Travelling with Purpose: All About Volunteer Tourism

Learn what "voluntourism" is, how it benefits local communities and where you can travel to make a difference.

A traveller planting trees on a volunteer tourism trip

6min read

Published 4 January 2024


Learn what "voluntourism" is, how it benefits local communities and where you can travel to make a difference.

While two-week vacations in beachside destinations and jam-packed getaways to major cities are an incredible way to get a glimpse of a new culture, often it can be hard to separate local life from the humdrum of fellow tourists living their best life.

If you're keen to dive a little deeper, then volunteering abroad may be the solution. Whether it's a summer project for students, a career break or an extended adventure, meaningful volunteer work is an incredible way to see the world and make a genuine difference to host communities and local economies.

A travellers meets with a member of a local community during a volunteer trip
A travellers meets with a member of a local community during a volunteer trip
A travellers meets with a member of a local community during a volunteer trip

What is volunteer tourism?

For many, the prospect of volunteer tourism (aka “voluntourism”) conjures images of Western travellers caring for the sick and less fortunate in developing countries. On social media, you've probably seen photos and videos of young or wealthy travellers immersed in African orphanages or teaching English in Asian schools. While these are popular choices for many, they merely scratch the surface of the volunteer tourism opportunities available across the globe.

At its core, volunteer travel involves people donating their time and money in a community or location away from their homes. While there are domestic options available, most travellers will generally opt for a volunteer experience overseas.

Some people will raise money to pay for their experience, while others will volunteer in exchange for board or food. With a wide variety of cost structures available, volunteer tourism is often moulded to suit the needs of the individual traveller.

Typical length of a volunteer trip

Volunteering options can range from two weeks to two years and beyond. Maybe you're keen to spend a few months coaching sports or assisting refugees in the Middle East. Or perhaps you’re planning to spend a gap year volunteering on humanitarian projects in South Africa. 

Whatever timeframe you have in mind, we recommend doing some research or asking your local travel consultant to assist in finding a volunteer program that will gain the most benefit from your efforts.

Volunteer tourism benefits travellers as well as local communities
Volunteer tourism benefits travellers as well as local communities
Volunteer tourism benefits travellers as well as local communities

What are the benefits of volunteer tourism?

Provided the volunteer work is done with the right intentions and with an ethical organization (more on this below), the benefits can be far-reaching for both volunteers and communities around the world.

Benefits of voluntourism for local communities

  • Support local economies: Money from volunteers is directed to areas that would otherwise miss out on the economic benefits of tourism. 
  • Help improve the wellbeing of communities and environments: Volunteers can bring new skills, medicines and insights to local people. Not only does this help communities become more self-sufficient, but it can also improve the health and wellbeing of the local people and area.
  • Enhance cross-cultural understanding: People who aren't able to travel can be exposed to a variety of cultures, languages and knowledge from around the world.
  • Break down racial, cultural and social barriers: Education from those of differing opinions, cultures and upbringings is an incredible way to become more respectful and understanding, breaking down barriers and ideas built on misinformation or ignorance.

Benefits of voluntourism for travellers

  • Immerse yourself in an exotic location: Head off the beaten path and dive deep into a culture and environment that’s completely different to your own.
  • Explore, learn and travel while making a positive change: Use your time and money as a tourist to promote sustainable development and help others.
  • Gain a new perspective: Every day is a new opportunity to show an interest in and learn more about the local culture and environment.
  • Develop skills to aid your career prospects: Travel on its own is a great way to build interpersonal skills, experience personal growth and nurture your emotional intelligence. Plus, you can foster professional skills — no wonder so many companies value employees that have contributed to international development through voluntourism.
  • Reduce your travel costs: Volunteering is a great way to travel on a budget as you'll often be staying in homestays, eating in or with the locals, and avoiding tourist hotspots that generally come with a bigger price tag. Just keep in mind that some programs may require you to pay a fee to assist the local volunteer house.
  • Make travel more meaningful: Volunteer tourism is more than just selfies and stamps in your passport. When done correctly, it's an incredible way to help those around you and make some unforgettable memories of your own.

Volunteers cleaning a beach
Volunteers cleaning a beach
Volunteers cleaning a beach

Is volunteer tourism ethical?

In theory, volunteer tourism sounds like a dream. Travellers use their time and money to help those less fortunate. Whether it's humans or animals, what's wrong with Western travellers heading overseas to spend a few weeks doing some good? 

Unfortunately, as voluntourism has risen in popularity, so has the number of organizations taking advantage of travellers and local communities to make a profit. Like any form of travel, there is always the risk of a scam or misinformation — whether it's a fake orphanage, misguided funds, people volunteering for their own gain, or the mistreatment of local communities and environments. 

There have also been instances where inexperienced volunteers take away jobs and income from local workers. Not only does this negatively impact the local economy, but it can build a reliance on “outside help” and prevent a community from becoming self-sufficient. In addition, the rise of social media influencers travelling overseas to create content and build exposure does beg one to question if they have the best intentions.

Volunteering for the right reasons

It's important to remember that if you're considering volunteering overseas, you are already in a place of immense privilege. Not everyone has the financial or physical ability to donate their time and money to others, let alone do that as a form of travel.

With this in mind, when you're contemplating volunteering overseas, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I doing this? Am I trying to “rescue the poor”, build my social following or get a small thrill from the unknown?
  • Am I genuinely passionate about the cause I am volunteering for?
  • Do I have the skills and/or knowledge that can assist those I am volunteering with?
  • Where is my time and money going? Could this be more beneficial for the cause if it was spent in a different way?
  • Will my trip contribute to long-term positive change, or is it merely a band-aid solution?

It's crucial to remember that the people you are working with are citizens with rights and lives just like you. They are not objects of charity or people in place to make you feel better about yourself.

At the end of the day, we aren't here to tell you what is and is not ethical. What we can do, however, is encourage you to make informed decisions that will benefit locals, promote eco-tourism and leave the world better than when you started.

Travellers planting trees during a volunteer trip
Travellers planting trees during a volunteer trip
Travellers planting trees during a volunteer trip

What types of volunteer placements are there?

There are tons of different ways you can volunteer your time, skills, money and knowledge across the globe. Here are a few of the most popular roles and projects:

  • Teaching: Roles include teaching English or assisting in the creation of educational resources for local staff and students.
  • Childcare: This is an all-encompassing project with a significant focus on the wellbeing and health of children and youth. Projects can include volunteering in orphanages, interacting with children to help enhance their development or working with disadvantaged youth.
  • Healthcare: If you're in training or already have skills in healthcare, consider volunteering overseas to assist in administering vaccines, providing education about disease prevention and offering general and mental health services.
  • Conservation: If you're keen to help mother nature, consider joining projects aligned with animal, environmental and marine conservation. There are opportunities to visit and work at an animal sanctuary, conduct research, join regeneration and reforestation projects, assist with trail maintenance and provide general education to help support local ecosystems.
  • Community support: This covers the likes of building local libraries, schools, houses, hospitals and other forms of infrastructure that contribute to the greater good of the community. Many international development organizations and volunteers perceive community support as a means of female empowerment, working towards gender equality and reducing social inequalities in a community.
Teaching English or assigning in the creation of educational resources is a form of volunteer tourism
Teaching English or assigning in the creation of educational resources is a form of volunteer tourism
Teaching English or assigning in the creation of educational resources is a form of volunteer tourism

Where can I participate in volunteer tourism?

When it comes to voluntourism, the world is your oyster. Popular destinations include:

  • Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka
  • South America: Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Guyana, Costa Rica
  • Africa: Tanzania, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe
  • Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belarus, Czech Republic
  • South Pacific: Australia, Samoa, Solomon Islands
  • Middle East: Jordan, Bursa, Israel, Turkey

A group of travellers on a volunteer tourism trip
A group of travellers on a volunteer tourism trip
A group of travellers on a volunteer tourism trip

How can I make the most of a volunteer trip?

In order for you and the local communities you volunteer in to reap the benefits outlined above, do the following before and during your trip:

  • Do as much research as possible: Ask lots of questions, enquire about the ethicality of the program, consider your budget and time allowance, and find something that aligns with your skills and passions.
  • Understand the culture you are entering: Learn some words and common phrases to ease communication and remember to have an open mind.
  • Remember you are not a saviour: This one is harsh but important. If you're working with those that experience poverty, don't frame your trip as “saving the poor”. Rather, use it as an opportunity to generate knowledge, accept other ways of life and maybe lend a helping hand.
  • Use your skills, not your wallet: Share your knowledge to empower and ensure you aren't contributing to a cycle of dependency — you should be offering a hand up, not a handout.


Feeling ready to volunteer, but not sure what the next steps are? Like any overseas adventure, you'll need to sort out details like flights, accommodation, travel insurance, visas and vaccinations. Lucky for you, our team of travel consultants can help with all of this and more! Get in touch today.

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