Posted by: faithtravelfocus | May 22, 2012

Voluntourism: give back and take more home

Voluntourism in Ghana

Whether it’s souvenirs they buy in the local market, or experiences they recall for a lifetime, most travelers want to take home something that reminds them of destinations they’ve touched. 

Some are taking home even more these days by giving back to nations and communities they visit.

 “There are amazing benefits for those interested in volunteering overseas,” says founder Aaron Smith. “Not only is there a sense of fulfillment, which may be hard to explain to those that haven’t gone yet, but there is a deeper cultural connection. It comes from learning. It comes from meeting new people, sharing challenges, and knocking down the walls of prejudice and stereotypes.” 

Voluntourism blends volunteer efforts with traveling abroad say those who advocate it. And those who participate are sometimes surprised at how much they get back from giving of themselves. It’s a way to build human bridges across the chasms of ethnic, political and religious divisions that contribute to the world’s problems. Projects range from engagement for a few hours to several days or even weeks. 

Even luxury-loving cruisers are getting in on the voluntourism trend worldwide as cruise companies and cruise organizers combine onboard relax and pamper with optional giveback projects ashore. These might include beach cleanup or building/repairing infrastructure in a port. Some cruises incorporate fundraising events into the floating itinerary, such as an onboard walkathon at sea to benefit a charity. Other voluntour cruises are arranged by groups who charter the ship specifically for the purpose of doing projects along the way – like delivering supplies to impoverished countries. 

For many faith and ministry groups, voluntourism is nothing new. But it’s on the grow with these organizations. 

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) inNew York Cityorganizes cross-cultural group programs for high school, college and rabbinical students to learn, serve and travel in Africa, Asia and theAmericas. AJWS partners with grassroots organizations to meld education, community connections and tourism as it honors its objectives of promoting human rights, equality and social justice. 

“We’ve been sending groups for many years to Ghana,” says Alexis Kort, program officer for summer programs, “to do things like build infrastructure in communities. Besides the projects we do, we take groups to visit slave fortresses so they learn about the slave trade history and how it impacted the country they are in. We also go into national parks for activities like canopy walks in the jungle or visits to animal sanctuaries. We also have Shabbat with local Jewish communities – this is all very meaningful and educational for young people.”  Kort added that AJWS programs are not meant for Jewish people to go abroad and just hang out with other Jews. “While we might have Shabbat with local Jews in a country we are in, our purpose is to serve all those need our help.” 

Faith travelers may mine their own ministry organizations for ways to help. Or, they can find opportunities through national tourism organizations such as the Jordan Tourism Board North America (JTBNA). 

The range of Jordan’s options include these: 

  • Wadi Musa Handicapped Society – The center provides academic and vocational training for children who are physically or mentally handicapped. Visitors may help in classes with handicrafts, music and other activities with language translators on hand.
  • Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature – This non-governmental organization conserves and manages Jordan’s wilderness areas and has projects for volunteers that range from helping locals create herb farms to doing bird and wildlife censuses.
  • Abraham Path/Al Ayoun Hiking Trail – this multi-faith, multi-cultural hiking trail is now being surveyed and a portion near the Ajloun Nature Reserve is already in use. Volunteers are needed to build infrastructure and help acquaint rural Jordanians about benefits they’ll receive from development of the trail. 

Malia Asfour, JTBNA director, is a voluntourism advocate who believes the concept is a traveler’s ticket to meaningful hands-on experiences in Jordan. 

“It is a concept that we’re working on promoting as a means of enriching the travel experience in Jordan,” says Asfour. “Visitors go beyond the adventures of sightseeing to more meaningful experiences of engaging with the communities themselves.”

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