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Travelers give back on holidays

Heather Maurer worked hard this summer. But she did not earn a paycheck, and she was not cooped up in a stuffy office. Instead, Maurer spent $4,000 to travel to New Zealand where she planted 500 trees, built a bird sanctuary and spent time with elementary school children and people with disabilities.

Maurer, a former Boston University student and now a junior at Indiana, participated in ‘VolunTourism,’ a growing trend in the travel industry that combines volunteering and tourism to give travelers a chance to actively contribute to the destination they choose. Traveling is not just about dinner cruises in Maui or luxurious vacations. There is a lot more into it.

Maurer traveled for four weeks with International Student Volunteers, a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation in the United States that has volunteer programs in eight countries. She learned about the program when an ISV representative visited her art history class at BU.

‘After hearing about the program, I immediately thought ‘This is awesome, I’m doing it,” she said.
Maurer’s trip, like most volunteer trips, evenly split travelers’ time between volunteering and touring. For the first half, her and a group of 40 college students volunteered with a New Zealand conservation organization, and the group explored the country the second two weeks.

‘Every day was filled with adventure activities like bungee jumping and glacier hiking. It was incredible,’ Maurer said.

Volunteer trips often come with a hefty price tag. Expenses usually cover accommodations, food, airfare and administrative fees. Some programs’ fees are tax deductible for U.S. residents, and there are cases in which individuals can also have airfare deducted from their taxes.

‘My trip cost me about $4,000,’ Maurer said. ‘To raise this money, I sent letters to corporations and environmental agencies asking for sponsorships, used some of my savings and took out a loan from my parents.’

Despite the high expenses and loan she is still paying back, Maurer said she doesn’t regret the decision to go on the trip.

‘It absolutely changed my life and exceeded every one of my expectations,’ she said. ‘It’s always beneficial as a student and as an individual to learn about other cultures and see how they deal with the same issues we are dealing with here in the U.S.’

Cross Cultural Solutions, a non-profit international volunteer organization, has programs ranging from two to 12 weeks in 12 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, all of which have fees that are tax deductible. Sponsors of a trip also receive tax deductions.

‘The sponsor gets to live through the volunteer,’ Kim Santos, director of communications for Cross Cultural Solutions, said. ‘Many volunteers keep blogs where they post pictures and updates of their trip. The sponsors are watching their dollars at work.’

Volunteer tourism has recently seen an increase in interest among travelers and in the travel industry. A 2006 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America showed that one-fourth of travelers questioned said they were interested in taking a volunteer-based vacation, Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the TIAA, said.

‘The travel industry is responding by offering more volunteer travel opportunities. We’ve always had programs like Habitat for Humanity and the Peace Corps, but now there are hundreds of nonprofit organizations for people to choose from,’ she said.

The flexibility of many volunteer programs is one reason why more people are participating in these trips, Keefe said. Instead of dedicating months or years of their time to service, travelers can choose from a variety of options.

Of the 1,600 people polled, 55 percent said they would take a volunteer vacation, and 20 percent had already taken at least one volunteer vacation, according to a February 2008 survey sponsored by and Cond’eacute; Nast Traveler.

Catastrophes such as Sept. 11, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina are also contributing to the awareness of VolunTourism.

‘World events definitely add to the general knowledge of volunteer travel,’ Santos, of Cross Cultural Solutions, said. ‘People are looking for programs that allow them to really see what it is like to live and work in the local culture of another city or country.

‘As a tourist, you don’t get to see why a community has certain challenges and how it deals with its conditions.’

Many volunteer trips offer activities each week to provide travelers with a learning experience. Santos said travelers not only see a different culture from the perspective of locals but also from the international view of fellow volunteers.

‘You may have a doctor come to talk about the medical practices in his country, a South African talk about the impact of apartheid, or you could go through a Mayan ritual wedding ceremony,’ Santos said.
Maurer said her ISV group discussed environmental issues at the end of each day and learned about initiatives to preserve and restore endangered parts of the Earth.’

The volunteer programs are popular among all ages, but there is a strong interest in 18- to 26-year-olds who use the trip for college credit, as a resume builder or simply as a unique vacation.

‘The student age group has had service as a part of their lives since they were very young,’ David Clemmons, founder of, said. ‘This generation has been saturated with service, so it seems natural that they would like to be giving back to other communities.’

However, Clemmons added that there is no one demographic leading the volunteer tourism market.
‘People are looking for a travel experience that is not just something they will remember but something that will transform their life. I don’t think they could find that if they just went to Cancun for a week,’ he said.

Clemmons thinks many corporations will begin using VolunTourism to attract young people to their employee base.

‘Companies see VolunTourism as an alternative to the ritzy employee trips and a way to make new workers feel part of a team,’ he said.

Some volunteer tourism companies offer intern abroad programs that give students academic credit, and even universities are following the trend by offering credit through special courses.

Clemmons said he will lead a team from San Diego State University to Guatemala for 10 days in January. The University of San Diego and University of Wisconsin offer similar courses incorporating service trips.

Students from a number of universities, including Boston University, have received academic credit for their participation in ISV via independent study or a course designed for the program. Maurer said she did not receive credit for her trip, however.

‘Some college departments offer generic courses designed to partner with various volunteer or service-based learning experiences,’ Kim Vera Dambkowski, information coordinator for ISV, said. ‘An ISV program would be able to partner with many such courses.’

With so many different volunteer trips to choose from, travelers may have a difficult time deciding which organization will fulfill their expectations. But many programs make an effort to prove the credibility of their trips.

Dambkowski said ISV publishes the measures they take to ensure the safety and satisfaction of their travelers, such as site inspections and training sessions with the host organization.

In response to consumer demands, hotels are taking advantage of the growing interest in volunteer tourism by creating special packages for service participants. The Sheraton Kauai Resort offers tourists a chance to volunteer with local organizations in Hawaii.

‘The package allows tourists to participate in beach cleanups, marine debris removal from reefs and in the preservation of tropical plants,’ Sara Bill, a sales reporting systems analyst for Sheratin Kauai, said.
Students who are interested in VolunTourism shouldn’t jump into planning a trip until they do their research.

‘It is important for students to honor where they are financially and make sure it’s something they can really afford to do,’ Clemmons said. ‘They shouldn’t put down a great deal of money before knowing that this type of volunteering is really for them.’

Maurer said her decision to take the trip with ISV was the best choice she has ever made. She still stays in touch with almost all of the other students from her travel group.

‘It was amazing how close we all became. I met some of the smartest, most adventurous people,’ she said. ‘The program is very well-organized, and I have also heard great things about the trips they offer to countries other than New Zealand.’

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