Just visiting and spending money isn’t enough for some SMERF groups.
The growing trend of volunteering on trips can take groups from Florida to Hawaii and Africa to Asia.
A 2008 study from the University of California, San Diego showed some 40 percent of Americans are willing to spend vacation time volunteering. Just where and how long folks want to donate lines up with age and ability. Teens and retirees, for instance, appear willing to stay longer. But Baby Boomers likely would choose to stay in North America compared to jet-setting Generation Y, which would prefer travelling overseas.
“More and more people in all stages of life are thinking of becoming ‘voluntourists’,” Bob Benson, former director of study sponsor the Center for Global Volunteer service, says in a UCSD news release. “People are looking to spend their vacations and retirement in meaningful ways that make contributions to others.”
Levels of activity range from building homes to passing out water bottles to other tourists.
David Treybig’s group travelled across the Florida peninsula in September for its annual convention. Treybig is pastor at Tampa-area United Church of God. He also handles event planning for an association of churches that meets yearly in the Southeast U.S.
“One of the things we typically do when we go into a community is we select a charity or nonprofit organization and we try to help out,” Treybig said.
This year, the “Feast of Tabernacles” in Daytona Beach chose the Council on Aging and a local domestic abuse prevention group. That often comes with the assistance of tourism officials.
While some of the 2,500 church members gathered on the Sunshine State’s east coast visited the sites, Treybig said, most festival attendees gave money. Each organization received more than $3,000.
Active volunteer opportunities arise in the convention, during which churchgoers help fellow attendees. Special care is given in the way of assisting handicapped members with getting around, and providing childcare for single mothers.
Other groups took a longer haul this year.
Hawaii may seem like a real splurge. But with a still slumping economy, now could be the time to consider visiting the Aloha State.
During the summer, the Association of Science-Technology Centers met in Honolulu. Several of the educators made the trip over to the Big Island, home of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where they joined eco-tourism outfitter Hawaii Forest & Trail.
The science enthusiasts put in a little sweat weeding invasive species from a patch of native Hawaiian plants.
“We certainly look at every organization and every proposal that comes in to give them the best offer that we can,” said Chris Colvin, director of sales and marketing for tour guide Hawaii Forest & Trail.
Even some meeting venues are facilitating voluntourism for groups. The Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, Florida has designed a wide variety of group “voluntour” programs and opportunities, such as Build-a-Bike, Home Makeover and Beach Clean-Up. Through programs like these, both meeting planners and attendees gain a richer experience of the destination.
Iris Kuo, a Texas-based journalist who covered travel for The Wall Street Journal Asia, has covered voluntourism. Many she interviewed were disappointed in their experiences because they didn’t feel needed.
But that can be prevented, she said, with research.
“Sometimes people go in thinking they will save a village, so to speak, in just a week of work. Set reasonable expectations,” Kuo said. “Find a project where the organizers say they really need a burst of manpower and doesn’t require them to put in a lot of man-hours to train workers. “Say, 50 people digging a ditch or preparing a meal.”
David Clemmons is founder of VolunTourism.org and publisher/editor of “The VolunTourist” newsletter. He recently re-examined the trend in his publisher’s letter. In it, he re-defined the term voluntourism.
“It is an opportunity to exercise our cooperative mojo, to mature beyond a competitive, non-integral view of our humanity and to embrace the harmony that exists amongst and between. This is not to imply that we will form a clone-like homogeneity of travel experiences, but we will be well-suited to apply strategic thought and scientific process in evolving the intersection of voluntary service and travel & tourism.”