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Another type of working holiday

Vancouver-based helps get volunteers to where they want to go



In a world where global travel has never been more accessible, travellers are searching for the unique experience. For some it means straying further and further from the beaten path in the unheard corners of the world, for others it now means holidaying closer to home and experiencing elements of their native lands previously unknown.

Many people travel to find fulfillment of some sort, whether it is learning a new language, broadening ones cultural repertoire or simply checking off the boxes in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Everyone is looking for something different.

One of the fiercely growing sectors of global travel industry is that of volunteer tourism. A holiday where instead of indulging yourself with tourist sites and beach getaways, you travel to developing nations, live in communities that are in need of assistance and offer your services to that community. The term "Voluntourism" has been coined in recent years as a collective term for any holiday involving the traveller devoting their time to a volunteer project. Ontario native and now B.C. resident Aaron Smith spent many years in the travel industry, having previously filled the role VP of Marketing for Flight Centre North America and spending time in various wilderness tourism operations such as heli ski and fishing lodges. But being the idealistic traveller that he is, his passion revolved more about how he could give back during his global adventures, and help others do the same. With hundreds of voluntourism organizations on the Internet, Aaron took it upon himself to run his new venture with absolute transparency while maintaining the convenience and accessibility that prospective volunteers are looking for. was launched on September 6, 2011.

What makes different from the plethora of voluntourism sites?

"Firstly, we don't charge non-profits to list their programs on our site," said Smith.

"The second thing is our seven search filters that you can access right on the home page. That allows the would-be volunteer to refine projects that are tailored to them. That drills down as far as their fitness level, their age range, budget and even their faith."

There have been ethical concerns about the benefits of volunteer travel with some groups suggesting that it can contribute more harm than good. Part of this harm happens when volunteers discover their project is far different than what they signed up for and drop out. Smith said this can be avoided by recruiting the right volunteer for the right project.

"I was in a situation in Costa Rica where there were some twenty year olds that I don't think understood what they had got themselves into," said Smith.

"There was a lot of digging and we had blisters on our hands (because) we were building a house. They didn't show up on the second or third day so that work just didn't get done, because their expectations weren't met." By providing a wide variety of projects under the seven criteria of destination, program type, program duration, cost, ideal age, fitness level and religious affiliation, Smith intends to stem the number of disappointed volunteers and make sure they are coming home with the fulfillment they were looking for.

What are voluntourists looking for? According to a 2010 research analyst program at Georgian College titled Give a Little, Gain a Lot, almost 70 per cent of volunteers prefer environmental conservation projects, the next most popular categories are Community Tourism Projects, Community Development and Wildlife. The typical volunteer traveller is between 20 and 39 years old, has a university degree and is looking for an affordable volunteer holiday. What some may find interesting is that a clear majority of volunteers are women.'s users were 68 per cent female and only 30 per cent male, a statistic that Smith described as "staggering." "I had assumed that women would be majority users, but I didn't think the result would be quite that high," said Smith.

One can only speculate why there is such polarity between the genders in the voluntourism world, but the words "compassionate" and "maternalistic" come to mind. While the benefits of volunteer work have a definitive impact on poor communities around the world, so does the associated tourism from those volunteers. Most of these travelling volunteers intend to spend several weeks in the destination country, meaning when they are not helping communities directly they are stimulating the country's economy with tourism dollars. National tourist offices have begun to take note and are starting to offer voluntourism programs through their own websites.

Commercial organizations have also begun to compete with not for profit organizations.

"If nothing else, you have to be completely transparent," said Smith. "We're never going to be a massively profitable business, that's not why we are doing this at all."