Naturally, the voluntourism industry aims to serve the largest number of people possible. It’s kind of like politics: one party trying to appeal to the largest demographic by riding the middle. As the market grows, more and more organizations are providing streamlined, polished, non-threatening excursions that get people excited without frightening them. This is great because it means more people are deciding to travel and volunteer. But for adventurous volunteers who are looking for something less polished—something challenging, remote, and raw—these voluntours may not be a good fit. These travelers are the third party voters, people who like small organizations that don’t compromise on specific issues (like adventure). For them I suggest Fronteering, an exciting volunteering organization that brings travelers off the beaten path to experience isolated cultures in remote areas.
Elephants are some of the world’s most majestic creatures. They’re the largest living land animals on Earth. Known for their memory and intelligence, Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures. When I was a girl living in Kenya, I spent long days by the game preserve’s salt lick, watching the elephants interacting with each other and caring for their young. Once, three hyenas tried to attack one of the babies and the adults surrounded her in a giant circle, trumpeting their furious sounds and rearing up, thrashing their massive tusks in the air. The hyenas skulked back into the underbrush. The baby was safe. Elephants migrate over huge distances, through deserts, to find watering holes. The matriarchs teach the younger females how to find the water, where to find food, how far to march… elephants are some of the only animals besides humans that have culture. They have history. They have communities. They have no natural predators and yet, elephants all over the world are facing possible extinction.
I lived in Kenya when I was a child so Africa has always held a special place in my heart. The sunsets were spectacular, like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. They’re orange and pink, expansive, like a painting on velvet. I was only seven when I lived there but I made three lifelong friends—each of them uniquely bright, energized, curious, and kind. I fed giraffes and walked with elephants. I tended a carnivorous pitcher plant in my own backyard. Africa is magical. It’s full of incredible creatures, each more fascinating than the last—the stark stripes of the zebra, the proboscis of the anteater, the mischievous cunning of the spider monkey. And it’s full of incredible people, many of whom face unimaginable challenges and hardships. Organizations that serve Africa help to protect this magical place while they help to improve the lives of her people. If you have never been to Africa, go! It will change your life forever.
Today’s profile doesn’t feature a volunteer company. Instead, it focuses on the other side of the volunteer/tourism binary. Reefs to Rockies is a tourism company, but they have a deeper purpose: conservation. I’m inspired by the work they’re doing. It dovetails nicely with many of the conservation-based voluntour organizations we’ve profiled and demonstrates how a purely for-profit enterprise can give back through responsible, ecologically conscious programs for travelers. I think it’s important to remember that eco-tourism is often remarkably similar to voluntourism: many of the same values and principles apply to both. Eco-tourists choose their programs because, like volunteers, they want to give back. They want their dollars to contribute to a greater good. I think the line between volunteers and eco-tourists is often a blurry one, especially when eco-tourists participate directly in conservation efforts while they travel. For many travelers interested in a vacation, eco-tours are a great way to give back while you kick back.
Nature is where my heart is. I’ve been a wildlife lover since I saw my first butterfly fluttering above a dandelion. The movement of the wings, the way it flitted from one side of the flower to the other, and then the way it rested, folding its wings to sit perched atop a blade of grass… I was captivated by how unique and special it was, how beautiful and free and unlike me. And yet, it was alive! There are so many creatures in our world, of all shapes and sizes. Over millions of years they have evolved to perfectly inhabit their environments—from grassy hills to the treetops, from the driest desert to the deep sea. Today, all of our world’s creatures are in danger and the danger comes from all sides: pollution, over-fishing, development, deforestation, poaching, and climate change.