Many travellers get to a point in their experience when they want to make a difference in the places they’ve visited. Whether it’s by donating money to a local charity, spending a day at an orphanage, taking a week to help build a school, or spending months working on a local development project, voluntourism has taken off. Tour operators, local businesses, and, naturally, the disingenuous, who only seek to profit off Western generosity, are all getting involved to take a piece of the pie.
Recently, a number of articles have been written, debating the good of voluntourism, and chastising voluntourism and voluntourists for taking jobs from locals, and creating such a demand for volunteer opportunities (the common example is Vietnamese orphanages), that locals are ‘renting’ their children out to orphanages to profit from voluntourists’ good intentions.
So what to do? If you want to make a difference abroad, but have become confused and incensed by these stories, there are still ways you can travel and contribute in a positive manner – the key is to do it sustainably.
You’ve heard the saying? “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life”.
It’s unbelievably applicable when it comes to voluntourism.
Going in and building a school may sound great, but how will it really help if there is no educational program in place?
There are still organisations out there that are truly doing excellent work in communities all over the world. Find them. Ask them questions. If they’re serious about being sustainable in the local communities, they will be very transparent about everything they (and volunteers) do.
Want to help cute little kids? Think twice about going for a day trip to an orphanage.
Finding organisations that work on sustainable development projects such as educational systems, tourism conservation strategies, local economic and employment programs, and tourism business plans are all the types of things to look for. They focus more on giving local communities the tools and knowledge to succeed in life, in particular by leveraging tourism opportunities. Often times Western expertise, be it IT, communications, marketing, accounting, or administration, is extremely useful in the project development and implementation stages, and you can really see how your knowledge, experience, and input is making a difference in these communities.
However, these kinds of projects usually require a commitment of anywhere from a month to a year or two, which many of us cannot offer. So what to do when you’re a short-term traveller with a desire to help?
The answer is pretty simple: Buy Local.
Even if you can’t focus your whole trip on local travel, do as much as you can. Eat at locally owned restaurants. Use locally owned and operated tour operators. Stay in locally owned B&Bs, hostels, or guesthouses. Use local transportation.
Consider the following: local culture, local people, local environment, local economy.
Dinner at a local restaurant: Restoran Sempelang, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
If you support local businesses in favour of multinationals corporations, you’ll be making an important contribution to the local economy, and will be a part of the movement towards sustainable travel. The more money that goes directly into local business owners’ pockets, the better things will be, and the more sustainable the tourism industry will be in that destination.
Essentially, if you are informed, and consider your options when making decisions, you can make a difference while travelling, regardless of how long your trip is. No effort is to small, as long as you think about what you are doing.