Worldwide ‘voluntourist’ opportunities get more complicated

Travel opportunities for volunteer workers are expanding, but travel companies need to tread carefully and exercise responsibility..

With more and more people acknowledging a need to help out in conservation, research and many other volunteer opportunities, travel companies are being warned an influx of enthusiastic helpers may jeopardise the jobs of trained scientists. For example, in South Africa there are concerns ‘voluntourists’ are crowding out local workers, particularly when they are prepared to pay organisers for the chance to volunteer.

At a Sussex wildlife reserve, the increasing number of volunteers is making the ranger fearful for his funding and his job. Justin Francis, CEO of Responsibletravel.com sends volunteers worldwide for projects such as turtle and orang-utan conservation and whale monitoring. He states the sector has grown considerably, fuelled by a recession resulting in many re-evaluating their lives and looking for alternatives.

EcoOcean’s whale shark project, according to Western Australia zoologist Prof Lyn Beazley, is a good example of volunteers being harnessed to help conservation and scientific knowledge. She believes tour companies and scientists should be working together to structure volunteering, and sees the two sectors as interdependent.

Many scientists involved in conservation research are looking to volunteers to fill the gap in funding caused by the recession but, according to Mr Francis, it’s important for volunteers to ensure their contributions are not counterproductive or take jobs from local workers.

He advises checking with local communities to make certain the project was requested rather than just dreamed up by the marketing division of the volunteer company. Reports and audits on the project’s previous achievements should give a clue, and requesting details of how much of your money goes to the project itself and how much to the company is essential. If this information is not forthcoming, choose another company.

Talking to previous volunteers on the project about their experiences is also helpful, adds Mr Francis, warning there are many stories about volunteers arriving at far-flung projects after paying for a placement only to discover the demoralising truth that there never was a real job for them.



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