Leonie Vandeven spends her work days sitting behind a desk writing media releases, organising events and talking to journalists. So when the Virgin Blue public relations specialist was planning to take a holiday last year she wanted to do something completely different from her normal routine, and that didn’t mean sitting on a beach in the sun reading a book and sipping a cocktail.
Leonie wanted to spend a couple of weeks of her annual leave doing something that would get her out of her comfort zone, take her to a far-away land, and do something that would help others. So she applied to take part in a trip that would take a handful of Virgin staffers from around the world, all drawn from the different companies Sir Richard Branson operates, and build a crèche in a poor South African village.
“Virgin Unite is (the Virgin group’s) global philanthropic and charitable organisation, and it runs a number of projects around the world,” Leonie explains. “The opportunity came up to go to Africa, and I had never been there, and this was the chance not to do the tourist thing but to get into the community, a chance to meet people and get involved in their village, and not just leave footprints behind but something more tangible.
“I helped construct the local crèche, which was funded by Virgin Unite, and everything about the crèche was eco-friendly – it was built with sandbags, we put in water tanks, there was an eco-friendly toilet, the play equipment was made from recycled bottles and we planted trees. I also helped put in a self-sustaining garden because the idea is not just to educate the kids but to feed them during the day.”
Leonie stayed in the staff quarters at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, which is one of Branson’s properties and part of the Virgin Limited Edition collection, and travelled 30 minutes to the village each day where she worked a 12-hour shift starting at 7am.
“They were very long days and it was hot, dusty and dirty,” the 36-year-old Brisbane mother says. “I heard about other Virgin Unite staff wake-up trips that had done painting and renovated buildings, but this was the first time constructing a new building. There were no toilets, we had to take our own lunches, and I was digging in the rock-hard African clay, which was like digging concrete, so I got a few blisters. I’m not afraid of breaking a few nails, and I have never been so physically tired in all my life, but it was better than lying on a beach.”
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While Leonie will never forget the time she spent in the South African village, she’s not unique, with thousands of travellers looking to combine work and play every year by booking volunteering holidays. In 2007 Lonely Planet’s Travellers’ Pulse survey, which polled 24,000 people around the world, found that 79 per cent of respondents were keen to volunteer overseas in the future. The previous year only 25 per cent of those surveyed were looking to do a volunteering holiday, which makes this one of the biggest changes in the way travellers are looking to spend their vacations.
In response to the demand there are a number of travel businesses that specialise in volunteer tourism – or voluntourism – with i-to-i, which is just one of the companies with an office in Australia, placing more 6000 volunteers in projects every year.
Voluntourism assignments can last from a few days to several months, and can include everything from caring for baby lions in South Africa and teaching English in Brazil to building houses for underprivileged families in Vietnam and coaching cricket in Sri Lanka.
Some trips are designed to let travellers work from the start of their stay until the finish of their holiday, with opportunities to explore in their own time after hours and on weekends, while other expeditions include a few days labour with some organised and guided touring. In 2009 i-to-i saw the need to introduce a collection of short trips that would let volunteers complete a specific community project in just two weeks.
“While our other projects around the world are on-going, we recognise there are lots of people who can only take two weeks holiday, but who really want to make a visible, tangible difference in a volunteer capacity,’’ i-to-i’s Australian general manager Mat Lewis says.
“We consulted with local communities and together created sustainable and meaningful short-term projects that really make a difference. By the time the volunteer leaves, the community will be enriched with a finished product and the volunteer gets to see the end result. The challenges are a fun, affordable and rewarding team experience suitable for the young and young at heart.
“Many of our volunteers tend to do a project at the beginning or end of their overseas holiday. It gives them a unique experience with a rich cultural mix. They will have the opportunity to meet and work alongside the locals, really contribute to the community and share their knowledge.”
World Expeditions is another company offering “community project travel” with trips visiting Nepal, Peru, India, Tanzania, Laos and Australia scheduled for 2010. “Since 2005, World Expeditions has organised and facilitated community projects across the globe,” CEO Sue Badyari says. “The projects almost always take place in underprivileged villages where there is limited government funding to deliver services such as education, health or basic amenities, let alone funds for the maintenance of such facilities. Our program is a simple but effective grassroots approach to assisting such communities.”
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There’s no such thing as a typical voluntourist, with i-to-i explaining that as most programs don’t require specific skills from participants, and because they don’t discriminate according to age or gender, people from all walks of life can take part.
The Travel Industry Association of America, and online travel retailers Travelocity and Obitz have done surveys that show baby boomers make up a large percentage of those travellers choosing to do some volunteering on their holiday.
There’s also been considerable growth in the number of recent school and university leavers (gap-year travellers) combining work and travel and mature workers taking the opportunity to volunteer in a project to get the skills they need to change careers.
“With jobs harder to come by in the current climate, we’re seeing more gap- year graduates and career changers looking to get a head start in their careers though volunteer travel,’’ i-to-i’s Mat Lewis says. “While the gap-year volunteering phenomenon has seen graduates gaining ‘general’ experience that looks good on a resume, we’re seeing volunteers seeking focused, job-specific experience to give them an edge in the job market.’’
For Leonie, the rewards of her volunteering holiday were more personal. “I was learning and discovering and doing,” she says. “I had access to an area tourists don’t get to see, I got to share corn with the locals, engage with the children on such a personal level, to shop in their stores and visit their schools, and you don’t get that on a Contiki trip.’’
Since i-to-i was established in 1996 it has placed 20,000 travellers in volunteer projects and currently has assignments in 24 countries around the world.
Ph 1300 881 590
World Expeditions community projects are limited to a maximum of around 18 participants and the groups are often made up of people travelling alone.
Ph 1300 720 000
Some of the other companies that can help organise a volunteering holiday are: Australian Volunteers International