What is Voluntourism? How I Spent My Gap Year.

By Ella Edwards

Most people would be pretty wary of sending their 18-year-old daughter off on a gap year to the rugged wilds of Namibia or to explore the chaotic charm of Nepali cities, but my parents aren’t most people. As avid travelers themselves, it wasn’t a shock for them to hear that before starting university, I wanted to embark on my own adventure, seeing the sights and leaving an impact where I could. With a healthy dose of trust in my ability to navigate the world, my parents dropped me off at the airport with fingers crossed that I’d willingly return home when the year came to a close. Unbeknownst to me, my year of volunteering across the globe would significantly reshape my perspective on how to travel.

I’m Ella Edwards, summer intern at CIRE Travel and intrepid world traveler. This summer I will be working on a number of articles and bringing my Gen Z perspectives to CIRE Travel. My passion for meeting new people, adventure travel, and a desire to make a positive impact led me to explore voluntourism opportunities around the globe, some of which I hope will inspire you, too.

“Voluntourism” is a travel term that gained popularity in the 1990s referring to an experience that blends country exploration with meaningful community service. This trend has emerged over the years as travelers sought out more immersive and meaningful experiences beyond traditional tourism. Organizations and tour operators slowly began offering structured programs to integrate volunteering opportunities with travel itineraries. Whether building schools, cleaning beaches, or working on local farms, travelers have been catching onto the benefits of volunteering. At its core, voluntourism offers travelers the opportunity to become immersed in diverse cultures while positively contributing to the places they visit. It’s about more than just visiting a destination, but rather fostering genuine connections and mutual understanding between people worldwide through service. Encouraging travelers to get involved in community development, wildlife conservation, education, and so on, voluntourism can be a transformative travel experience. 

To kick-off my gap year, I first ventured to South Africa, where my inaugural voluntourism experience involved working in an underserved township hospital. I am a certified EMT so with the help of some very patient local doctors and nurses, I was assigned to the maternity ward where I assisted in delivering babies and caring for new young mothers. My attempts at mastering midwifery proved to be a dramatic yet exciting start to the year and had me keen to seek out other engaging volunteer opportunities. Below are three of the most impactful experiences that shaped my unforgettable gap year.

My Top Three Transformative Voluntourism Experiences

#1: Oranjezicht City Farm, Cape Town, South Africa:

 Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) is more than just a scenic garden nestled under Table Mountain; it’s a vibrant community that fosters sustainable agriculture and social change in local communities. To set the scene, picture this: me covered in dirt, sporting a farmer’s tan, and coming to the profound realization that I have zero natural talent for growing vegetables. Luckily, gardening can be taught, and volunteering at OZCF not only gave me a chance to assist in organic farming practices but also engage with local township citizens. In the end, my watering, weeding, and composting not only contributed to cultivating fresh, organic produce but also gave me insights into local food insecurity issues and the lives of underserved residents. As an Environmental Science and Journalism major, my work on the farm reinforced my values of advocating for sustainable practices and telling stories that amplify the voices of marginalized communities.

#2: Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary, Windhoek, Namibia:

Situated just outside of Windhoek, the capital region of Namibia, the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary offered the unique opportunity of working with leopards, lions, hyenas, and an array of other animals, all while experiencing the beauty (and extreme heat!) of Namibia’s natural landscapes. Volunteering at the sanctuary meant hands-on experience in caring for large carnivores and other wildlife, allowing me to develop skills in animal rehabilitation, research, and environmental conservation. Beyond the practical skills I gained, I rubbed shoulders (literally) with cheetahs and found immense fulfillment in witnessing the direct impact of my efforts on rehabilitating sick animals. My months spent working to preserve Namibia’s biodiversity even directly affected my decision to study environmental science at university, which I enjoy very much today. I had a genuine chance to immerse myself in Namibian culture and spent my days with fellow volunteers and staff who seemed to know everything about every animal. One particularly memorable moment involved a standoff with a mischievous baby baboon. As the volunteer in charge of watching little “Pamela” (named after, you guessed it, Pamela Anderson), I spent my day in the large enclosure with her. During lunchtime, I ate with Pamela, but as soon as I turned my back, she seized the opportunity to grab my roll of bread. What followed was a feisty negotiation as I tried to reclaim my lunch from her grasp. In the end, Pamela triumphed, teaching me the valuable lesson of never underestimating a baboon’s knack for mischief. 

#3: Her Future Coalition, Nuwakot, Nepal:

Wrapping up my year with what I would call a bang, I hitched a ride in a jam-packed van with a dozen Nepalis to a region called Nuwakot, about five hours west of Kathmandu. The journey was not a smooth one, but it allowed for sightseeing and ended in a small village in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. Through Her Future Coalition, I arrived at a small village housing the essential Hasta Memorial School, built by the organization to mitigate the number of local children who get trafficked or sold into untimely marriages. Hasta Memorial School educates high-risk girls, employs trafficking survivors, and provides family counseling on how to support children rather than profit off of them. Promoting a safer future for children and locals, the school is a sanctuary for hundreds of Nepalis. Volunteering as an English teacher, I met some of the most hospitable and genuine people. I vividly remember one afternoon after the school day playing with a group of students. Among them was a 13-year-old girl named Sita, who rather than playing with us, picked up my hefty Russian literature novel and read it aloud to the group. Despite the fact that practically none of the children could understand the words she was saying, Sita almost flawlessly recited the entire first chapter. Her determination to master English, even on her off day, highlighted the remarkable eagerness the children had to learn and grow.

Reflections on Voluntourism

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of my voluntourism experience was the realization that working alongside local communities transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. Though I was at first hesitant to cross these boundaries, volunteering became a type of universal language, connecting me to locals who shared a commitment to create a better life for themselves and others. No matter the country or what work I was doing, I left each place with a broader understanding of the local culture and complexities of the country. By the end of my year, voluntourism wasn’t just a means of travel, but rather a way for me to explore the world with purpose, all while making a tangible difference.

As travelers, we have the ability to use our experiences to positively impact the places we go, and doing so can build up compassion, empowerment, and sustainable change. Volunteering abroad, whether for a few weeks or just for a few hours, made me an active agent in creating an impact. Stepping outside my comfort zone was a large part of my growth during the year. I had to navigate unfamiliar environments and adapt quickly to new routines and cultural norms. Whether teaching or doing manual labor, I often found myself learning on the go and gaining new skills in wildly unexpected ways. Volunteering allowed me to confront my own assumptions and biases. Engaging with diverse communities and hearing their stories broadened my perspectives and challenged me to rethink any preconceived notions I had about the world. These experiences not only expanded my horizons but also inspired those around me, including my younger brother, who is headed to China in September for his gap year to teach at an English immersion school. By embracing the idea of voluntourism in travel, we not only contribute to our own lives but to a more interconnected world.

Take Action: Ways to Get Involved

For those inspired to embark on their own voluntourism journey, the team at CIRE stands ready to assist in sourcing and arranging volunteer events during your vacations. With their expertise and support, you can seamlessly integrate meaningful community action into your travel plans, ensuring a truly enriching experience. When planning my own gap year, I spent countless hours researching vetted organizations—finding ones that genuinely make a difference is crucial as it ensures your time and energy have a real impact. CIRE’s commitment to connecting travelers with reputable organizations ensures your efforts contribute meaningfully wherever you choose to volunteer.

As my gap year came to a close, my parents awaited my return at the same airport they had sent me off a year earlier. The reunion was filled with countless stories, one of their favorites being my experience at the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary working alongside cheetahs. Now, as we plan our next family holiday, I’ve convinced my family to consider incorporating volunteering into our itinerary. CIRE is helping us create a trip combining exploration with positive impact, ensuring our travels are both enriching and purposeful.

CIRE Travel is a full-service travel agency headquartered in New York, NY.  Our expert corporate travel planners, honeymoon travel agents, and luxury travel planners support clients across the country and around the world.

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