Voluntourism: Service supersedes sightseeing as travelers trade in traditional vacations for hard work
Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News
POLOCHIC VALLEY, GUATEMALA — Kristen Larsen reaches for the baby instinctively, stopping to consider her status as a too-tall, too-white stranger only after the child starts quivering and buries his head in his mother's blouse. Mother, a Mayan who makes her home in the lush, green mountains of Guatemala, smells of ground corn and hand patted tortillas. Larsen, a visiting nurse from America, smells of soap and antiseptic.
The nurse lets out a little cry when the baby turns away, her eyes filling with tears. But it's not because she's been rejected. It's because one year ago, Larsen held the child in her arms, malnourished and dying, while she regulated, with her fingers, the flow of life-giving liquid through an IV. Today, the child is chubby, healthy and bright-eyed.
"Oh my gosh," Larsen says. "Oh my gosh. I can't believe — look how big he is."
Larsen returned to Guatemala in July with the non-profit Singular Humanitarian Experience. She is just one of a growing number of Americans to trade in a traditional beach vacation for a stint doing volunteer work abroad.
In 2008, the Center for Social Development in St. Louis, Mo., estimated about one million Americans participated in international volunteer work, a practice those within the industry call "voluntourism." By now, experts estimate, that number's likely doubled.
"This trend is exploding," said Erin Barnhart, director of voluntarism for idealist.org, a New York City-based web site dedicated to connecting do-gooders to service opportunities. "There's money to be made."
Voluntourism programs — dozens of which originated in Utah — vary from grass roots to government-sponsored.
There are volunteer vacations for dentists, doctors and engineers and there are volunteer vacations for those who have little to offer beyond a pair of willing hands and a strong back. Some are for-profit tourist companies that have modified their itineraries to satisfy people's desire to give back. Others, like Singular Humanitarian Experience, were formed as non-profit entities to connect language tutors with students or tackle poverty in the world's slums.
"We get all types of people," said Wade Alexander, director of expeditions for Choice Humanitarian, a Utah-based nonprofit that sends out about a dozen groups annually to complete various projects all over the globe. "We have families, adventurers, college-age kids, senior citizens. People just want to give back."
Satisfied voluntourists return home with more than a bag of souvenirs; they report feeling spiritually changed.
Critics point out, however, that not all so-called "service projects" benefit the Third World societies they are designed to help. Volunteers may be investing in projects the communities are unable to sustain or — worse — perpetuating a culture of helplessness.
A rising trend
Experts attribute the rise of voluntourism to economic changes and improved global communication.
Because of the current financial meltdown, consumers are "more disgusted than ever with greedy corporate execs who just don't care," according to a recent report by trendwatching.com, a London-based, independent trend firm that scans the globe for promising consumer trends, insights and business ideas. "Challenging times see people craving care, empathy, sympathy and generosity," the agency observed, noting that doing good has become a "status symbol of sorts."
Big world events such as the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 and the Haiti earthquake earlier this year have acted as catalysts, prompting more Americans to reach out, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, an independent federal agency that supports and promotes volunteer work.
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