Voluntourism – Travel for a Good Cause
An emerging alternative way to see the world, voluntourism is a relatively new term that has become used more frequently since the 2004 tsunami that destroyed communities and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods and triggered an unprecedented outpouring of compassion to Southeast Asia, especially Thailand.
After the tsunami, there were many contacts from overseas university student groups around the world wishing to offer assistance to survivors.
Arriving in Phuket, they contributed to the local communities in many ways, including developing divemaster and English-language training courses for people who lost their jobs and needed to find new livelihoods.
Voluntourism takes the travelling, learning and interacting concept one step further by aiming to improve the lives of people in local communities all over the country over periods of time ranging from a couple of days to several months. As a result, Thai tour operators have developed several innovative programmes that offer visitors not only quality holiday time in the Kingdom but also the opportunity to engage in hands-on teaching and other volunteer activities.
Successful voluntourism can be a development tool that lifts people out of poverty while also strengthening the emerging eco-tourism industry. Without funding and assistance, there is little chance of targeted villagers developing upmarket ecotourism attractions that can provide them with a viable living. What’s more, by being connected to such attractions, the locals gain an added incentive to protect their environment and their unique ways of life.
For example, with a little funding and some hands-on assistance, villages can build comfortable, standardised bamboo lodgings for visitors to stay in. The voluntourists can then work with the locals, planting seedlings for crops that offer a way out of destructive cultivation techniques such as slash and burn agriculture. Other eco-tourism opportunities may also attract the visitors as they enjoy learning about the local environment and culture on a basis of sincere concern and mutual respect.
Voluntourists tend to stay much longer in a country than the average tourist. They may volunteer for as long as six months or even a year. While they are there, they look for simple comforts and are less demanding than their conventional cousins. In addition, being more knowledgeable, socially and environmentally aware and responsible means they inflict less damage on their host country than the more pampered varieties of tourist. Whether expanding their knowledge and experience by travelling to remote locations, meeting far-flung neighbors in the global village, or pursuing highminded humanitarian objectives, volunteer visitors have lots of opportunities to get connected in Thailand.
Potential volunteer visitors can choose from a number of programmes, including living with Thai host families and joining the staff of schools or community health centres as English teachers. They may also choose to work with communities to assist in disease prevention education and other rural health care initiatives, besides many other alternatives. These days, multinational corporations with big corporate social responsibility funding are also interested in voluntourism. Many of them choose Thailand as their team-building destination. These organizations hire local tour operators that incorporate humanitarian activities into their itineraries. Some of them even use their corporate social responsibility funding to partially sponsor local activities such as school lunch programmes or English teaching groups — meaningful upclose and personal actions with immediate benefits for the local people.
Nevertheless, good volunteer work which is valuable to all parties concerned requires careful advance planning and arranging with local communities. Moreover, whether they involve individuals or groups and whether for short or long periods, the activities need to be properly monitored. But the list of projects that seem to work well, including cultural preservation, rural development, tsunami relief, education and medical assistance, is growing all the time, as is the number of local tour operators that are well-qualified to make all the arrangements.
Family Volunteer Fun
Thailand has one of the most diverse eco-systems in the whole of Asia, and as a deeply Buddhist nation, Thais place great value on preserving the country’s natural resources for the appreciation of present and future generations. Families can gain precious insights and immense satisfaction from helping out in one of the many eco-friendly projects organized by state and private conservation groups. Infinitely more rewarding than your typical holiday, maintaining and protecting environmental harmony together as a family enhances your sense of being alive as well as giving you a genuine feel for the indigenous culture.
Sustaining endangered species is something parents and children alike can always remember with pride, especially when you get to help identify new species of flora or fauna that are still discovered regularly within the country’s dense forests. The likes of monitoring and preserving sea turtle breeding grounds, preparing rescued gibbons for reintroduction to the wild, or tallying the numbers of rare bird species at Songkhla Lake, are all valuable endeavours that contribute in a practical and highly-rewarding way to real conservation. Wading around paddy fields planting rice, tapping rubber trees in southern plantations, and hauling in nets of flapping fi sh are all fun experiences for families to enjoy during an “agro-friendly” homestay.
The Thai Royal Family has initiated numerous such environmentally-sound projects that raise the quality of life for remote rural communities and which invite participation from responsible tourists.
Agriculture is still today one of Thailand’s primary industries and by living and assisting on a rural farm, you can get an intimate understanding of an agrarian way of life that is far removed from the weekly supermarket visit. At the same time, you can learn about the exquisite selections of juicy fruits, nutritious vegetables and hearty crops that thrive in Thailand’s fertile soil. Alternatively, get creative with handicraft techniques, or learn about the curative affects of herbal medicines. Sleeping in wooden stilted huts with smiling villagers and hilltribe dwellers allows you to take in a deeper sense of nature through their eyes while aiding these warm-hearted folk in maintaining their traditional ways of life.