Almost exactly two years ago, I left Heathrow Airport on a eleven-hour flight for the tropical paradise that is Costa Rica. This was to be the first leg of my ‘gap year’ abroad, volunteering at a Sea-Turtle conservation project on Gandoca beach, situated right next to the Panama border on the Caribbean coast.
Like so many other gap year-travellers, my travelling companion and I had been drawn to a volunteering project through our desire to ‘make a difference’. The destination, I will admit, was chosen solely due to the jaw-dropping beaches and Caribbean climate. We booked our turtle adventure through a company called RealGap, who work with an organisation called Widecast on their sea turtle projects. During the time prior to our departure, RealGap were incredibly helpful and reassuring, making sure every detail was planned, from insurance policies to organising a lift for us from San Jose airport when we arrived. It is safe to say that our hopes were high as we checked into our hostel in the capital before setting off for Gandoca beach the next day.
However, the fact that after six hours on a coach, driving into veritable wilderness and being instructed to take a taxi ride down the remaining dirt track to the actual conservation centre, in a village which seemed to contain an unnervingly small amount of buildings, let alone taxis, had rendered us a tad sceptical. In the end, we were driven the last few miles to Gandoca by a not altogether trustworthy man in a pick-up truck, our backpacks slung casually into the back. Then, once we had finally located the centre with help from a plethora of locals, it turned out our arrival was completely unexpected by all staff and we were squeezed into a set of bunk-beds in someone else’s bedroom, before being hastily added to the rota.
Our two week stay in Gandoca did improve from that point, as we became fully immersed in constructing hatcheries for the turtle eggs that we collected during four hour night-patrol sessions up and down the beach. These tasks involved us working with not only a group of like-minded volunteers from all corners of the globe, and international staff members, but also numerous local villagers, all of whom were employed by the project, and did not speak a word of English. It was the fact that Widecast provided an income for these locals and their families that wouldn’t have been possible had we not paid to partake in the project, that somewhat restored our faith in the endeavour. However, once back in the UK, I couldn’t resist conducting some research into the type of work we had done and if it really was as beneficial as claimed.
My initial research led me to some generic ‘Voluntourism’ websites, with a view to ascertaining exactly what the main selling points of this type of travel are. A common theme was the description of the participating of the volunteer as a ‘crucial role in conservation, education and community projects’ . Another website chose the luring tagline ‘a really great way to have a holiday AND actively contribute to the destination you are visiting’. So it appears that, just as I experienced, the attraction of Voluntourism is the idea that you are not only taking from the country you visit in terms of experience and cultural enlightenment, but you are, for want of a better phrase, giving something back. Considered as such, it is an admirable and positive notion that a vast number of young people are being drawn towards charitable projects out of a desire to do something they consider as selfless.
This has certainly been commented upon as a positive side of Voluntourism and travel and a great addition to any CV. An article published online for the Guardian claims that ‘employers were particularly keen to hear about the “soft skills” students pick up when travelling, volunteering and working, because they do not trust universities to teach the arts of communication, teamwork and leadership’. Indeed, I would agree that my two weeks at Gandoca beach taught me vast amounts, most prominently commitment (as I struggled out of bed at midnight to begin grueling night-patrols, and returned from hatchery duty covered in blisters) and communication (whilst using my limited Spanish skills to take direction from and chat to the locals). But this is only evidence that the ‘Voluntourists’ benefit from these projects. What about the communities and other causes they aim to help?
Wikipedia references Voluntourism.org on this issue, claiming that ‘short term volunteer vacations may serve to strengthen the ‘us and them’ dichotomy instead of acting to bring people from different backgrounds together,’ and ‘may help reinforce stereotypes and preconceived ideas’. This could be a problem for more construction based projects, which could potentially be taking labour away from local tradesmen who need it, in order to provide a sense of achievement to travellers from much more privileged countries. This in turn can lead to a lack of support towards the local economy. This sentiment is echoed by another article on the same issue, which claims the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) have accused ‘gap year companies of increasingly catering to the needs of young people, rather than the communities they claim to support’ .
Further research also revealed that we were not the only keen philanthropists to have questioned the organisation of our volunteering endeavor. The same article also claims that it is a growing worry that the number of schemes that are being introduced are ‘ultimately benefitting no-one apart from the travel companies that organise them.’ I also pondered upon whether or not the money I paid to ‘save the turtles’ went back into the project and was used to provide the local’s wages, or if the bulk of it was simply taken as commission by RealGap. With this in mind, I ventured once again onto the RealGap website. According to the price allocation, our money had paid for our stay in the hostel in San Jose, all meals, our airport pick up and quite a lot more.
Provided that at least some of what we paid is purely for the project and the locals, I don’t personally feel that we overpaid for the experience at all. Of course, as my research has highlighted, part of the fee almost definitely was taken as commission by RealGap, and as much as this isn’t ideal, it is certainly true that if charities like Widecast, which are not only, (I definitely believe) hugely successful, but also vital providers of income for local people would not be able to attract anywhere near the amount of volunteers were they not accessible through larger companies such as RealGap. Provided the projects chosen by ‘voluntourists’ are genuinely beneficial to both local communities and those taking part, I would consider Voluntourism as something that should be celebrated.