Jonathan Teoh had the adventure of a lifetime when he joined a group of outdoor enthusiasts in Sarawak five years ago.
Being in nature was something the 28-year-old risk consultant from Petaling Jaya, Selangor truly appreciated. But the highlight of his holiday was actually participating in a community project to build a dam for the indigenous community at Kampung Muk Ayun in Padawan.
“It was a great experience hiking into the forest and living so close to nature, especially for many of us who were from the city. But what was even more meaningful was spending time with people at the village, talking to them and understanding how they live,” he said.
This is what a voluntourist is – a traveller who makes it a point to volunteer or do some good for the local community when on holiday.
Teoh reckons that while it is tempting to get caught up in the fun you can have while on holiday – jungle trekking, visiting waterfalls, enjoying the beauty of nature – one might want to listen to and help the local communities in the places they visit.
Voluntourism (“volunteerism” and “tourism”) has become a whole new trend in travel. It is a form of tourism where tourists choose to take part in voluntary work, usually for a charity, while they explore and see new places. They can volunteer their time or skills (or both) with the aim of making a positive difference in communities around the world.
Voluntourism packages and tours are becoming increasingly popular in Malaysia too.
Shyam Priah, the founder of Yellow House, an NGO that offers voluntourism opportunities for travellers to Malaysia, feels that such trips are for travellers who want to challenge themselves while on holiday. It is for travellers who want to learn about different cultures, not just by visiting them, but by immersing themselves in a local community for a short period of time, she says.
A positive impact
But, while it is a good thing to want to do good or feel good while on holiday, there are several factors to consider when embarking on a voluntourism trip or purchasing a travel package that includes voluntourism.
Voluntourists need to make sure that the cause they are volunteering for is genuine and that the organisations which they go through are legitimate.
They also need to consider whether their voluntourism efforts have a positive and meaningful impact, rather than causing harm or disrupting the community that they visit.
Selecting the right charitable organisation for your voluntourism efforts is important.
Research the companies or organisations you are going with and check if their projects actually benefit the community.
“Voluntourism projects must be sustainable with measurable progress so that voluntourists can know that their money is well-spent on the intended cause and makes a positive impact,” Priah advised.
While some travellers prefer to go on voluntourism trips on their own, others choose the easier and safer way of volunteering through a charity organisation.
There are also tour companies like Trafalgar and Insight Vacations that offer such add-on options on their tours. Some cruise companies such as Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International also offer passengers the opportunity to do good during their cruise holiday.
Muhammad Hameem Sheik Alaudin, 21, who went on a cruise holiday on Dream Cruises with his parents, earlier this year, says: “Usually, when people go on a cruise, most of the time is spent having fun on board or sightseeing during shore excursions. So, it was great to have the opportunity to volunteer. It was a great experience to be able to give back to the society.”
Passengers on the cruise had the opportunity to visit the Eden Handicap Service Centre in Penang to help with some light maintenance work, donate provisions, as well as interact with the residents. They also went to the Baan Kalim School in Phuket, Thailand, where they helped repaint the school library and meeting room, and donate books.
Giving a hand-up
Travellers also need to decide what kind of voluntourism they wish to be involved in. There are many causes where people can be part of when travelling, whether long-term or short-term.
Founder and director of non-profit organisation The TreadRight Foundation, Brett Tollman says that a good way to look at voluntourism is as “purpose-driven tourism” where travellers can help give third world societies a hand-up in life.
Giving money, food or clothing to such communities is necessary for meeting an immediate need and good for the short-term.
But, he suggests that travellers who have the time and resources can look at being involved for a longer duration to have a longer lasting effect on the societies that they visit.
“Supporting the locals and providing them with the knowledge or infrastructure so that they can lift themselves up, earn a living and be independent is ideal,” Tollman said, referring to the famous quote “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Voluntourists with the right expertise can do things like helping locals to build a proper system for running water, teach them how to plant their crops or other life skills that will enable them to carve out a living for themselves or meet their basic needs.
There are also other areas that voluntourists can help with such as in education (by building schools and teaching English), women empowerment and social enterprise.
Besides helping out with a society’s needs when you travel, you can also do good in areas such as wildlife or environment conservation.
Chu Mei Fong, 29, a KL-based travel blogger who volunteers with wildlife and environmental organisations when she travels, says that the more she travels, the more she realises how important it is to give back to the communities that she visits.
“I wanted to travel off-the-beaten path around Malaysia as well as experience the country on a deeper level and such voluntourism projects have enabled me to do this while contributing to a good cause,” said Chu, who loves nature, wildlife and being outdoors.