Posted by: Martin Fox | June 15, 2011

Voluntourism Taking Off

Voluntourism rocks. We’ll be voluntouring Peru during August – wah00000!

Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership – accelerating the global ripple.

Voluntourism Emerging as Fast Growing Niche for Outdoor Specialty Retailers

Clothes that can be worn a long time, not show dirt or stink, and be washed by hand: Rain gear. Sturdy, waterproof walking shoes suitable for mud. Duct tape. Bug repellent. Compact water filter. Headlamp. Pocket knife. Money pouch. Sun block. One-liter, reusable water bottle. Day pack…

These items could easily have been excerpted from a gear list provided by an outfitter, the National Outdoor Leadership School or a chapter of the Youth Conservation Corps, but they were not. They were found instead on gear lists published by — or on behalf of — the American Hiking Society (AHS), the Conservation Volunteers International Program (CVIP) and Wilderness Volunteers, which are among the growing number of non-profit conservation groups partnering with tour operators to fuel rapidly growing demand for voluntourism.

An estimated 4.7 million Americans participated in voluntourism in 2007, with more than 1 million traveling abroad, and that does not include tens of thousands of Americans who travel for mission work on behalf of their place of worship, according to research conducted by Dr. Nancy McGehee and David Clemmons, of

Voluntourism has become so popular that Travelocity now offers eight voluntourism trips in partnership with the American Hiking Society, Cross Cultural Solutions and Earthwatch Institute on a range of conservation, cross-cultural and scientific projects across the globe. Gap Adventures created Planeterra in 2005 to create and manage ways for its travelers to give back to the destinations they visit. Trips that include volunteer opportunities are up 100 percent from a year ago.

While prospective voluntourists are interested in a broad array of projects from community development and teaching to healthcare, 70 percent say they are interested in environmental conservation work, according to research by

Such numbers, along with REI’s own tradition of volunteerism, prompted REI Adventures to partner with CVIP last year to launch its first three voluntourism trips. The trips enable participants to work on trails, habitat restoration and other conservation projects at Machu Picchu, the Torres del Paine biosphere reserve in Chile and Yosemite National Park in California.

So far the trips have drawn a broad mix of 20-somethings and Baby Boomers, but the majority of participants are in their late 50s, said Cynthia Dunbar, manager for REI Adventures. While it’s too early to know how much or how fast the business will grow, REI Adventures will likely add a second Yosemite trip this year and is exploring other itineraries with CVIP.

“We send a lot of people to those destinations every year and it’s great to give back,” said Dunbar.

The AHS expects more than 550 volunteers to participate in 65 of its projects in 29 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands this year, up from 421 volunteers, 53 projects and 25 states and the U.S.V.I. last year. While the program has drawn an older demographic since its founding in 1974 — 59 percent are older than 50 — participation in its Alternative Break program more than doubled this year to 86 college students.

The trend may be getting a lift from the weak economy. Research indicates students and recent college graduates unable to find work are turning to voluntourism as an affordable way to combine their interests in community service and travel. For a registration fee of just $275, for example, students can participate in a Volunteer Vacation with AHS. The fee covers food, park entrance fees, campsite or cabin use, tools and a one-year membership with AHS. Presumably, such pricing leaves room in their budgets for tents, sleeping bags and other items on AHS’s gear list.

Regardless, the trend plays to the strengths of the outdoor industry, which provides so many of the products and offers so much of the expertise voluntourists need to be comfortable during their adventures.

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