The Ins and Outs of Volunteer Travel

by  Blane Bachelor | May 20, 2010
Voluntourism / yacobchuk/iStock

Several years ago, Andrew Mersmann, editor of Passport magazine, was on assignment in Key West when his group learned that a pod of 27 pilot whales had beached themselves nearby.

Upon hearing the news, Mersmann “tossed [his] itinerary in the air and started getting involved” with the volunteer effort to save the seven surviving whales. He donned a borrowed wetsuit and a flotation device and quickly learned how to ladle water over the animals’ skin so they wouldn’t get sunburned, while keeping their blow holes above water.

“I don’t care what religion you belong to, how you were brought up, what you believe, when you’re looking into that whale’s eye and trying to keep it alive, you see God,” Mersmann says. “That whale experience was a majorly pivotal moment.”

Since then, Mersmann’s volunteer travel includes trips with a medical and humanitarian group on horseback in Rajasthan, India; endangered manatees in Crystal River, Fla.; and the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He’s written Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, which focuses on the exploding sector of volunteer travel, and also writes a daily blog,, on the subject.

I spoke with him about “voluntourism” – and why it makes such a great travel experience for adventurous types.

What are some of the factors involved in the “voluntourism” trend?

There are a couple of things that are feeding this frenzy. As information has over the last several years become so much more readily available, everybody knows we’re a global community. People know and are aware of what's going on beyond their front door – and a lot of what’s going on is not good. And because there's a universal awareness, there’s this bigger sense that people can actually help and have an impact. This is really about having an authentic experience in a community or a place. If you’re working side by side with locals saving baby elephants, or clearing brush off the trail, you’re having an impact on that community. And you're taking that impact back home with you and that’s a huge thing. It’s so much better than being in hotel or restaurant with a little dance in the middle of dinner and [hotel officials saying], “Oh, look at this cultural performance!”

What sort of experience or skills do you need?

Everybody knows about the Peace Corps, or about disaster response, but that requires a lot of special skills. This kind of travel needn’t really require any experience or skills, and you just jump right in.

What type of travelers does the experience draw?

The age is pretty diverse. People who have a lot of money to travel are older, so a lot of baby boomers do these sort of trips. And then there’s the young gap year, the backpackers who take a year off to find themselves in the world, that demographic.  But the cool thing about this kind of travel is that there are ways to do something in an afternoon, or a week, or a couple of weeks, without having to make a commitment of a ton of time or money. There are ways to have an effect in an afternoon.

Tell me about the costs involved.

There are lots of opportunities where it’s free, it’s not going to cost you any money, and [organizers will] pay for your room and board for the work you do. And there are some trips where you’re going to pay $10K and room and board. If you're a volunteer for a 501c3 nonprofit or an international NGO and you're not adding extra days to go touring, a large portion or all of your trip can be tax deductable. Your meals, hotels, transportation – all of that is considered in service to the organization. So that offsets a lot of the cost. There are even some trips where you can get paid a bit, but it’s not an income. Everybody should check with their tax adviser beforehand.

For the more adventurous traveler, what kinds of trips are out there?

The way my book is organized is that chapters are all broken down into the type of work, and there’s lots dedicated to intrepid, adventurous travelers. There's a huge section about trips where you work with endangered species and other animals. There are programs to work with big game and conservation throughout Africa, pink dolphin expeditions in the Amazon, lion expeditions in South Africa. There’s this category of animals that is called "charismatic megafauna” – they are animals that capture people’s hearts and make them care more. Giant pandas, elephants, dolphins – they make people say “wow” and tend to affect people more than, say, a snake.

I would imagine there are lots of opportunities for environmental-type trips, too?

There’s a whole chapter on healing the environment, tree planting, greening and cleaning, trail building and ranch volunteers. The Appalachian Trail offers lots of opportunities, and it’s not that you just go and move a rock that fell. Some of the work consists of blazing new trails, clearing brush when stuff gets overgrown, or adding signage for hikers and campers. Usually programs have specific weeks and weekends where people will be camping. You might hike 4, 5, 6, miles before you get to the work spot with a shovel slung over your shoulder.

Any specific trips or opportunities to make note of now?

There’s a category of travel that involves rebuilding after disaster, both natural disaster and recovery from war. These experiences take a special kind of spirit and heart. There are still giant refugee areas throughout Africa. Post-genocide Rwanda is in huge need of help right now. And Haiti is just about to start opening up to non-trained volunteers. People can [soon] start getting in there and not be in the way.

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