Voluntourism: Mixing Vacations with Work

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 13, 2010 8

These “voluntourists” helped remove barbed wire fence from a Wilderness Study Area in honor of National Public Lands Day. ©Bureau of Land Management

On my last travel vacation, I didn’t plant a tree, dig a well or paint a fence. I simply walked, observed and “absorbed.” I’m wondering now if my lack of industriousness should make me feel guilty—not because I took the time off to go on vacation, but because I didn’t go to work on vacation.

Just a decade or two ago, the quintessential image of “vacation” in travel ads and brochures was a hammock suspended between two trees and an overturned book, or a lounge chair with an ocean view and an umbrella drink. Today’s travel websites, however, are more likely to show pictures of people with their shirtsleeves rolled up and work gloves pulled on, smiling as they carry buckets or wield hammers. It now seems that if our travels don’t multitask—if they don’t combine a vacation with doing good works—then we’re thinking about our “time off” entirely wrong. 

Survey says it’s what we want

It wasn’t long ago that the quintessential image of “vacation” was a lounge chair with an ocean view. ©Richard Walker, flickr

According to a survey of Condé Nast Traveler magazine readers that was reported in the April 2010 issue, in travel today “we want experiences that transform us; places that offer creative opportunities. We want to give as much as we get, hence the explosion in volunteer travel.” Indeed, travel companies and service organizations have responded to that market need in a big way. For instance, a Google search of “volunteer vacations” will turn up thousands of opportunities, including tutoring Native American children in Arizona; building a house for a family in Bamenda, Cameroon; or removing invasive plants on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos; among thousands of other choices. You will, however, have to pay for the “privilege” of providing this manpower—usually to the tune of at least $1,000 or more, if you include the cost of your airfare.

Science backs it up

But what you receive for that price tag may be far more than calloused hands and whitewash-stained shirts. Doctors and psychotherapists believe that combining travel with volunteer work physically challenges you in positive ways and lifts your soul. They say that research shows that people who give to others gift healthier, happier lives to themselves. In fact, a National Institute on Aging study titled “Americans’ Changing Lives” followed more than 3,600 people from 1986 to 2002. The findings revealed that those who did volunteer work coped better with age-related difficulties than those who didn’t do good works.

Similarly, Paul Arnstein, RN, PhD, a clinical nurse specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that people with chronic pain experienced less discomfort, disability and depression when they spent time helping others. And according to Jordan Grafman, PhD, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, brain scans show that the same structures that are activated when you get a reward are the same ones that are triggered when you give. In fact, they’re stimulated more when you give. That activation releases feel-good chemicals—chiefly dopamine—that set off a surge of physical energy.

When we do good deeds, then, we’re rewarded with a dopamine pulse, making our moods improve and our feelings of sadness lessen. So while the community you work with gets a tangible benefit, such as access to water or a new garden, you get happy.

On my last travel vacation, I simply observed and “absorbed.” ©John T. Andrews

The right to relax

Although “voluntourism,” as it’s now called, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in international adventure travel, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an improvement on or is superior to a more traditional vacation. Critics point out that voluntourists often come for only short stints—usually a week or two—and leave without accomplishing much. It’s sometimes unclear whether the work voluntourists perform will be of any significant benefit to the local community or whether those types of projects only serve the egos of the tourists themselves. It could be that unless you have very specific skills to offer for a short period of time, a tour company could do more good with the amount of money you’d pay for a more relaxing, traditional vacation than you can do yourself by pounding nails or reading to a student for only a week.

On my last travel vacation, I didn’t work to alleviate a social issue, such as poverty or lack of health care; I didn’t create peace in the world or beauty on the land. Instead, I did a lot of watching. I thought, I read, I ate and I sat. I guess if I had to cast my vacation activities in a way that would take away some of my guilt, I could say I polished a national park bench with my backside.

What do you prefer to do on your travel vacations: participate in a community project or just relax? By expecting a vacation to help transform the world—and make us feel good doing it—do you think we’re asking too much of our travels?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Mary K. September 29, 2010 at 6:50 am - Reply

    Combining vacations with work can be terrific! I have a friend who has done that with archeologist work, actually uncovering dinosaur remains.

  2. Kev September 24, 2010 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Yes if we didnt have to pay so much then it would be more attractive….i wonder where all the money goes to?

    Lately when i travel i have been wanting something more than just seeing the sights

    Even if we did come for a 1 or 2 weeks we can only give so much and so the program/project should be designed to maximise any given effort regardless of the duration

    The fact people are willing to volunteer in itself should not be taken away from anyone.

  3. Wendy Redal September 15, 2010 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    I think we can have different purposes for our travels. A genuine “vacation” might involve nothing but kicking back on an isolated beach somewhere, or a remote cabin with absolutely no digital communications whatsoever. Or, it could be a more arduous endeavor such as a backpacking trip or an active nature safari. But the joy and value of travel more broadly, for me, includes a whole host of experiences. Getting to know a place and its people, their challenges and needs, and contributing in some small way to that is a rewarding way to spend my time and money.

    While it wasn’t ‘voluntourism’ so to speak, I spent a week in New Orleans with a team from my church, several months after Hurricane Katrina, gutting houses. It was incredibly hard work, and yes, we paid our own way (though we were put up for free in a local church, and the church members brought us wonderful meals), but it gave me a window on New Orleans and its residents that I could never have gotten through a conventional vacation where we merely dined and listened to music in the French Quarter.

  4. Jack September 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

  5. Travis September 14, 2010 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    I actually like having a little mission when I travel. I feel like I have more of a purpose for being there.

  6. NineQuietLessons September 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    So, as if it’s not enough anymore that people are expected to work 50-60 hour weeks, they now feel compelled to work while they’re on vaction too? “First toil, then the grave” seems like a sentiment that’s alive and well.

  7. Art Hardy September 14, 2010 at 10:14 am - Reply

    Let me see if I got this right… I’m going somewhere in the world to volunteer (work) and I have to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege to do so? There’s something wrong with that picture. I guess I’d feel good about myself for a while, at least until I saw my bank statement.

  8. Leila A. September 14, 2010 at 6:27 am - Reply

    I wouldn’t consider it a vacation either but I’d still be interested in doing it. I just wish we wouldn’t have to pay so much for it….might as well be taking a real vacation….

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