elephants playing in water

Responsibly interact with elephants. (Photo: wootthisak nirongboot/Moment)

Tips + Trends

Travel with Purpose: Finding Unique Volunteer Travel Experiences

As a tourist, you can have a major impact on the places you visit. And when you factor giving back into the travel mix, it’s even more important to get it right. Not all volunteer vacations — or voluntourism — have the best interest of those served in mind, and there’s a fine line between doing good and causing damage.

Sure, it’s worthy to want to help, learn about a new culture and have a life-changing experience at the same time. Research has shown that being helpful to others releases dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in our brains, and the brain reacts as if experiencing pleasure. It’s called a “helper’s high.”

It’s just as imperative to make sure volunteer organizations match your values, conduct themselves in an ethical manner and are working with the consent and collaboration of local communities.

The success of sustainable volunteer travel depends upon working alongside communities and being mindful of cultural sensitivities. If you want to give back, show up and do the work. Small gestures can truly add up to become big forces of good in the world.

Not all volunteer vacation opportunities are created equal. Here are five that make a positive impact.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Barbados Sea Turtles Project; Barbados

Between May and November, volunteers can help preserve hawksbill and leatherback turtles with the Barbados Sea Turtles Project. These species have a long history of being hunted for their eggs, meat and shells.

Conservation-minded volunteers can assist in patrolling the beach to protect female turtles from would-be poachers, scanning the sand for turtles emerging from the ocean or for tracks leading to nests, collecting eggs for incubation, and helping hatchlings make their way to the ocean. It’s magical to partake in this circle of marine wildlife.

Catalina Island Conservancy; Catalina Island, California

aerial view of catalina island
Help keep Catalina Island pristine. (Photo: Getty Images)

Located just 22 miles, or a one-hour ferry ride, off the Southern California coast, Catalina Island feels much farther away. Every second Saturday of the month, volunteers can help the Catalina Island Conservancy protect the island in its natural state with a beach cleanup (weather permitting).

Comb the windswept beaches of Shark Harbor, Little Harbor, Cottonwood Beach or Ben Weston Beach in search of debris while soaking up the beauty of idyllic, remote coves. Once you are on the island, it’s an easy walk to the Conservancy House in Avalon, where transportation to clean-up sites is provided for volunteers.

The Little Yellow School House (LYSH); Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Located on Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun, the Little Yellow School House (or Centro de Apoyo Psicopedagogico) is the only school on the island dedicated to serving the educational needs of kids with special needs and disabilities. The school is supported by donations and attendance is free.

While classes are in session, volunteers can email the school for a list of any current needs and deliver donations in person or help out with general maintenance projects like repairing fences and adding onto the playground.

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary; Phuket, Thailand

Where do overworked elephants in Thailand who’ve survived the circus, logging or tourist-riding industry go to retire in peace? To the 30 lush jungle acres of Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Here, elephants can live their best lives — bathing, roaming and socializing freely.

Volunteers help with food preparation, cutting banana trees, cleaning the sanctuary and other maintenance work, as well as simply enjoy being in close proximity to these majestic creatures. Volunteers can contribute for as little as three days (private accommodations are provided). For pre- or post-volunteer adventures, unwind on the secluded white sandy stretch of Tri-Trang Beach at Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach.

Mountain View Eco Farm; Nepal

cooking chapati in nepal
Learn a medley of skills in Nepal. (Photo: Luis Dafos/Moment)

Get a taste of Nepalese family and farm life with gracious hosts, Govinda and Chetana, with a homestay at Mountain View Eco Farm.

Kick off your travels from the boutique Aloft Kathmandu Thamel, and then stay at the farm for as little as a few days and get hands-on experience planting seeds, harvesting cumin, chopping down bamboo trees and learning how to make Nepalese dishes, like dal bhat and chapati. The organic farm near Pokhara is an idyllic refuge and excellent example of sustainable living.