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Take an eco-volunteer vacation

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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.

For more on how to pick a volunteer opportunity and prepare for a trip, visit Voluntourism.org and Transitions Abroad.

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.

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.[1]

Controversies

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.

External links

Comments

01/15/2010
1:57am
dontcry

Try your hand at lion conservation in South Africa or panda preservation in China. Opportunities available for ages 16 to 90. Also offers spring break opportunities for students. http://www.club-penguin.org/ Club Penguin Cheats

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