Voluntourism—that is, building a vacation around volunteering—has become one of the hottest types of travel in recent years. It’s particularly popular among families. To investigate this trend, I recently sat down with Aaron Smith, founder and CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based GoVoluntouring.com. Smith’s company, which celebrates its 1-year anniversary Sept. 6, sells immersive volunteer experiences all over the world. Here’s what Smith said about his company, his niche, and what makes voluntourism so appealing.
Q. What type of people or families are interested in this kind of travel?
A. Our customer base is about 78 percent female. The majority of them are over 35. And a good number of them want to travel with families. When we get families, they are multi-child families. We’ve learned through surveys and such that many of these families previously had done a resort. We ask our customers why they book with us, and we get an awful lot of, ‘I want to show my teenager that there’s more out there than shopping malls and video games.’
Q. Why is voluntouring so popular among for families?
A. I think this kind of vacation gives parents a sense of being good role models. During these types of experiences, you live and breathe other cultures, and you see this is how the rest of the world lives. Parents can rest well that they’re giving children memories they’ll never going to forget. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in many cases, these experiences ultimately help shape who these kids are.
Q. Which particular trips resonate with families?
A. The most popular trips among families definitely are our sea turtle projects [for more, click here]. They’re sun, surf and sand holidays. They happen on beaches in warm climates, in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica. Most of the trips put people to work at hatcheries. Kids love animals and these entire trips are based around baby turtles. [Other popular trips revolve around whale-watching, helping kids and community service.]
Q. What are good ages for children to engage in voluntourism?
A. Ages 7 or 8 are probably best. Something like age 3 is too young. It totally depends on the activities and maturity and attention span of the child. If we’re looking at sea turtle projects, time demands per day are only about 2 or 3 hours. Other trips are more involved. You want to make sure you get a good sense of per-day time commitment before you book.
Q. How many of your trips are family-friendly? What do they cost?
A. At last check, we had 2,850 trips in 98 countries. Five to 10 percent are family-friendly. The average price per person is about $1,000 per week. That includes meals, accommodations, shuttle transport and a donation to the host project. The biggest expense for families is usually transport to the project site. We don’t cover that.
Q. On a personal note, how did you get into this niche?
A. The catalyst was a trip that I took to East Africa. It was a microfinance mission. We were working with women on the ground in various towns. It was a truly soul-satisfying experience. My takeaway was that I had traveled and left a positive impact. That began a series of further exploits and expeditions that got me deeper into that kind of traveling. I took my dad to Costa Rica and we built a house for a few weeks. It was at that stage that I thought, ‘These are great bonding experiences. We’re getting different perspectives on the culture and community because we’ve penetrated it deeper than bus tour.’ We founded GoVoluntouring a few years later.