Counting Caribbean Fish, Debating Voluntourism

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  08.08.07 | 12:25 PM ET

imageElisabeth Eaves recently visited the Caribbean island of St. Vincent to voluntour with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. The scuba diver spent her underwater time identifying and cataloging glassy sweepers, barracuda and other assorted fish, all for the benefit of ecology and science. “These days, lots of organizations send travelers on ‘voluntours,’ wherein you pay for the privilege of doing a short stint of conservation work—on turtle hatcheries in Central America, bear-tracking missions in the high Andes, or wildlife parks in East Africa, to name a few projects,” she wrote in a series of stories for Slate. “What do-gooderism I possess is tied to Jacques Cousteau fantasies. Maybe, just maybe, I can contribute a tiny little bit to marine biology.” So what does she think about voluntourism now? I asked her a few questions via e-mail.

Voluntourism, like all trends, is being scrutinized. Some suggest it’s not all it’s cracked up to be—that many outfits put profit ahead of doing good work, that all the money people spend on costly voluntourism vacations could be put to much better use. Any thoughts on that?

If you compare the effects of a voluntourism vacation to the effects of an Oxfam donation, sure, the Oxfam donation probably goes farther. But for most people, a voluntour is an alternative to some other type of vacation, not some other type of charitable contribution. And compared to vacations spent sipping margaritas or staying in high-impact hotels, I’d say that most voluntours do more good.

Any advice for others considering voluntourism?

Do your research, and choose something that you’re genuinely passionate about.

Also, based on my own experience I’d consider going with a highly specialized organization rather than one of the more general voluntour clearing houses. REEF focuses just on marine conservation in three regions. Both the trip leaders and the other travelers were extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. I’m guessing that other specialized groups, like Audubon or the American Hiking Society, might provide similar experiences.

Do you have another voluntourism trip planned? If so, what’s next?

I’d like to go on another REEF trip in the Caribbean, maybe to Cozumel or Bonaire. I learned a lot on the first trip, but I’d like to build on that knowledge.

Related on World Hum:
* Voluntourism: ‘Overpriced Guilt Trips’ or a ‘Real Chance to Save the World’?
* Voluntourism: Assisting the Flying Doctors in Mexico

Photo by World Resources Institute via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

3 Comments for Counting Caribbean Fish, Debating Voluntourism

fsafsfd 08.08.07 | 3:37 PM ET

If you pay to volunteer then you are a total sucker.

If they are more concerned about your MONEY then your TIME, then BOTH are going to be wasted.


Katie 08.09.07 | 4:58 AM ET

I think comments like this just show a lack of understanding about the situation.  Most voluntourists do not have actual skills in the fields they volunteer in ... the fact is, a person is not god’s gift to the third world because they have a week or two to spare and a handful of goodwill… they pay for a service which includes supervision and training.  Think about how much time and skilled manpower they lose orienting tourists every two weeks.

Yes, people should be aware that many organizations make a profit from this… organizations should be straightforward about this too.  But the view that a person can just grace an organization whose work they have no knowledge of or background in with their presence, and change the world is just arrogant, and usually that is the same one that says “why should I pay?”

LadyExpat 10.07.08 | 7:41 AM ET

This past summer when I was in Malaysia, I had a conversation about volunteering with a couple who are on an open-ended round the world trip. They have done a fair bit of voluntary work, and have not paid a dime. They made a very good point (imo)... We’ll give our time to a good cause, but we won’t pay to do it. Personally, I think there are enough legit organizations out there who would love to have your time without dipping into your wallet too.

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