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Voluntourism – What I Learned About Being a Tourist While Also Providing Humanitarian Aid

From afar I can understand why people say, “don’t go into a humanitarian crisis, if you want to provide aid, instead, write a check.” After all, if your goal is to provide aid, the last thing you want to do is take away resources from those in need, be a burden on a city/state/county already stressed by a crisis, and you certainly DO NOT want to be in the way thus hindering aid with your presence rather than leading a helping hand. Frankly, after going to Krakow, Poland as a solo traveler, with no volunteer opportunities arranged, and only a couple of interview meetings lined up, I probably would have told me to stay home too…

Refugees from Ukraine arriving at Ukrainian-Polish border crossing in Medyka. (Press Photo)

But, if you really feel you will do more good than harm, then consider being a Voluntourist.

What Is Voluntourism?

My 5 suitcases full of donations (March 2022)

I’m so glad you asked. Voluntourism is when a traveler, or group of travelers, decide to provide humanitarian aid during a crisis while also supporting the local economy through tourism. However, there is a very fine line between being a Voluntourist and a vacationer, or worse, a burden.

Now, is Voluntourism for everyone? No, absolutely not. If you are not good at rolling with the punches, if you like structure and schedules, if you don’t like jumping in without training then PLEASE, stay home and write a check. For example, I would never suggest Fat Papa be a Voluntourist on his own, he is amazing at supporting aid, but not so great at assessing a situation and doing what needs doing.

The good news (if there can be good news related to a crisis) is that humanitarian crises, like what we are seeing in Ukraine, require all kinds of people with different skills and abilities. To do the most good, you need to play to your strengths. Check out my blog We Can Do It - Humanitarian Aid for Ukraine for ideas on participating in aid efforts without having to leave home. You can do a WORLD of good for aid workers who need support and refugees who need your help from the comfort of your computer.

The Grand Hotel, Krakow (March 2022)

However, if you are someone who can make stuff happen, who is ready to do grunt work, and is willing to put in the time to really understand a situation then perhaps you should consider Voluntourism. Especially if you have the funds to back up your travel. After all, part of being a good Voluntourist is being a good tourist by supporting local travel industries and NOT penny-pinching your way across a stressed economy.

How do you make sure you are being a productive Voluntourist rather than just a vacationer, or worse a drain on resources? Follow these basic guidelines I learned through experience and by talking with the Deputy Mayor of Krakow, Soroptimist International – Krakow, and other frontline aid workers.

Don’t Be a Burden

When I first mentioned Voluntourism to city employees and elected officials in Krakow, their first concern was tourists coming into the city to provide aid but taking away resources from refugees and professional humanitarian organizations. Their biggest worry was housing. Most aid workers are looking for inexpensive, easily accessed, bare-bones accommodations. Places like hostels, motels, and budget hotels are ideal for aid workers looking to put their travel budgets to other uses.

Going into a meeting with Krakow's Deputy Mayor (March 2022)

The problem is, these types of accommodations are also attractive to refugees and other displaced people who cannot afford monthly apartments, don’t have the credit history or references to sign a lease, or who, for countless reasons, simply have no other place they can stay. This is especially true in a city like Krakow which had a housing deficit (the city was short about 1,000 flats) before the war broke out (the city now estimates a shortage of more than 10,000 flats with the influx of refugees).

How then does a solo Voluntourist, or group of self-organized Voluntourist, make sure they are doing good and not taking away resources? Simple, use your purchasing power. That doesn’t mean staying in the most expensive places, but it does mean making smart choices. Let’s take Krakow as our example.

For my Humanitarian Aid trip to Poland, I made a conscious decision to book a hotel in a highly touristy area. I stayed in Krakow’s Old Town, a district full of hotels, restaurants, shops, and services focused on the travel industry. It also, happened to be walking distance from Kraków Glowny (Main Train Station) where the city’s largest refugee center was being hosted. Win-Win.

What I found was that in Old Town Krakow I could get a well-appointed hotel for somewhere between $75 - $125 a night, not bad at all. But if I was willing to splurge a little, as all good Voluntourists should, then for $150 - $200 USD a night I could book luxury accommodations in a luxury hotel. Don’t even get me started on the amazingness of rooms and hotels when you start going beyond $200 a night! Of course, the exchange rate was in my favor so playing $150 a night, something I wouldn’t even bat and eye at in the States, reserved me an exceptional room in the heart of Old Town.