People who, while travelling as tourists, do some kind of volunteer work are taking part in what’s known as “voluntourism”.

It’s become one of the strongest-growing segments in the tourism industry, and one that means billions of dollars’ worth of business, tourism experts say.

And while it’s certainly a good thing for travel companies, surely it’s a good thing for elephants in Thailand, Costa Rica’s rainforest, children in Ethiopia who want to learn English and other good causes commonly sought out by Western travellers?

Several major travel organisers are offering “karma holidays” as a package of working, partying and sightseeing.

The demand for such volunteer opportunities is great, but people aren’t willing to donate too much time towards them: Most aren’t willing to commit to volunteering for six months or a year, fearing that it might look bad to future employers to have taken time off.

And when a voluntourist forks out thousands of dollars to take part in some feel-good work, then he or she usually wants something in return. At that point though, they become a customer, not a coworker.

“The shorter the deployment, the more that tourism is in the forefront,” observes Benjamin Haas, a Cologne University scholar doing research into the field of voluntourism.


Nowadays, young people are more likely to sleep on a sofa instead of in a hotel, ride a rickety public bus instead of a taxi, and eat at a food stall instead of the hotel restaurant: They want to see real life in the foreign country and genuinely interact with people. Photo: Patrick Seeger/dpa

Volunteers usually work from 8am to 1pm and then have the afternoon free. That’s the time for heading to the beach or exploring cities. Especially popular with voluntourists is working with children, such as in orphanages. But Dorothea Czarnecki, deputy director of ECPAT, an organisation to combat sexual exploitation of children, says: “Children in many countries still have relatives and get lured away from their families with promises of an education and a better life,” she says.

“Unintentionally, voluntourism can promote corruption and child trafficking.”

The demand to work with children is so great, fake orphanages have shown up in places like Ghana or Cambodia.

Just how permanent is the help provided by volunteer tourists?

You can’t really achieve all that much in just two weeks, so some projects are specially suited for short-duration help where volunteers without previous experience can have a direct input.

Such projects might, for example, be to observe whales, count a bird population or help out with a harvest.

If your aim is to book a trip just to help out on an ecofriendly volunteer project, it might be better just to stay at home. “To make a long-distance flight in order to support an environmental project in a rainforest is absurd,” says Nina Sahdeva from the Working Group on Tourism and Development.

Haas agrees, adding: “That’s when one’s own experience and a nice Instagram snapshot take preference over sustainability and what makes sense.”

Those interested in saving the environment don’t need to fly long distances. Check out if there are any opportunities closer to home – be it helping on a farm or working to preserve a forest. It’s worth considering how much sense a project makes – for oneself and others. – dpa/Christina Weise