Eugene Kim

About Eugene Kim

Eugene is an outdoor, travel, and food enthusiast. She has worked in the eastern U.S., Ecuador, and Spain on sustainable ag/food policy and educational initiatives.

Trading Languages for Travel

[Above: Talktalkbnb website image. Photos by Eugene Kim.]

Home Sharing for Language Learners

For about 3 weeks, I talked my way through a unique and affordable travel experience, having access to another culture and language first-hand and truly living like a local. During those three weeks, I got acquainted with the Spanish legal system, Madrid’s hipster lifestyle, and the secret to making the best gazpacho. The experience also confirmed some beliefs about the best ways to save the places we love.

How? Three words (or maybe just one): TalkTalkBnB.

TalkTalkBnB is a free platform (unaffiliated with Airbnb or any other travel site) that allows residents to “learn languages at home while hosting native speakers” and allows travelers “free accommodation worldwide while practicing your language with locals.” I had stumbled upon the site in May, while looking for a change of pace from my living situation in Madrid and saving a bit for upcoming travels.

Talk Your Way Around the World

Hosts and guests mutually agree on length of the stay and conditions such as provision of meals and the frequency and length of conversation practice. So despite the platform being free to use, it’s not quite free accommodation. Your time is the currency that pays for it. In my case, I could offer Spanish speakers some practice in English.

“So it’s couchsurfing, but for language practice,” summarized a friend. Exactly. Having enjoyed the cross-cultural exchanges and friendships made over the years through couchsurfing, I decided to give TalkTalkBnB a try. For me, a huge part of the appeal was in getting to know locals and having a cultural exchange. It would be my final three weeks working in Madrid and a final impression of the city.

My neighbor, the Supreme Court of Spain

A Matching Service

The site works as a directory, listing profiles of people from around the world and giving proactive, independent travelers and language learners the information they need to make arrangements for staying or hosting.  It is up to you, the traveler or host, to not only create your profile, but to search for and reach out to those you’d like to stay with or host. Profiles should have photos, basic information about the host or traveler, languages spoken (along with a self-assessment of proficiency), and travel or hosting details. For the experienced user of the site, one should also have references from others – guests or hosts – met through the site. References, however, were rare. Of all the hosts I contacted, only two had references. Although the site has been around since 2015, it’s still very much under the popular radar.

Part of my TalkTalkBnb profile.

As I searched the profiles of 138 Madrid hosts, I narrowed down my list of prospective hosts to about 11, based on the language they were most interested in learning, background, interests, possible length of stay, and proximity to public transit.

Within a week of reaching out to the 11, I was pleasantly surprised to have two responses. I met with both sets of potential hosts (each a couple who were fairly fluent in English and with whom I felt comfortable). I began to think of them not just as potential hosts, but potential housemates—people who I would have daily interactions with and, I hoped, befriend. Using TalkTalkBnB as a housemate matching service rather than a formal guest/host arrangement helped make my experience a more relaxed and rewarding one. I could really get to know a place and its people, rather than just trading preset language-learning hours in exchange for a place to sleep while visiting typical tourist attractions. I planned on giving just as much of myself to the people I’d stay with as they gave to me.

Three weeks after creating my TalkTalkBnB profile, my search was over. My new housemates? Sara and Fernando (or Fer), a husband and wife lawyer couple and their Jack Russell/Bodequero terrier, Lola. Although they hadn’t hosted before and lacked references, I immediately felt at ease during our first meeting. In true Spanish fashion, we stopped by a couple of different bars, lingering at each to enjoy good food and good conversation. At our second stop, a Basque bar and eatery, Sara and Fer introduced me to the guindilla pepper and to gilda, a pintxo (a Basque-type tapa) made with olives, guindillas, anchovies, and miniature pickles. It was to be my first in a series of lessons about Spanish culture. By the end of the evening, we had agreed that I would be their first TalkTalkBnB housemate for three weeks in June.

Nervous for the move-in (Lola capturing my mood)

Move-in day included a welcome meal (homemade burgers and some wine from Gailicia) and an invitation to a poetry reading, courtesy of Sara and Fer. Throughout my stay, I got to enjoy home cooking and plenty of good conversation. From music to politics, food to family life, the legal world and Spanish slang, we conversed in English over numerous lunches and dinners and whenever each of our busy schedules allowed.

And because the arrangement was more housemate-style than guest-host, cultural exchange came about more naturally. Not only did my new housemates offer to cook (showing me, for example, how a particular spice smoothed out gazpacho), I did as well, introducing them to Korean food, American banana bread, and other foods less familiar to the Spanish palate. And without any pressure to spend a set amount of time with each other, conversations never felt forced.

Sara and Fer being introduced to Korean food by the author.

My accommodations included a private bedroom and bathroom and access to the common spaces of a beautiful apartment at the confluence of two desirable neighborhoods, hipster Malasana and the gayborhood of Chueca. Having reached near peak gentrification, these neighborhoods were stuffed with quirky bars (serving everything from mezcal to vermouth), cool cafes with cold brew, restaurants ranging from Asian street food to traditional Spanish, markets with rooftop bars, artsy boutiques, and vintage stores. When I wasn’t exploring these neighborhoods or talking with my laid back, kind, and flexible housemates, I could afford to take short trips around Spain.

A Model That’s Good for Destinations

Weekend visit to Peñas de Riglos in Huesca, Spain.

As a traveler staying with locals, I learned about lesser known events and places. For example, Sara and Fer would tell me about different music festivals in Spain, ones in cities less popular and touristy than Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. In turn, I would tell them about places that I’d come across in my travels around Spain. During one weekend, for instance, I traveled to Peñas de Riglos in the northeastern province of Huesca, a mecca for hikers, climbers, and white water rafters.  As my housemates had never been there, I was happy to share tips and photos with them for their future visit.

In that way, TalkTalkBnB works well for local economies. For rural communities that are tourism-dependent, like Peñas de Riglos, this word of mouth advertising provides a boost for businesses and events off the radar for many out-of-town visitors, whether for a coffee shop or a local festival.  And it allows locals a chance to find out what’s beyond their towns by hearing tales from their new-found traveler-friends.

Even farmers can benefit. While tourism often involves frequenting local eateries, it can also involve home cooking, which means shopping at local grocers, who in turn support local farmers.  For example, as someone who likes to cook, I often seek out local markets to get fresh and harder-to-find ingredients. The closest (and one of the best, I thought) was an indoor farmers market called Mercado Barcelo, where I found high quality local ingredients at a fraction of the price of supertouristy markets such as Mercado San Miguel in central Madrid.

Sites like TalkTalkBnB help distribute tourists (and their spending) to different parts of a city, supporting not just the popular places, but the lesser known ones.. By staying with Sara and Fer, for even three short weeks, I developed a new appreciation for the city and a deeper appreciation for Spain.  For its small towns, its neighborhoods, its markets, and its food.  For its customs, its music, its radio programs, and even its politics.  And by developing this appreciation, these authentic, non-commercial, and localized travel experiences and exchanges make not just the traveler, but the destination, better.

Madeira Wins by Attracting All Ages

[Above: The Areiro-to-Ruivo trail in central Madeira rises above the clouds and fog.]

It was my second day of a week-long winter vacation on Portugal’s magnificent Madeira island, and the Areiro-Ruivo trail fit the bill for a rugged, yet not overly strenuous hike through some stunning landscapes. With its breathtaking views, precipitous passageways, and verdant cliffs, it was a magical experience—an experience enhanced by the diverse ages of people on the hike. This beloved trail hosted multiple generations of outdoor lovers from 60-something pensioners to 30-something backpackers down to primary-school-age kids with their families.

And that cross-section of travelers on the trail hinted at Madeira’s secret to being a winning destination for travelers: It’s growing appeal to all ages.

Teleférico view of Funchal, capital of Madeira.

Before heading to Madeira in December, I knew little about the island except that it a) had a reputation as being a hikers’ paradise because of its mountainous terrain, b) promised good food, especially seafood and tropical fruits, c) would be warmer than most of the rest of Europe in winter, given its proximity to Africa, and d) could claim soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo as another famous export besides its sweet namesake wine. I had also read that Madeira, once a prime vacation spot for pensioners from the UK and other parts of colder-climate Europe, was changing into an all-ages destination.

For destinations that depend on tourism, age diversity not only means support for a broader variety of local businesses, but also greater loyalty among its customer base. For example, in the restaurant industry, when a destination attracts travelers from different age groups, the fast-casual, local menu-of-the-day, and Michelin-starred restaurants—that is, budget, mid-priced, and luxury—can all benefit from a share of tourism dollars.

What’s more, a destination that caters to a diversity of ages means children, youth, and young adult travelers are more likely to return – having been introduced to those destinations at a younger age.

What Madeira has done really well is provide affordability, accessibility, and an assortment of adventure activities to draw in travelers from across the age spectrum.

Affordability
As more people travel internationally to more destinations in the same year, low cost airlines and budget accommodations are among the biggest considerations for destination selection.  This is especially true for younger travelers with limited disposable incomes.  Madeira is not only served by several low-cost airlines, but has also seen discounted airfares from major airlines.

View of shared dorm room at my second hostel in Funchal (photo from Booking.com).

Additionally, while budget hotels and home-sharing services like Airbnb are popular with these travelers, hostels are often the go-to accommodation of choice, not just for the lower price point, but also for the chance to meet (and team up) with other independent travelers. In recent years, Madeira has seen several new hostels opening up in the center of Funchal, the capital. I ended up staying in two—one, a worn, bare-bones but comfortable hostel, and the other, beautiful, modern, and ultra-efficient. In both, I met friendly travelers of varying ages from around the world, most of them skewing toward 20s and 30s. And in both hostels, a bed in a shared dorm room cost around €17 (about USD20 ) per night. In talking with my fellow hostel-mates, I learned that a combination of affordable flights and the availability of hostels helped put Madeira on their travel list, as on mine.

Adventure Activities
Madeira also made it on to our wish lists because of its world class hikes and walks—part of the growing adventure-travel niche. Besides hiking alongside peaks, such as Picos Areiro and Ruivo, there are dozens of hikes along Madeira’s famous canals, known as levadas. These levadas, originally built in the sixteenth century, brought water from the west and northwest of Madeira to the southeast for agriculture.

One of several levada tunnels that you encounter on the Caldeira Verde walk.

Today, the levadas continue to provide water to the south of the island, and with the additional service of providing hydro-electric power. The more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas on the island often have the additional benefit of serving as walking paths, some an easy walk and others involving tough climbs and hair-raising descents.

During my three hikes—Picos Areiro to Ruivo, São Lourenço, and Levada do Caldeirao Verde—I was impressed with not only the amazing scenery but the general upkeep of the trails. They were well marked and well maintained, making it hard to get lost and easier to avoid dangerous spills.

View from the São Lourenço trail.

Besides all of the walks and hikes, the hostels I stayed at provided information on several outdoor guides and trip operators for other adventure travel activities like canyoning, diving, and snorkeling. While I didn’t book any guides or trip operators, the fact that such offerings existed meant there was a healthy number of travelers interested in them – with much of that interest from younger travelers.

Accessibility
Madeira makes itself accessible, by providing good, traveler-friendly information and serviceable public transit. For travelers who prefer to explore on their own, this accessibility can also help make a destination more appealing.

One of the covers for the Funchal USE-IT map and guide (2017 edition).

Upon my arrival at my first hostel, the owner provided me with two free guides that were indispensable to my stay on Madeira. The first was a handy map and guide to Funchal, by the European grassroots volunteer group USE-IT, which “stands for no-nonsense tourist info for young people,” according to their website. Not only did the map orient me, it provided information on history, local foods, festivals, must-see sites, and other things helpful for travelers, including transport options and how to find free wifi hotspots. The USE-IT guide was so useful it barely survived the trip, after being hauled around in my backpack and opened countless times.

The second guide, a three-page pamphlet, presented over 20 hikes on the island, many of them levada walks. The pamphlet made planning for these levada walks easy, including transit options to reach them.

You can even check out weather conditions at key locations by means of web cams scattered throughout the island – another useful tool for travelers to plan their itineraries.

Public transit, while not very frequent and not widespread on Madeira, did make it possible for me (car-free on vacations for five years and counting) to be able to do the Levada do Caldeirao Verde hike on my own. The São Lourenço hike can also be reached by bus. For the car-accessible-only trail from Picos Areiro to Ruivo I was able to split the costs of a cheap two-day rental car with a friendly group—a couple of Czechs and a Slovak— from my first hostel.

The Slovak told me of another hike that he had done taking the public bus. The guide listed a few others accessible by bus as well. While renting a car is desirable for experiencing the best of Madeira, you can still experience many of the island’s highlights by bus with careful planning and enough time (say, a week or more).

Award Winning Island Destination
Given all this, along with impressive scenery, world class food and drink, and living cultural heritage, it’s not surprising that the World Travel Awards (the “Oscars of the Travel Industry”) in 2017 gave Madeira the title of “World’s Leading Island Destination”—a title it has now held for three consecutive years.

Even more important, by drawing in a younger set of travelers through its strong suits—accessibility, affordability, and adventure travel—Madeira isn’t only promoting destination loyalty but ensuring tourism longevity.

 

Good Food Tours Rely On Mom-and-Pop Shops

[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]

Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses

The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.

“Hi Maria! How are you doing?  And how’s your dad?”

“Well, he’s better, but….”

Eventually, the food (excellent jamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.

I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)

Key to having successful food tours?  Be a responsible tourism operator.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well

With the rise of a food-centric culture, food-obsessed images on social media, and travelers seeking unique experiences connecting them to local cultures, culinary tourism is becoming an increasingly significant part of global tourism.  Spain has benefited in a big way from the rise in food tourism, being among the top four countries in the world attracting food-driven travelers in recent years.  In 2013, “7.4 million international tourists in 2013” out of a total 60.7 million international tourists to Spain engaged in food tourism in Spain.  That number rose to “8.4 million international tourists,” in 2015, “representing 12.3% of the total [number of international tourists],” according to Matilde Pastora Asian González, Secretary of State for Tourism of Spain.  Asian Gonzalez also noted the “immense potential” of “gastronomy tourism…particularly in rural destinations.”

Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition.  “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise.  However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.

James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.

“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.

“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.

It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking)

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).

For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.

Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians

Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.

A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.

As travelers crisscross a shrunken world, trying to escape the sameness and “culinary homogenization taking hold in many cities around the world,” here are a few reasons why tour operators and travelers would do well to support small and local food and drink businesses.

What mom and pop shops are all about:

  • Authenticity

“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.

Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.

  • History and context

Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war.  We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop.  Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest.  But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there?  Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box. 

An 80+ year old local, family operated tapas and wine bar (and shop)

This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.

  • Cultural introductions and bridge building

Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower left).

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).

And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.

  • Lasting memories

Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds.  An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.

  • Longevity through diversity 

Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity.  It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.”  Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel.  Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies?  Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.

Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.

How To Handle Voluntourism

[On Cape Cod, volunteer painters help out on CARE for the Cape Day. Photo: Judith Selleck]

Voluntourism and Experteering

Volunteer tourism or voluntourism combines travel with service, allowing travelers to use their time and passions and skills towards volunteer opportunities in education, public health, environmental conservation, agriculture, housing development, scientific research, and other arenas in visited communities.  A few examples of voluntourism include assisting with afterschool programs, construction projects, and wildlife studies. More recently, the term “experteering” has become popular in describing a subgroup of voluntourists: Those providing a specific professional skill set (such as coding, graphic design, business plan development, dentistry, etc.) as a volunteer while traveling.

While questions have been raised in recent years about the effectiveness of voluntourism and the potential for doing harm rather than good in the communities it’s intended to serve (see the articles below), there is consensus that voluntourism has the potential to provide positive impacts to both travelers and visited communities alike, creating not just gains in development for local communities, but also fostering cross cultural exchange and appreciation.

As one of the fastest growing trends in travel today according to a July 2014 National Public Radio story, voluntourism has grown rapidly over the past 20 years – to more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion each year, with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations involved in helping to place volunteers.  With the rapidly growing number of organizations and opportunities to choose from, below are some recommendations and tips gleaned from articles and resources (see below) to help in the search for a suitable voluntourism organization and opportunity.

Before you sign up to join a voluntourism program, the following preparation is strongly recommended:

  1. Motivation and Goals: Ask yourself the reasons for going abroad and define your goals.
  2. Skills, Abilities, and Interests: Honestly assess what you have to offer as you consider volunteer opportunities.  Do you have specific skills you plan to contribute (are you planning to experteer)?  Or are you planning to volunteer with an organization that does not require a professional skill set?  Are there abilities or interests you have which may help you to be more effective in certain volunteering scenarios?  For example, are you a good writer? Do you enjoy working with animals? Do you get along well with all types of people? Do you have a green thumb? Are you excited about the prospect of helping at an archeological dig?
  3. Sustainability: When looking into projects to volunteer with, see if the project is addressing a real need or problem, is partnering with the community, and is run by a reputable organization.  Check sites for information on the organization/project and see if there are reviews or evaluations available from volunteers and financial reporting organizations such as Charity Navigator and Go Overseas.com (see below) on how well the program is run and how funds are spent.  Contact the organization with questions about community involvement in the project and how the project will help the community and build capacity and not dependency.
  4. Time and Geography: Consider how much time you can contribute.  As a general rule, the more time you can devote to a project, the better. That is not to say you cannot be effective or make a lasting impact over the course of a short period of time, but the more one is able to be integrated into a local community and develop relationships, the easier it typically is to make a greater impact.  Also assess your preferences (if any) for things like climate (tropical, mediterranean, etc.) and environment (whether the mountains, coast, desert, small village, big city, etc).

Resources and Information

Note—The following listings are also being posted to our Resources and Geotravelers sections. We welcome additions.

  • Websites and Directories

Charity Navigator provides information and ratings on hundreds of charities based on their financial health and transparency, allowing users to vet organizations before making donations, volunteering, and supporting them in other ways.

Go Overseas is a website that provides information and reviews on dozens of volunteer opportunities around the world.

Idealist.org is a clearinghouse for, among other things, global volunteer opportunities.

One World 365 is a travel directory launched in 2007 that provides information on voluntourism opportunities, along with work programs, English teaching certification programs and placements, ecotourism trips,adventure tours, study abroad and language and other learning courses.

VolunTourism.org provides a wide array of resources, from information on several voluntourism organizations to voluntourism news, webcasts, and academic research.

Publications 

Traveler’s Philanthropy: Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving (2009, The Center for Responsible Travel) In this 12 page booklet, a dozen experienced tour operators and tourism organizations engaged in supporting local community projects summarize advice on volunteering and donating.

Articles

Where Does the Money Go When You Volunteer? (July 2015, Natalie Southwick, GoOverseas.com)

As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most? (July 2014, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio)

Is Voluntourism Itself Being Exploited? (April 2014, Daniela Papi, Huffington Post)

10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program (March 2014, Jessie Beck, GoOverseas.com)

Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations (Jan. 2013, Dorinda Elliott, Conde Nast Traveler)

  • Voluntourism Organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit)

Cross-Cultural Solutions is a nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s that provides volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, language lessons, some in-country activities and excursions, and support from local staff.

Earthwatch is a 40+ year old nonprofit that engages volunteers in scientific field research and educational projects worldwide.  Volunteers work alongside researchers on projects in wildlife/ecosystem conservation, climate change, archeology and culture, and ocean health.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, and all related research costs.

Global Citizen Year is a nonprofit started in 2009 that selects fellows (high school graduates) for a “bridge year” of volunteer service before college in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India.  The program offers opportunities in environmental conservation, education, public health, agriculture, or social enterprise and offers financial aid to selected fellows.

Global Volunteers is a nonprofit founded in 1984 that provides various short-term placements for volunteers in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on child health and development.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, local staff support, and supplemental health insurance.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit started in the mid-1970s that is dedicated to creating affordable housing through new construction and renovation.  Both short term and longer term volunteer opportunities are available globally in fields such as construction, finance, resource development and administration.  Program fees include a donation to Habitat and accommodations, food, in-country support, and supplemental health insurance.

Moving Worlds is a B corporation founded in 2011 that facilitates experteering, that is, matches professionals looking to volunteer their skills with nonprofit organizations in need of specific talents.  Moving Worlds bills itself as “a short-term Peace Corps crossed with match.com.”

Projects Abroad is a 20+ year old company that connects volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, both professionals and students, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, and support from local and North America–based staff.