Give-Back Getaways: Voluntourism Expands Vacations beyond Tourist Attractions and Sightseeing

By Donaldson, Doug | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Give-Back Getaways: Voluntourism Expands Vacations beyond Tourist Attractions and Sightseeing


Donaldson, Doug, The Saturday Evening Post


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Sweat poured down Eric Wallace's back as he raised the heavy, pointed metal pole and clanged it on a boulder--again and again and again. The retired radio and television producer struck the rock so many times that he could hear stress fractures just before the boulder split into smaller pieces. His reward after two days of making big rocks into small rocks? Another pile of big rocks.

This is Eric Wallace's vacation.

"The first few days, I'd go back to the hotel, shower, then collapse," Wallace remembers. "I discovered aches in muscles that I didn't know I had."

In the Honduras countryside outside the town of Santa Rosa de Copan, Wallace and a dozen other volunteers donated their time, muscles, and know-how to help build a Habitat for Humanity home. During the eight-day trip in April 2010, volunteers mixed cement, shuttled construction supplies by hand, and cut and placed "rebar" (reinforcing steel bars). Some, like Wallace, smashed rocks for the house's foundation.

"At one point, I thought about how ridiculous I felt, being a professional, educated man, banging rocks like someone on a chain gang," Wallace says. "But I got into a rhythm and realized that I was making a difference by building a house for a family."

Wallace is among a steadily increasing number of folks who choose to work while vacationing. Called "voluntourism," "travel with a purpose," or "give-back getaways," such trips can take travelers to just about any country in the world. And the type of work is equally varied-from cataloging mammoth bones in South Dakota to measuring climate change in Borneo to monitoring elephant herds in Sri Lanka.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"There's been a steady increase across the board in travel with a purpose," says Nancy Gard McGehee, Ph.D., associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech. "People want to find a way to give back, and they are also looking for meaningful human interaction-the kind of exchange that doesn't involve a computer or iPod-a people-to-people experience while immersed in another culture."

Who signs up for such vacations? About three-fourths are women, according to McGehee, who has extensively studied voluntourism for more than 16 years. But, she says, ages of participants vary greatly. On Wallace's trip to Honduras, volunteers ranged from a 17-year-old taking time off after high school to retirees older than 70.

A large segment of the travelers are what McGehee calls "young seniors" who retire early and have discretionary time and income to give back. Also, families with older children sign up for volunteer trips as a more interactive and memorable option than theme parks or other traditional family vacations. "A trend we're starting to see is grandparents taking volunteer trips with their grandchildren," says Jim Moses, president of Road Scholar, the new program name for Elderhostel, which has been offering volunteer tours since 1975 and sends about 1,300 people a year to places such as Easter Island and Antarctica. At the younger end of the spectrum, those between 20 and 30 sign up for these trips as a postschool, prejob, or precollege excursion.

Work Hard, Play Hard

The first night in Honduras, the town greeted Wallace and the other Habitat for Humanity volunteers with a surprise party.

"The most amazing thing happened," Wallace recalls. "After checking into the hotel, we were driven to a grimlooking building with barbed wire, but when we walked in, the floor was covered with pine boughs and the room was lit with candles. People in the town wore native costumes and held signs welcoming us to Honduras."

The volunteers danced with the Hondurans into the night. And during that evening, Habitat workers also met Marcos and Theresa, the couple whose house they would be building. As part of the Habitat for Humanity program, those who'll live in the house help with the construction and will pay a modest mortgage. …

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