Family Voluntourism Strengthens Bonds and Local Communities

Give back to local communities by participating in voluntouring projects on your next family vacation.

Consider contributing to your host community on your next family vacation with an act more precious than buying locally made knickknacks: give your time. One of the fastest-growing travel sectors, “voluntourism,” is a way for vacationers to participate in socially conscious volunteer projects during their travels. Help repair weather-damaged homes, build eco-friendly stoves, plant trees or teach at an orphanage on a voluntouring trip.

With endless project opportunities, flexible timeframes and a whole world of sites to choose from, voluntourism is an ideal family travel option that creates lasting memories, fosters cultural exchange, and ultimately, makes the world a better place for us all.

Teach Your Children Well

The educational aspect of voluntourism is a key factor for prospective voluntourist families. Indeed, when Debra Cummings and her husband began planning their global family adventure—10 years in advance—cultural education was on their minds. Globetrotters and longtime backpackers themselves, Cummings and her husband, Scott, hoped to share the world with their kids.

“The whole impetus was to shake the kids up,” says Cummings, “and turn them into little global citizens.”

Cummings, her husband, and their son and daughter—then, aged 9 and 13—traveled the globe for one year, from July 13, 2006 to July 6, 2007. But they wanted to be more than nomadic tourists; instead, they made four major stops along the way, to volunteer and to connect with local communities.

Starting in their hometown of Calgary, the family toured Europe, fundraised for Operation Eyesight in Kenya, worked at Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Thailand, helped children at an orphanage in India and worked on an Australian ranch. The experience was life-changing for the whole family, says Cummings, but especially for the kids. Cummings recalls the children’s moments of epiphany during the trip when faced with glaring cultural contrasts. In Kenya, when they assisted in administering vision tests to local families, the kids were shocked to discover something for which they’d always taken for granted: no one could read.

Cummings also watched her daughter, Siobhan, become a vocal activist against elephant cruelty, while her son, Quinn, became an expert in Southeast Asian geography. The family wrote about their travels on their blog, Cumming & Going, which Quinn’s school followed diligently.

Almost a year after returning home, Cummings’ family is still riding the voluntourism wave. Quinn’s school adopted the Darjeeling orphanage in India as their primary charity, and the family continues to run fundraisers for it and Operation Eyesight in Kenya.

Trends in Voluntourism

Granted, not everyone can just up and leave school and work for a year. But short-term family voluntourism trips are quite feasible, and demand for such vacations is on the rise, according to voluntour service providers. Industry surveys and studies confirm the trend. An April 2008 UC San Diego study found that 40 percent of United States residents wanted to participate in service-related vacations, which mirrors a February 2008 and Condé Nast survey that found more than half of respondents wanted to partake in volunteer vacations.

Voluntourism is not a new concept. The Peace Corps and Volunteer Service Overseas programs instigated volunteer travel back in the 1950s and ‘60s, and Earthwatch ran ecotourism volunteer programs starting in 1971. Since then, study abroad programs and gap years for pre-college students have accelerated the popularity of service travel. 

In recent years, the tourism industry jumped on the charitable bandwagon, too, says Family Travel Forum editor and co-founder Kyle McCarthy, who’s seen the mainstream travel industry coalesce around the growing demand for family travel with a purpose. “Voluntourism has certainly entered the travel vernacular,” she says.

Family Voluntour Vacations

Voluntour groups today cater to families with young children who have short timeframes, by providing short-term programs and programs appropriate for children. Dallas-based Globe Aware hosts one-week voluntouring excursions to more than a dozen countries, including Peru, Laos and Costa Rica. Globe Aware’s Sarah McCall says in recent years the non-profit industry has seen a huge surge in family participants of all ages.

“We’re unique in our peer group because we don’t have any age restrictions,” says McCall, recounting a recent Jamaica trip with participants ranging from 4 years to 102 years old. There is something for everyone to do, says McCall, whether it’s teaching English to Cambodian Buddhist monks, to river restoration efforts in Jamaica, to preserving ancient Aztec ruins in Mexico.

The short term of service doesn’t mean volunteers’ work is all for naught. “I’ve personally been pretty surprised with how much we’re able to accomplish in one week,” says McCall.

Voluntour Daytrippers

While niche family voluntourists are leaning towards full-on volunteer vacations on one end of the spectrum, other families are attracted to what McCarthy calls “soft volunteer” options: short half-day or one-day projects offered at an increasing number of international chain hotels, resorts and cruise lines. In March 2008, Ritz Carlton initiated its Give Back Getaway program, in half-day voluntour projects ranging from Blue Iguana recovery in Grand Cayman to Sea Turtle egg preservation in Cancun.

Cruise lines are incorporating volunteer opportunities to their ‘on-shore’ components. And the Sandals family-brand resort, Beaches, branched out into the local community, by bringing its widely popular “Sesame Street Caribbean Adventure” children’s program to local Jamaican school kids.

Choosing Your Trip

If family voluntourism has at least piqued your curiosity, there is a somewhat-daunting array of options to choose from. So where to begin? And how can you be sure that you’re selecting a legitimate organization?

Volunteer abroad scams do exist. Cummings recalls hearing horror stories of gap year students who put down money for a program, flew to the host country and there was no airport pick-up—and no program at all.

As with any vacation, a successful voluntouring trip—especially with children—requires careful planning. While she believes the vast majority of programs out there are legitimate, Cummings says “do your due diligence.” Ask questions:

Legitimate groups should be able to answer your questions. Sarah McCall says that Globe Aware also links interested voluntourists with past participants who can share their personal experiences. 

Other advice: Tap into your network base, says Cummings. Most of her family’s volunteer stints were found through referral from a friend of a friend. She also suggests volunteering with religious charity organizations, regardless of your religious or non-religious affiliations; after all, she says, isn’t celebrating cultural differences the whole point of the trip?

David Clemmons’ invaluable Web site,, is a veritable Voluntourist’s Bible, full of resources, articles, suggestions, planning guides, partner voluntour groups and more. The Web site says that fees per person can average $2,000 for voluntour programs including airfare, taxes and insurance. Globe Aware trip costs range from $1,090 to $1,390 per person, per week and covers meals, accommodation, medical evacuation and insurance, travel in-country other program services.

But if you network, plan and research well, you can find even better deals. Cummings’ family-stay at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand cost a mere $1,200 for one week—for the entire family.

Sharing Time With Family

At the end of the day, voluntourism offers families a unique adventure, time for bonding and an opportunity to learn about the world.

“There is something very, very special about working with your kids,” Cummings says, recalling getting to know her children better while planting elephant grass or building fence. “You’ve got nothing else to do but talk.” 

Destinations: India, Kenya, Cancún, Australia, Mexico, Thailand, Jamaica, Grand Cayman

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Experiential Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

really interesting i plan to do some of these projects with my daughter when she's a bit older. but the costs from travel agencies that specialise in 'gap year' volunteering are outrageous. def best to do it yourself and then you know exactly what's involved. thanks for the article