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August 2013 travel news 19
by Anthea Rowan
It’s a big word. A portmanteau borne of two others: volunteering
and tourism. If you’re after a formal definition (and there is
one as the word joins the ranks of other newbies, like Google
another portmanteau, go-ogle - and makes its debut in our
modern day lingo-dictionaries), it means ‘the practice of
individuals going on a working holiday, volunteering their labour
for worthy causes' such as 'aiding or alleviating the material
poverty of some groups in society; the restoration of certain
specific environments or research into aspects of society or
environment, for various reasons, in an organised way alongside
Despite its recent regular banding-about, the practice is an old
one: the seeds of modern day VolunTourism were planted in the
1960s with the Peace Corps. From its inception, the Peace Corps'
philosophy was that volunteers could - and should - serve their
country by living and working in developing countries, providing
aid, and assisting in the peace process by interacting with local
cultures. Since then we’ve been able to add to the experience in
our Search for the Self via Meaningful Travel and the importance
of our individual Social Responsibility, an industry buzzword
that adorns the web pages of travel operators everywhere.
Gap year students go voluntouring (or drink too much of the
local brew and smoke ganja under the guise of volunteering);
burned-out businessmen Find Themselves in exotic destinations
wearing hair shirts; and even the most high-end holiday
packages include a volunteering element in a bid to assuage
the guilt that might come with spending more per day on holiday
than small rural communities in developing countries do in a
year. It’s about Doing Your Bit.
But it’s how the Bit is Done that’s key. Paying lip service, whilst
paying a fortune, to a volunteering effort doesn’t count. It only
counts when the operator is kosher and sustainable, and when
your efforts are vigorously exploited.
So when my youngest, Hattie, came home from school waving
an officious looking form that demanded she involve herself in
some work experience during the holidays, I was loathe to pack
her off somewhere where she might float about being so bored
she'd spend her day sending Snapchat messages to peers
similarly bored while they helped out in Daddy’s office.
A quick look at Watamu Turtle Watch’s TripAdvisor page (where
33 visitors reviewed it as ‘excellent’ and the single ‘terrible’ review
came from a disgruntled visitor who never actually got onto the
premises as on one occasion they visited on a Sunday and the
next over a bank holiday?!), and I figured I’d found the immersion
she needed. ‘And since you want to do journalism after school,
you can keep a diary and write it up', I told her.
Hattie is a water baby and has spent much of her childhood
beach-bound, so there was a natural leaning towards all things
sea orientated. I persuaded Rachel, who runs LOT and the
turtles, that Hattie would not drink or smoke dope – one of the
reasons Rachel is reluctant to take under 18’s (‘and even they
can prove challenging’, she confided). Hattie’s week surpassed
all expectations and her total immersion in, and involvement
with, the program staggered and delighted me. Her days were
long and demanding, from 9 am to often almost 7 pm. No shilly-
shallying, no time to lurk as teens are prone in front of Facebook.
There was both direction and autonomy.
I considered afterwards that our choice of LOT was a good one
for two reasons. LOT is an old organisation. It has gravitas,
credibility and – most importantly – it has grown and sustained.
It is as old as Hattie is, but has its roots in a local Watamu
resident who personally financed the gentle monitoring of the
beach’s turtles back in the seventies.
Its success and survival depends on an amalgam of factors:
sound funding – which further demonstrates its serious standing
from Disney, AFEW and the Tusk Trust; strong community
relationships - LOT has striven to develop deep and enduring
relationships with local communities and in particular the
fishermen who are key to the success or not of the program
(Relationship building is an arduous and slow process. That
they can persuade the fishermen to part with a turtle for 500
bob when he might sell it on the black market for 45,000/- is an
astounding testimony to their efforts); and the commitment of
both local and expatriate staff.
Rachel, who runs the show, is a zoologist with compassion for the
natural world; she exhibits the necessary empathy underscored
by imperative scientific know-how. It feels like a happy team,
everybody appears engaged and engaging. HQ is relaxed and
cheerful, which belies the steely, tidy determination that clearly
drives this organisation.
As voluntourism grows in popularity, however, there are
increasing reports of dissatisfaction of the experience and
What is Voluntourism?
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