Volunteer travel involves taking a trip where all or part of the purpose of the trip is to participate in an arranged service opportunity helping others. Typically, the volunteer activity takes place in a foreign country, but some opportunities can involve national or regional projects. These trips are usually arranged by church organizations, human interest groups or nonprofits. A new trend has for-profit tour operators arranging group travel around volunteer opportunities.
Charitable interests often transcend national boundaries. People in developed countries become interested in the struggles of people in lesser developed countries. Sometimes, donating money is not enough to satisfy the need to help. Volunteer travel is a way to combine a visit to a new location with meaningful work that has a direct impact on communities in other parts of the world.
This type of travel has been an option for many years. Historically, church groups made up a large portion of this market. Once a year a religious organization or church would organize a trip to another country. The primary purpose of the trip would be to help build a school in an impoverished area, or dig wells so a village would have clean water, or engage in hundreds of other projects that would impact those less fortunate. The trip combined charitable work with an immersion experience in a foreign country.
As international travel became easier and the Internet made communications between countries more viable, the interest in volunteer travel increased. Nonprofits of all types began organizing these sorts of trips, including youth organizations and national interest groups. Educational institutions also made volunteer travel an option, often through the campus office for community service or as part of the initiative of individual student groups.
The Internet has helped make community service in general more popular, as websites specifically oriented towards recruiting volunteers and matching them to projects sprang up. Volunteering in other countries became as accessible as browsing a website and signing up. Some of the major volunteer organizing websites even hold volunteer recruitment conventions where the topic is volunteering in other countries and volunteer travel.
Although volunteer travel is often performed in groups where the primary purpose of the trip is the charitable project, the growing popularity of volunteerism has prompted a change in the nature of this type of travel. For-profit tour operators have designed vacations with the opportunity to complete a volunteer project in the foreign country as a key component, but not the only component, of the vacation. Instead of traveling with a group that is organized at the volunteer's home base, the volunteer may join a group that gathers at the worksite from all over the world. This sort of volunteer travel is sometimes colloquially referred to as voluntourism or vacanteerism.