Thoughts on ‘Meaningful Travel’ and Volunteerism

One of my goals of traveling is to do it with a sense of purpose, rather than just checking off a bucket list of places to visit. Of course, any travel is guaranteed to change the way we live and see the world around us. But instead of using my privilege as a traveler to just fulfill my own desires, I put aside time and energy to give back to the communities I’m visiting.

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Checking out local food stalls in Marrakesh

This is achieved through numerous ways. One is by traveling off the beaten path, avoiding touristy spots/all inclusive resorts, and interacting with ‘real’ people within those destinations. Spending money in all-inclusive resorts, for example, only puts money in the hands of larger companies rather than locals. I’ve tried to stay in villages and hostels deep within the communities, buy from local, grassroots, businesses and individuals, and volunteer in local causes and issues. For example during my visits to Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Morocco and Zimbabwe, among others, I completely avoided resorts and expensive hotels/restaurants. I learned more about the local culture and people this way, and saved a lot of money while still contributing more to the local economy.

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Helping out local farmers in Cinque Terre

Well, I’m not the only one with these sentiments of ‘giving back’ – which is why voluntourism has became such a buzz word in the recent past, albeit with concerns of how it’s ‘packaged’ by travel companies (there are numerous articles/blogs on the web about this). I believe you can make a bigger difference by volunteering with local organizations with established projects, for free instead of paying ‘voluntourism’ companies hefty fees for, well, volunteering (!) When I was visiting Italy’s Cinque Terre, I found out recent storms had wiped out some of the villages, affecting its mostly rural farmers. A local charity aiding in the rehabilitation of the villages by helping the farmers re-plant their crops, was recruiting volunteers. So I joined them, didn’t pay any fees to volunteer, and instead met and ate with local families for a few hours of ‘free work’. I donated a small amount to the charity for their work, on my own terms.

So instead of paying for expensive ‘voluntourism’ travel, I picked a destination, researched a cause I felt was important, found a charity that supported it, and volunteered/donated. You can do the same, just pick a cause that’s important to you, like homelessness, and find local charities that support that cause.

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Fundraising for school project for Syrian refugee children

Sometimes a cause involves more than volunteering, and fundraising sustains projects long after we leave the destination. Funds raised in, say a developed country, can go farther in a developing one and is thus more effective. This also raises crucial awareness of those causes globally. As a former NGO worker I found fundraising and awareness a mutually beneficial experience for the donors as well as the recipients. I used my background in fundraising in my recent travels to better serve a cause, for example helping Syrian refugees while visiting Turkey.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro for famine victims in Africa

Another fundraising technique is to pursue a challenge, like climbing a mountain for a cause. For example, I raised funds for famine victims in Africa while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The incentive to raise money for a worthy cause is what pushed me to finish the climb, at times when I couldn’t physically and mentally muster the energy to do so!

All these experiences taught me more about the places I visited and the communities I came across, which I was able to share with others.



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