Until I did my first volunteer work with 19 years of age, I had been a usual package tourist, following my parents to the nicest places on earth, staying in three- to five-star all inclusive hotels in some of the poorest countries and occasionally leaving the hotel borders for an organized day-trip.

Since then, I have categorized myself as a backpacker and volunteer, and subsequently as an eco-tourist (because I was not a conventional mass tourist any more).
Over the past eight years, I have volunteered at sea turtle projects, forest reserves and an organic farm. As I moved up the sea turtle “career ladder”, I started coordinating volunteers. Then I dealt with volunteer and ecotourism issues academically, and I suddenly started to feel guilty to have proudly presented myself as one of the “good tourists” in the past, as I was confronted with a lot of unexpected criticism.

myself, of course, and I knew that ecotourism was still worse than no tourism at all – in most cases. I saw what it did to countries, landscapes and societies, who all “prostituted themselves” for the ecotourism industry, who let foreigners have a deep insight into their everyday lives and culture, let them get as deep in the jungle as possible, where “so few people ever had been before”, to let them see one of the last hundred remnant tigers, let them believe to be especially fortunate, welcomed, considerate and good to the world.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia  Pool in Tunis  Somewhere in Yucatan, Mexico  Snorkelling in Malaysia

Below are just some quotes I like very much and which, in my opinion, have a germ of truth. They made me think. More critically.

By definition, ecotourism often involves seeking out the most pristine, uncharted, and unpenetrated areas on earth. […] In some areas, ecotourism is the front line of foreign encroachment and can accelerate the pace of social and environmental degradation and lead to a new form of Western penetration and domination of the last remaining “untouched” parts of the world.

Honey 1999: Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: who owns paradise?

In their rush to escape the mass tourist, the so-called aware, educated, ‘I’m going ethnic’ individual traveler is forever seeking the new, the exotic, the unspoilt – the vulnerable. Inevitably, however, they are inexorably paving the way for the package tour.

Perhaps all the energies that have been channelled into refining this new ‘good tourism’ might have been better spent actually addressing the real problem of mass tourism – the massive volume and, globally, the growing absolute number of tourists.

Wheeller 1991: Tourism’s troubled times

Tourism is being recast as an arena for moral proscription and critical self-awareness. […] this version of tourism is not a progressive development, as its advocates claim. Rather, it is a recipe for wariness and personal guilt in an arena traditionally associated with innocence, fun and a footloose and fancy free attitude

Butcher 2003: The moralisation of tourism. Sun, sand… and saving the world?

[…] that tourists’ ‘selfless’ contributions to local communities and environments are actually self-serving attempts to build their own cultural capital. All of these critiques amount to an indictment of ecotourism as the commodification of people and places for the aesthetic consumption of self-indulgent tourists. […] the volunteer ecotourist seeks to build identity through consumption; her desire for authentic interaction with other
cultures (and natures), however sincere, is obscured by the commodification of the interaction.

Gray & Campbell 2007: A Decommodified Experience? Exploring Aesthetic, Economic and Ethical Values for Volunteer Ecotourism in Costa Rica.

in Laos    in Indonesia    in Ecuador    The first time I saw a baby pig

to the worldwide tourism “problem” and lies at the risk to cause even more problems instead. Nevertheless, I continue to be and categorize myself as an eco-tourist. Why? Simply because I like it much more than conventional holidays.
Would you, as a conventional tourist, ever float down a river in the Ecuadorian jungle with a tire that you carried up a road and then down a forest path, being concerned about Anacondas and penis-fishes while trying to manage the rapids?
Would you, as a conventional tourist, ever sit in a small boat in the middle of the night, trying to get to a secluded beach without using any lights to not attract dangerous fish, letting yourself guide by the moonlight, holding a box of sea turtle hatchlings between your legs and getting ready to jump into the water anytime you need to?

Maybe by doing these things, I “pave the way for the package tour”. But should I just not do it and stay at home because there is a chance that I might act as a pioneer for careless, trouble-causing and polluting mass-tourists? Or should I just be a mass tourist myself and enjoy one square of sand and five squares of ocean water amidst sun-burnt parents, screaming kids and drunk youngsters, a five-storey hotel complex and six planted palm trees at the beachfront?

between egoistic and altruistic motives for volunteering. Yes, I am a rather egoistic volunteer. I don’t go to work in my holidays (and pay for it!) because I know that it needs to be done. I do this primarily because I enjoy it so much. Volunteering gives me this special tourism experience while I also feel good to be committed to something. People commit themselves to books, music instruments, cars, vegan lifestyles, other people and so on. I commit myself to sea turtles. I also do work I don’t like because it is part of my commitment and yes, it needs to be done. But the whole great volunteer experience gives me so much joy and pleasure.
You meet the craziest, most awesome and interesting people in these projects and you see so many diverse places which are something in between spoilt and unspoilt, highly degraded and pristine, over-run and lonely. By working in an environment which is in need for your help and support, you become aware of things like “climate change”, “global change”, “biodiversity degradation”, “globalization”, “social disparity” and “tourism”. You see the results of these processes first-hand, on a small-scale level, beneath your feet and all around you. You become aware that you also contribute to environmental pollution, development and socio-cultural change, just by coming here and staying. But you enjoy yourself, you develop personally (yes, it is true!), learn some useful and useless skills, become at least aware of all this and might get ideas of how to contribute to a better future, and you give money to the projects. So why not?

saltpan in Cape Verde   secluded turtle beach in Malaysia   Mentawak beach   Volcano-feeling in Indonesia

that you actually need to pay for volunteering. And that the costs for volunteering are in many cases higher than if you were to stay in a budget chalet and did a nice lazy holiday fun trip.
Yes it is true. Volunteering is expensive. This is why mostly young academic Westerners do it: either because they have wealthy parents and a lot of savings (as in my case) or because it is a “once-in-a-lifetime-thing”. I’d be a few thousand Euros richer if I had never volunteered, for sure.
But you don’t pay for a certain standard, for luxury, extra fun activities or special treatment. What many people do not realize is that most of your money serves as donation for the project. Without the regular volunteer payments, many projects could financially not survive. This is especially true for non-governmental, non-sponsored, small and privately-run projects. Those have few or no other sources of revenues. So even if you are not as seriously involved in the hands-on work as expected but rather enjoy yourself with snorkel trips and fellow volunteers, you helped the project (in fact, many projects do need your money more than your hands-on support; they thus accumulate volunteers and you might end up doing senseless work duties with twenty or more fellows, just to keep you entertained and busy). But if your hands are really needed, it feels even better.

To end this, here are

  • For a first experience, limit your volunteer program to a few weeks duration.
    I have seen a lot of people who found out that volunteering is not their thing. Good if the end is near then. Most of the volunteer programs have a two weeks-minimum stay. That gives you the opportunity to travel around the country afterwards. Do not take a months-long internship position as a first-time travelling experience abroad!
  • Try to book directly with the projects (on their own websites), not with the bigger volunteering organizations.
    It is much cheaper for you! You don’t get the “personal” support before and after your trip, but this is not needed for such “easy” jobs like sea turtle work. Some projects, however, are only bookable through these organizations.
  • Go alone!
    Really, you will find a lot of friends there. And if not, it will be part of your “special experience”. One time, I spent two weeks with the project coordinator and maximum one other volunteer, and it was great. I had the whole beach to myself, and a lot of time to think and enjoy. The other times, I met so many funny and entertaining people. Usually, the contact with them stops soon after everyone has gone back home, but that is nothing bad at all. Those people are like the best temporary friends you can imagine.
  • The next time, apply to become an intern.
    Internship positions are available at many project as well, you pay less but have to stay for longer, do more work and take more responsibility. Make sure you have volunteered at a similar project or in a similar environment before.