6 Volunteer Vacations to Experience

Yes, staying in a luxury hotel and parking your bum on the beach makes for an enjoyable getaway, but what if you're looking for a trip that's more meaningful?
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Yes, staying in a luxury hotel and parking your bum on the beach makes for an enjoyable getaway, but what if you're looking for a trip that's more meaningful? Innovative companies are unveiling enticing voluntourism (volunteer tourism) opportunities in a variety of locations, giving travelers the chance to lend a hand on their next spring break, summer hiatus or family vacation.

Courtesy GoVoluntouring/Mark Solon

An interest in voluntourism has grown over the years: The idea was conceived in the 1990s, has continued to evolve and was named a top travel trend by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013. And companies like GoVoluntouring and GoEco have made it easier for travelers to search and find the right type of trip for them. "People are looking to be more involved when they travel," said Jonathan Gilben, co-founder and director of GoEco. "They're looking to do something more unique." Trips range from helping restore an ecosystem in a tropical locale to caring for endangered or orphaned animals. These types of vacations also vary in length of time and price, depending on location, program type and flight costs.

So why go on a volunteer vacation? "When travelers return, they have a deeper cultural sensitivity to the challenges and the systemic issues that the developing world tends to have," said Aaron Smith, founder of GoVoluntouring and its sister site, Holidays for Humanity. Meanwhile, Gilben said many travelers are surprised by their experience, adding that they get attached to the animals, local community and other volunteers they work with, and return to the same program each year.

Both Gilben and Smith note the importance of finding the right programs to participate in. Different trips require varying skill sets and levels of fitness, so make sure to select a volunteer vacation that not only caters to your interests but also allows you to contribute to the community in the most helpful way. As for any controversy or issues surrounding a service trip, both Gilben and Smith said they vet programs thoroughly by visiting and communicating extensively with the team on the ground. "If it's managed properly and the program knows how to ensure that the contribution is sustainable, then it can be very successful," Gilben added. Taking all of these factors into consideration, U.S. News selected a few volunteer vacation options for travelers of all types.

Aid in environmental conservation

If you're concerned with your ecological footprint or looking to work with ecosystems in different environments, you can do so in a multitude of ways. Take, for example, GoEco's scuba diving research trip in Seychelles. Volunteers travel to the quiet islands off the eastern coast of Africa to conduct coral reef research, survey sea life and record animal behavior. Scientific research organization Earthwatch offers trips to Arctic areas to analyze climate and landscape change, study glacier melting and help collect data on global warming. Or you could traverse the globe to Fiji, where you'll work with Fijian communities on reforestation projects, building fish houses and removing hazardous species. During your free time, you can snorkel and photograph the landscape's beauty. Have you seen what Fiji looks like?

Help a village

Courtesy GoEco

If you're interested in getting your hands dirty with some manual labor and helping out a community in the process, head to Rio de Janeiro. Through a GoVoluntouring program, you can assist in building houses for families living in cramped quarters in the city's Barreira do Vasco favela. Volunteers will construct simple brick houses for this community, with kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and living areas. During your down time (which varies by program and trip), you can tour some of Rio's top sites, such as the Christ the Redeemer statue and the Jardim Botânico. Another project, offered by GoVoluntouring's partner Power to the People, invites travelers to Nicaragua to help install solar panels on top of a school and teach local people how to use and repair them. One of Smith's favorite trips, this volunteer vacation brings plenty of economic and sustainable benefits to the Los Encuentros community in the mountainous region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Plus, you can explore the remote landscape or visit the colonial city of Granada while you're there.

Teach English

You don't need to be in peak physical form or possess a scientific background to volunteer; you can give back just by speaking English. WorldTeach organizes programs in a variety of destinations around the world, including Ecuador, Morocco and China, where travelers teach English to children, teens and adults. GoVoluntouring offers a similar trip to Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania, where volunteers not only teach English but also help improve educational facilities and learn Swahili. Learning aside, the program's location gives visitors a chance to explore the archipelago's beaches and swim in the Indian Ocean.

Immerse yourself in culture

Courtesy GoVoluntouring

Many people travel to experience new cultures -- so why not learn about a given destination's history and traditions and give back at the same time? GoVoluntouring offers an art restoration program in southern Italy where visitors can have a hand in salvaging paintings and centuries-old frescoes. You'll also get an opportunity to check out historical sites around the region, take part in art seminars and create your own artwork. Meanwhile the conversation corps program, offered in Spain, France, Belgium and Germany (among other destinations) allows you to explore diverse locales and historic sites while learning a foreign language and helping your host family improve their English.

Take care of a trail

Organizing service trips a little closer to home (mostly in the continental United States), the American Hiking Society puts together vacations for those who have a love of hiking and a passion for preserving nature. This organization's trips span across the U.S., from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in Maine. Volunteers on these types of trips primarily work on trail maintenance, signage and constructing new trail features. What's more, the American Hiking Society groups trips by activity level (and by state and accommodation type), so you can filter your search based on how easy or strenuous you'd like the experience to be.

Work with animals

Courtesy GoVoluntouring/Kaya Responsible Travel

One of the most popular voluntourism activities is working with animals like sea turtles, lions and monkeys. Both GoEco and GoVoluntouring offer the chance to get up close and personal to help these exotic creatures. GoEco's program in the Tiger, Lion and Wildlife Park in South Africa is one of the organization's most booked trips, Gilben said, thanks to its hands-on approach to working with wildlife. While there, you will prepare meals for and feed lion and tiger cubs, take cubs for walks, document their behavior for research and help rehabilitate injured animals. GoEco's other wildlife trips work to protect and learn more about whales, dolphins, pandas, elephants and more. GoVoluntouring's most popular animal-based vacation is its Sea Turtle Conservation Project in Costa Rica. "It's a vulnerable species where the effort takes place on a beach in a tropical climate and doesn't require a lot of manual labor," said Smith. "[Volunteers] preserve the turtles from poachers and predatory species." You'll work on collecting eggs, relocating nests, patrolling the beach and caring for the turtles. GoVoluntouring's other programs also work with animals like chimpanzees, gorillas, lions and great white sharks.

-- Erin Shields

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