Tuesday, April 3, 2007


Mike Wood spent his vacation in rural Honduras, visiting Mayan ruins but mostly building latrines and pigpens.

That isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a glorious week in the sun. But it was thoroughly enjoyable for the assistant high school principal — and he apparently has growing company.

“It’s fun to see how 80 [percent] or 90 percent of the people live in this world and try to help them out,” said the Deer Isle, Maine, resident, who was on a trip organized by Sustainable Harvest International.

More Americans are starting to feel the same way about vacations with a charitable or humanitarian purpose, where they can build housing or schools, collect field data or work at a refugee camp, orphanage or archaeological dig.

Surveys conducted recently by CheapTickets.com, Travelocity and the Travel Industry Association of America confirm that consumers are becoming more interested in vacations with a volunteerism aspect, also known as “voluntourism.”

Opportunities that once existed largely with nonprofit activist groups are being adopted by travel agencies and tour operators, too. Sally Brown, who heads the Indianapolis nonprofit Ambassadors for Children, said the number of travel organizations that offer voluntourism trips has probably doubled in the past three years.

Like the 55-year-old Mr. Wood, many of the vacation volunteers are baby boomers who have the money to spend and the time to donate as they edge closer to retirement. But with inspiration coming from a variety of sources — be it the September 11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina or simply more disposable income — participants range from teenagers to retirees.

Voluntourism is catching on at college campuses, where many students would rather spend spring break doing something altruistic than carousing.

They don’t always have to rough it, either. Ambassadors for Children even offers a “light” mission in which travelers stay at a four-star hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and spend three of the eight days visiting an orphanage, library and preschool. That may appeal to a family group wishing to make a cultural connection, Miss Brown said, or just those wanting to mix purpose with pleasure.

“Immersion with voluntourism is so much more than you could get by sitting on a beach or on a tour bus,” said Miss Brown, a one-time flight attendant who founded the organization in 1998.

Mr. Wood, who also is a history teacher, didn’t spend much time seeing historic sites on his February trip with Sustainable Harvest International. Founded by former Peace Corps volunteer Florence Reed, the organization addresses the tropical-deforestation problem by providing farmers with sustainable alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture.

He and his group spent a week in a village without electricity, running water or cell phone reception, sleeping in dormitories or with families.

Arising at 6 every morning to a breakfast of beans and tortillas, they spent the days digging holes, pouring cement and cutting wood.

The composting latrines they built fit with the group’s focus on sustainable agriculture, because the waste can be a rich source of nutrients for family crops and trees. The experience also left Mr. Wood with a sense of personal satisfaction from all his hard work.

“It’s fun, and it gets something done,” he said. “You can stand back and say, ‘I built two latrines.’ Or, if you want to look at it more existentially — ‘I’ve helped people not pollute their land. I’ve helped people produce compost or make it so they can burn and cook without cutting down their forests.’ ”

It cost him $1,000 for the 12 days, not including air fare. That paid for lodging, food, transportation, tools and “peace of mind,” he said.

“It’s hard work, but there’s nothing to worry about,” Mr. Wood said. “No one can get ahold of you, so you’re not worrying about the stock market or worrying about family too much. There’s no communication, so it’s a very nice break from the pressures of the job.”

Dr. Peggy Fuller, a dermatologist, went to Sri Lanka to build houses in 2005 after seeing the magnitude of the tsunami devastation. Taking a sabbatical from her successful practice in Charlotte, N.C., she spent several weeks making and hauling cinder blocks, carting dirt, carrying water and sweeping.

“I probably wasn’t much help at all,” said Dr. Fuller, 47. “I wasn’t there very long. But to see the people’s faces — they were so happy we were helping them. That’s something you don’t forget.”

Accountant John Witkowski used to take his wife and four children on vacation to national parks or the Caribbean or Mexico. Now the children are grown, and they instead go on what is becoming an annual trip to an orphanage in Guatemala, where they and other church members stay in sex-separated quarters at the facility run by nuns in Guatemala City.

“This is more draining mentally, but it’s much more rewarding,” said Mr. Witkowski, 54, of Colts Neck, N.J.

Their task while there, he said, is to “love the kids” and do maintenance projects while they’re in school. Despite the language barrier, he thinks he connects with the children through play, joking around and showering them with attention and affection.

“I was overwhelmed that there’s so much to do and so little time and can you effectuate change. But there’s so much to do, you just can’t give up,” he said.

Alyssa Stahl, 37, a bank vice president in Chicago, went to West Virginia with Global Volunteers to help build houses in Appalachia last October after finding the group in an Internet search for groups that do volunteer vacations. She did a lot of spackling and painting and served as a mentor to disadvantaged youths.

She’s already planning another trip soon to a American Indian reservation in Montana, where she will do tutoring, light construction or cleanup projects.

“You feel that you’re helping people, and you’re also getting to learn about a different culture, whether it’s West Virginia or Tanzania,” she said.

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