Rising numbers of ''voluntourists'' seek more from a vacation than seeing the sights. Mark Russell reports.
FORGET sipping cocktails by the hotel pool: holidaymakers are increasingly likely to combine adventure with altruism on ''voluntours'', where they visit impoverished communities to build bridges, or trek to remote parts of the world to help scientists with environmental projects.
Voluntourism is booming, as tourists with a conscience donate their holiday time to digging wells, building schools or teaching at orphanages.
Conservation Volunteers Australia says voluntourism is one of its fastest growing sectors. About 10,000 Australians join its programs each year.
''For people who enjoy connecting with nature and holidays with a difference, a champagne sunset dinner before heading out to assist with turtle research, or booking out your own private island and assisting a park ranger with penguin monitoring … is an attractive honeymoon or travel experience,'' company spokeswoman Joanne Davies said.
Critics call voluntours ''overpriced guilt trips'' with projects that come at the expense of local jobs, or which the community neither needs nor wants.
''I cannot emphasise enough just how important it is for volunteer trips to be based on a real, genuine local need and work in partnership with local people,'' responsibletravel.com's Krissy Roe said. ''Projects that have been dreamed up by a marketing department and have not been requested by the local community can do more harm than good.''
With hundreds of projects on offer, she said volunteers needed to take the time to research the options and ensure that the company offered ''responsible'' volunteering opportunities.
''The company should be transparent and open if you ask how much of your money actually goes to the program and how much is taken as profit by the organisation.''
World Expeditions' Karena Noble said most companies tried to do the right thing.
''Basically, it's a lovely feeling to be a volunteer on one of these trips,'' she said. ''One of the things that appeals to people is they get to interact with the local community.
''Often when you're travelling it's hard to get a sense of connection with the people in the country you're visiting. On these trips, we make sure we're working with the locals on a small-scale project that they can complete in the time they're on holiday.
''You're building a bridge, renovating a school … a project that will have real benefit to a community.''
Since setting up its not-for-profit community project travel program in 2005, World Expeditions has completed 34 humanitarian and conservation projects in Australia, Nepal, Peru, Vietnam, India, Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia and Laos.
Sarah Low, from Biosphere Expeditions Australia, said about 80 per cent of those signing up for the company's environmental projects were single and 20 per cent couples. ''They are often well-educated, well-travelled people who are looking for a very different experience,'' she said. ''They really don't want to do the package holiday. They want to go to a destination that's unusual and they don't want to be there as tourists. They want to be useful.''
Rasha Skybey, 27, has taken part in three Biosphere Expeditions Australia projects in the past two years. In Oman she helped scientists study Arabian leopards, in Namibia she assisted with research into hyenas and in Broome she joined a study of Australian flatback turtles.
Bored with life as a paralegal, Ms Skybey said voluntourism was a way of getting out of her comfort zone.
''I've done the Contiki thing and while that was fun this is different,'' she said. ''The places you go to are extraordinary and you feel like you're doing something worthwhile.''
But it's not just holidaymakers who combine adventure with altruism. A spin-off industry is ''honeyteering'', in which newlyweds combine romance with road-building or revegetation.
Hands Up Holidays' Christopher Hill said couples wanted to start marriage on a firm footing by doing something meaningful together.