Holidays with shared goals

Australians are willing voluntourists, so it pays to know what to look for in a project, writes Steve Dow.

Tens of thousands of Australians are becoming volunteer tourists, labouring locally and globally from a few days to two years - but how to tell the good operators from the shonks?

Avoid companies offering half- or one-day community work on an overseas holiday, advises Stephen Wearing, a voluntourism specialist at the University of Technology, Sydney.

This year, the International Ecotourism Society's experts, including Wearing, will issue best-practice guidelines for voluntourism. If a project looks good, ask whether its viability and sustainability have been evaluated: living for just a few days among orphans, for instance, could distress them when you leave. Wearing also advises voluntourists to rigorously ask where their money goes.

The non-profit Conservation Volunteers Australia offers reputable, short domestic tours. From $40 for a weekend or $208 for five days, covering meals and accommodation, you can help restore Victoria's Great Ocean Road walking tracks or survey Grampians wildlife, or help restore tracks in the NSW Blue Mountains.

For-profit company World Expeditions initiates projects based on an "outpour of need" seen by the tour operator's guides while visiting remote villages in Nepal, Tanzania, Kenya and Peru to fix crumbling buildings or install clean water.

Volunteers require no skills to take part but must commit to between three and five days of solid work during their holiday, the chief executive of World Expeditions, Sue Badyari, says. If a trip costs $2000, $400 to $500 goes directly to buying and transporting materials and the rest funds the travel, she says.

World Expeditions also has a project helping the Dhimurru people in the Northern Territory's Arnhem Land remove potentially lethal fishing nets. "We're very particular about making sure we've done a full assessment of the work that's required," Badyari says.

The independent Australian arm of the global non-profit Habitat for Humanity network sends 500 Australians annually to Cambodia, Vietnam or Nepal to work on building projects for between five and 14 days, each traveller contributing $1350 to $5000 raised from families and friends, depending on the project's size. Habitat volunteers provide labour but also contribute to training community leaders to "take control of their destiny", says the CEO, Jo Brennan, who advises those considering voluntourism to ask: will a measurable community benefit be left behind?

In December, broadcaster and Habitat ambassador Angela Catterns turned brickie in Cambodia's sultry heat. While there she met Njor, who had been living in a slum above an open drain, having been left to raise three children without an income after her husband infected her with HIV and abandoned her.

Catterns returned to Cambodia recently and visited Njor, who now has a new, clean brick home with a concrete floor and is earning money by sewing sequins while teaching other women to sew. "She's got the broadest grin you can imagine," Catterns says of Njor.

For those craving a longer stint, Australian Volunteers International sends more than 400 Australians a year on international assignments, including the AusAID program, mostly for 18 months to two years in Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. AVI pays allowances and airfares but you'll need skills in health, finance, community development, agriculture or similar fields.

The 55-plus volunteer age bracket is growing, too. "We find people don't retire like they used to," says AVI marketing manager Christine Crosby, adding that it is a welcome development given poor communities often value age and experience.