel across the country is volunteer travel. Voluntourism is the act of travelers doing voluntary work to contribute to the community in which they are visiting. According to a recent United Nations report, the idea of combining vacations with volunteering has been increasing in popularity over the past decade. Earlier this year, Conde Nast Traveler listed voluntourism as one of the year’s top travel trends.

Most people have heard about Habitat for Humanity, an organization that has been building houses for needy families all over the world since 1979. Another popular travel volunteer opportunity that is well-known is teaching English to children of third world countries. Typically, when we think of the kinds of volunteer opportunities just mentioned, we tend to think of high school or college students pitching in on their spring or summer breaks.

Voluntourism, though, is evolving, creating more and more diverse opportunities for everyone (not just students) to serve in the communities in which they are visiting. The two demographics that have seen the greatest growth in voluntourism in recent years are leisure travelers (families) and business travelers (meeting attendees).

Leisure Travelers.  Family vacation options are no longer just lying on the beach or sightseeing. Parents today want to make family vacations more meaningful and educational by introducing their children to a different culture and way of life, while giving back to the community they visit. According to GoVolunteering.com’s founder and CEO Aaron Smith, 78 percent of his company’s customers are female, with a majority of them over 35 years old, with children.

So, what are some voluntourism activities that families are participating in beyond building houses and teaching English? According to GoVolunteering.com, the most popular family volunteer vacations revolve around helping animals. For instance, families can help baby sea turtles in places like Guatemala or Costa Rica or play with, walk, bathe and brush homeless dogs and cats while vacationing in Maui.

Parks are also a big draw for families. The Washington Trails Association has had record sign ups to work in its parks in recent years.

Business Travelers.  More and more companies and organizations are stepping up their role in the communities they impact. Often called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), this type of voluntourism allows companies to find ways to give back to not only their own communities, but also to those communities where they hold meetings and conferences.

Jo Licata, community projects manager for Hilton San Francisco, works with meeting planners who want to incorporate CSR activities into their meetings based at the Hilton. Licata talks with planners to find a project that will be meaningful to their group. For instance, she has worked with education groups in donating books and assisting local schoolchildren with reading skills. Meeting attendees who bring family along often enjoy volunteering at local food banks.

Just last year in Sacramento, Tourism Cares, the travel industry’s charitable organization, brought in more than 200 volunteers from 80 different travel companies to volunteer across the city. The group helped to refurbish several historic and culturally significant sites in Old Sacramento as well as Sutter’s Fort and the Old City Cemetery. Volunteers painted, poured cement, rebuilt fences, planted trees and archived artifacts, totaling more than 1,500 hours of labor. And just recently The National Center for Safe Routes to School, while holding its annual conference in Sacramento, partnered with local bike shops to build and donate bikes to Sacramento and Bay Area schools.