Take an eco-volunteer vacation
Taking an eco-volunteer vacation—everything from tracking lemurs in Madagascar to maintaining walking trails in New Zealand—allows you to roam the globe, exploring wild places, wildlife and cultures, while also leaving things a little “greener” after you’ve gone.
How to take an eco-volunteer vacation
Maybe you’ve dreamed of exploring the Brazilian rainforest or hoped to hear a thousand zebras thunder across the African savanna. Sure, there are eco-tours and adventure vacations that let you wander and relax in the world’s most remote regions while being mindful of your environmental impact. However, if you can do without the five-star eco-resort or Mai Tais on the beach, and crave something more hands-on, a volunteer vacation may be just the ticket. Not only will you visit your dream destinations and immerse yourself in local cultures, but you’ll also fund and support conservation projects, learn a skill or two, and spread a little “green” that lasts long after you’ve gone home.
But before you sign up, it pays to plan ahead.
Assess your skills and passions
This is kind of like writing a resume, but with a volunteer twist (you can consider skills and knowledge that didn't come from education or job training). For example, you might include those excellent "people skills" from years working as a docent at a local wildlife rehab center or your native plant expertise developed from clearing hiking trails each year with a local environmental group. If you don't have the skills needed for a particular trip, you may be able to get special training through the sponsor organization. Knowing what you're good at and what interests you can help you determine what kind of volunteer vacation will hold your interest and let you contribute the most.
Do some soul-searching–ask some hard questions
Because many volunteer opportunities are located in some of the most remote, underserved regions of the world, you'll need to decide ahead of time what your motivations are, what you can live with, and what you can't live without. Ask yourself these questions to check your level of tolerance for the tough situations you may encounter:
- Why do you want to volunteer?
- What do you hope to gain from the experience?
- Will the project truly benefit a local area?
- Do the hosts want you there?
- Are you prepared to sleep on the ground or do you require a bed?
- What about your tolerance for extremes of cold or heat?
- Are you emotionally prepared to see people living in poverty or those in poor health?
Research, research, research
There are hundreds of volunteer opportunities available—offered by all types of groups from environmental organizations to churches to travel companies—so it can be hard to choose. Again, asking questions will really help you narrow down your options to the best fit for you:
- Ask friends and family to recommend volunteer trips they've taken.
- Ask trip organizers for names of past volunteers to get their opinion of trips offered.
- Interview the volunteer organizations themselves and ask questions: how long they've been in business, why they sponsor the particular projects they do, whether liability insurance is offered in cases of injury, whether fees are refunded if you need to cancel, and if you'll be able to contact people back home when you're in the field.
Find it! Groups that offer eco-volunteer vacations
The following organizations offer both short- and long-term (one week to several months) green volunteer opportunities across the globe. Trips are available for individuals, families, and groups and are aimed at all ages—from teens to seniors.
Stay closer to home with these backcountry volunteer trips in the US (some lasting up to two weeks). Projects are often strenuous and include rebuilding footpaths in national parks or helping with erosion control in a national forest.
Volunteer with more than 30 organizations in the network, including one dedicated to protecting Lake Baikel in Siberia and an eco-justice group working with indigenous people in Borneo.
Nicknamed the “mini Peace Corps,” short-term volunteer trips include helping a village in Costa Rica develop a sustainable eco-tourism industry, as well as cleaning up local rivers and teaching environmental education classes in Jamaica.
University students can volunteer around the world, working with researchers and organizations to protect endangered species and restore habitats. Accommodations vary by project but run the gamut from home stays to bunkhouses.
This travel company offers dozens of volunteer vacations (as well as sustainable vacations). Monitor effects of global warming in the Arctic or preserve the remaining Monkey Puzzle trees in Chile.
A national partnership established by the US Department of the Interior that encourages volunteers to work in US public parks, forests, grasslands, wildlife refuges, cultural and historical sites, local playgrounds, and other recreation areas. Everything from river cleanups to rehabilitating natural habitats.
An eco-tourist’s dream, this sustainable eco-village offers camping, as well as cabanas for those seeking something less rustic. Volunteer on the organic farm or enjoy an artistic retreat.
Offers volunteer opportunities around the world to individuals, families, and businesses looking for a different kind of meeting and convention experience for employees. Projects range from learning about bamboo (a sustainable resource) in Costa Rica to caring for endangered elephants in Thailand.
For more domestic and international eco-volunteer opportunities, visit:
Before you go
Volunteer vacations aren’t usually cheap. In fact, you're often required to pay your own expenses, including airfare, meals, and accommodations. However, much of the high fee goes directly into funding the projects you work on. Many trips also require you to be in good physical shape since strenuous manual labor is often involved. And don’t expect a luxury suite or gourmet dining. Accommodations range from modest hotels to a local resident’s floor or even a tent. Meals are usually basic fare, often with host families.
Taking an eco-volunteer vacation helps you go green because…
- These low-impact trips allow you to journey sustainably around the world, minimizing your traveler's footprint.
- You contribute to conservation research and eco-projects that benefit the natural areas and communities where you visit.
With nearly 900 million tourists on the road, in the skies, or on the high seas each year, the environmental impacts of vacationing on local eco-systems, water, air, and wildlife can be significant. With more tourists interested in remote and exotic destinations, many fragile areas that were once relatively untouched are now under pressure from development that caters to tourists. This often results in deforestation and loss of biodiversity, as well as high consumption of energy and water. Left unchecked, heavy tourism can exceed a location's ability to sustain it.
Likewise, increased pressures from logging, agriculture, development, fishing, and hunting has led to rising environmental degradation around the world. Many governments in developing countries lack the funds to protect natural areas. Money generated from sustainable tourism, which includes volunteer vacations, can help create jobs, improve local economies, and bring necessary attention to the preservation of vital natural areas.
Taking a volunteer vacation allows you to explore the world in ways that bring minimal harm to the environment and local cultures while offering one additional benefit: you actively work to reverse environmental degradation via hands-on projects and scientific research that help conserve natural resources, protect endangered species, and restore damaged ecosystems. Although no firm data exists on the number of volunteer vacations taken each year a recent Travel Industry Association of America study found that 24 percent of tourists say they're interested in taking a volunteer trip—with 10 percent noting they're more interested now than five years ago. Experts agree that the popularity of volunteer vacationing has grown since 9/11 and the Asian tsunami apparently raised awareness about the tremendous need for help around the world.
Critics of volunteer vacations note that many work opportunities aren't well planned. Nor do they fill a real need. Indeed, many are little more than eco-vacations with a small amount of work thrown in. Volunteers may feel good about contributing, but their impact is actually very small.
Other critics charge that the volunteer screening process is often nil—meaning many organizations take almost anyone without a background check or attention to qualifications. A related problem: no risk management system in place for instances of bad conduct—either from volunteers or the sponsoring organization.
Finally, some critics claim that many tour operators don't have a real commitment to local projects. In other words, when a new hot spot or appealing project appears, old projects may be left by the wayside.
- About.com - Volunteer for a Working College Break
- BootsnAll Travel - 9 Volunteer Vacation Ideas
- Charity Guide - Volunteer Vacations
- Coop America - Living Green: Taking a Volunteer Vacation
- Idealist.org - Action Without Borders
- Rainforest Alliance - Sustainable Tourism
- Transitions Abroad - Volunteer Vacations Can Change Your Life
- Transitions Abroad - Making the Most of a Volunteer Vacation
- UNWTO Worldwide Tourism Barometer - World tourist arrivals: from 800 million to 900 million in two years
- United Nations Environment Programme - Tourism's Three Main Impact Areas
- US Agency for International Development - Ecotourism and Biodiversity Conservation
- Volunteer Abroad
- World Volunteer Web - Voluntourism: Pros, cons & possibilities
- World Volunteer Web - Voluntourism: Pros, cons & possibilities