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Voluntourism - Giving back on vacation

Though vacations are usually a time to sleep in, sit back and avoid manual labor, a different kind of "vacationing" is quietly catching hold.

A new concept in vacationing, "voluntourism" is a way to have fun, see new places and do some good at the same time. More likely to include digging ditches, observing endangered wildlife or helping with medical or food needs in a third world country, voluntourism opportunities abound.

Sure the work is hard and the pay is nil, but the benefits range from a good physical workout and recharged mental batteries to a revised perspective on life and the world around us.

"We always hear from people coming back — and they almost seem like clichès now — that they see the world in a different way, their lives have been forever changed," says

John Jorgenson, director of marketing and communications for Earthwatch Institute.

"Most people come back really energized and with an understanding that they really can make a difference."

Recently recognized by National Geographic as number one voluntourism provider, Earthwatch is one of dozens of voluntourism providers. Ironically, the concept began at Earthwatch as a vehicle for funding research but evolved as coordinators realized the benefit of providing everyday folks the chance to get a glimpse at real issues on a personal level.

In terms of types of expeditions or voluntourism trips, opportunities run the gamut, varying from one organization to another.

Earthwatch, for example, offers a chance to participate in scientific research during any of 120 "expeditions" in 55 different countries. One group may help study migration pattern concerns for zebras, giraffes, and wildebeest in Tanzania while another could help prepare an 11th century castle in Tuscany for archaeological excavation.

Another well-nown provider of volunteer vacations, Habitat for Humanity sends home-building crews on over 365 projects annually to Fiji, northern Ireland, Mexico and Madagascar while Global Citizens Network offers work projects at 13 sites around the world working with indigenous groups on any range of community building tasks.

When searching for a volunteering opportunity, consider a place you'd like to visit, suggests Amy LaClaire-Sachs, program assistant for Global Citizens Network, and then a type of project you'd like to be involved in.

Consider if you'd like to go alone, as a couple or even with kids. Some organizations, such as Global Citizens, are launching teen programs and opportunities for parent-child teams.

Factors to keep in mind are types of climate and culture you'll be dealing with, passport and immunization requirements and cultural dos and don'ts. Planning will be impacted by available trips, length of vacation time, budget size and level of work effort desired.

Most importantly, remember to ask plenty of questions in advance. Once a handful of trip destinations are decided, check the Internet or travel agencies for crime and safety statistics, weather and other issues. For example, avoid signing on for a trip that involves camping during monsoon season.

While voluntourism isn't free, it's less expensive than booking the same trip commercially and budgeting for room and board. An added advantage, some ventures involve camping or home stays that offer a more realistic experience than staying in a three-star hotel would provide.

"Those are the trips that really give volunteers a close look at the way people live in another part of the world," LaClaire-Sachs says. "It's hard to get that staying in a hotel some place. These trips really immerse the volunteer in local culture."

Cost-wise, trips vary drastically. Global Citizens Network may offer a one week project inside the U.S. for around $800 while three weeks abroad could cost $2,200. Habitat for Humanity, with trips in the U.S. and abroad, offers work trips costing its volunteers anywhere from $1,500 to $1,700 — airfare is additional. Heritage Conservation, which funds architectural preservation of historic sites, offers programs ranging from $300 to $2,000 per week depending on location."

While charity work and staying in less than four-star accommodations may not seem like an escape from reality, volunteer vacations offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see another part of the world, and perhaps a different glimpse at reality, up close and personal. There's also the chance to do some good at the same time.

Voluntourism - Giving back on vacation