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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.

Look at how many reasonably priced hotels there are in Old Town Krakow according to Google Maps.

By thinking of my travel budget in terms of USD, not PLN, I was able to provide aid in two ways.

  1. I was using my purchasing power to help pump money into the local economy by supporting the travel industry. Thus, helping provide jobs and create revenue for a city supporting 150K+ refugees.

  2. I was providing for myself, making sure my aid work was a net benefit for the city and refugees rather than a drain.

If I booked accommodation at a local hostel for $7 USD a night, then rode the bus to and from aid work every day, and ate food prepared by aid workers for refugees and humanitarians (yes, I met a solo aid worker doing this) then I would really need to examine my calculus. I would need to ask myself “is my use of resources outweighed by the aid I am providing?” I’m not making a judgment; I’m just saying everyone needs to do the math and come to their own conclusions.

Three course meal, with wine, that cost about $40 USD (March 2022)

For me, it felt best to be a true Voluntourist and stick to a travel budget similar to trips I would take in the States. This meant the same amount of money that would get me mediocre accommodations in San Diego got be fabulous accommodations in Old Town Krakow. The same applied to the food. A meal that would easily cost me between $65 - $115 in the states only cost me $25 - $42 USD in Poland.

Fat Mama Tip: When using a credit card in a foreign country you will be asked if you want to pay in USD or the local currency. ALWAYS choose the local currency unless your credit card has specifically informed you of outrageous exchange fees. As I have been looking at my credit card statement now that I am returned from Poland, I am SHOCKED at how inexpensive things were when I paid in PLN and how expensive they were when I made the mistake of paying in USD. Essentially, paying in USD negated any exchange rate benefits AND added some odd services fees. ALWAYS pay in local currency when using a credit card!

Remember the First Part of Being a Voluntourist is Volunteering

While it is always fun to travel to a new country, no matter the circumstances, to be a good Voluntourist you need to actually do some volunteer work on your trip. This can be difficult to figure out if you, like me, are not experienced with aid work. So how does one simply show up and jump in? Well, it’s not that simple.

Before heading out to Poland I took a full two-weeks to do extensive research finding out what organizations were accepting volunteers, who was working where, and what was needed. Thanks to this research I learned what items I could bring from home to donate (though my money would have gone farther in Poland), I registered with the World Central Kitchen in case I could find no other volunteer opportunities, and I used my networking connections to lineup meetings with local aid workers so I could learn about what needed doing.

One suitcase full of donations that I wheeled across Old Town to Kraków Główny (March 2022)

Basically, I felt comfortable being a Voluntourist because I created a volunteer plan before I took off halfway around the world. Without a plan, without an idea of how I could at least drop off donation items, I would NOT have been a productive Voluntourist. Without my action plan, I would have simply been a vacationer.

One could argue that being a vacationer in Krakow while the city is dealing with a humanitarian crisis isn’t a bad thing. Afterall, as a vacationing tourist I would still be pumping money into an economy that relies on the travel industry. While this might be true, vacationing during a humanitarian crisis seems … let’s just say … tacky. There are just too many variables.

What if the situation deteriorates? Why vacation during a crisis? How will your presence impact aid efforts? Is your destination actually ready for tourists? To me, if you are not a volunteer first and a tourist only if there is time and means, then what is the point of traveling to the epicenter of a humanitarian catastrophe? As a rule of thumb, don’t vacation in parts of the world currently suffering major crises … unless you are a Voluntourist. So how do you create a volunteer plan?

Creating a Solid Voluntourist Plan

First, be ready to put the work in before you even pack your bags. With minimal research you can find organizations on the frontline of the crisis and where they are stationed. For me, I focused on World Central Kitchen because they accepted volunteers who were not already experienced aid workers within their organization. While I did not sign up for shifts once in Krakow (I found other ways to be useful), the WCK was doing amazing work and I was excited that, had other opportunities not presented themselves, I would have had a place to do real frontline aid work.

World Central Kitchen was at Kraków Główny providing 5,000+ hot meals a day (March 2022)

If you cannot find a way to be of service before arriving at your chosen Voluntourist location, then DON’T GO. If your plan consists solely of dropping off donation items that your packed in your suitcase, then STAY HOME. Frontline aid workers need people who are able to show up, get to work, and who can make a difference. Voluntourism is about VOLUNTEERING, tourism is the last thing that should be on your mind (just like it is the last part of the word).

Second, when you show up to volunteer, start talking to people. If you do not feel comfortable walking up to a group of strangers who don’t speak your language and finding a way to communicate “I’m here to volunteer, how can I be of service?” then STAY HOME. A big part of Voluntourism, especially as a solo traveler, is being outgoing, or at the very least, highly motivated and ambitious.

If I had not been able to meet with Soroptimist International -Krakow and learn about the way individuals, organizations, and the city were providing aid then it would have been much harder for me to be of service. That meeting, arranged prior to travel, opened the door for me to make donation drop offs at the Main Station in Krakow and meet Caritas, a Catholic charity who needed gophers.

Because I was willing to put in the research, ask the right questions, and then “cold-call” Caritas I was able to be of service as a volunteer. More importantly, I learned from Caritas that they needed people to fundraise privately, show up with cash in hand, then go-for (gopher) the items refugees needed, and bring them back for distribution.

This is one of 3 GIANT shopping trips I gophered for Caritas (March 2022)

I cannot tell you how nerve-wracking it is as a solo, overweight, female, almost middle-aged, traveler showing up at a chaotic distribution center where only one person spoke English trying to communicate that not only did I have donations, but that I wanted to volunteer. Definitely not something for the faint of heart … or shy … or timid … or quiet voiced. It was HUGELY intimidating but MASSIVLY rewarding.

I still think back on that experience with a sense of “who in the ducking-hell did I think I was?” But sometimes, volunteering is about perseverance, planning, and being audacious enough to say, “I’m here, how can I be of service?” Although, perhaps the harder part is having to follow through. You have to show up, ready to work in whatever capacity is needed. I was lucky, “gophering” happens to utilize some of my best skills.

One, of many, transaction while gophering (March, 2022)

Third, have a plan in place for rallying support to your cause. As a Voluntourist the BEST thing I did was fundraise $5,000 USD to spend on supplies and goods needed by Ukrainian refugees. Inspired by Caritas, the work they are doing, and the immense need of their distribution center I began posting on social media requesting funds to support Caritas’ efforts. And, to my surprise, it worked. I raised $5,000 USD in about 4-days and was able to turn that into $18,000 PLN of purchasing power.

My biggest regret about the fundraising is that I didn’t think to start it sooner. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I wish I had done more pre-trip, to stir up support. While I certainly don’t think I could have raised even close to $5,000 without actually going to Poland, I do think I could have primed the pump (so-to-speak) before taking off so that I could have raised more.

I think with pre-planning next time I can do double the fundraising and make an even bigger impact. So please, learn from my experience. If you are going to be a Voluntourist, start researching, in advance, what your purchasing power is in your chosen location, what items aid workers are asking for, and how you can be a conduit between supporters back home and aid workers to get the needed goods and supplies.

BUT, you MUST follow through. YOU MUST make sure the support you receive makes its way to those in need … otherwise you are committing fraud … that’s bad … don’t do that. If you think this is too much responsibility, then consider staying home. This type of Voluntourism might not be for you, and that is okay.

Now For the Fun – Tourism

I know what you are thinking … Fat Mama you said this is VolunTOURISM, when do I get to be a tourist? Well ducky friends, the truth is, you might not get to be a tourist. Or at least not a tourist in the traditional sense. I was lucky, my schedule was full but split between volunteering and tourism.

Most days my mornings were filled with buying or packaging up donations, then I would have a meeting with aid workers in the afternoon, followed by donation drop offs with Caritas in the early evening. I was usually back at my hotel between 3:30 – 4:30 ready to walk around Old Town and get some dinner. After playing tourist for a few hours, I wrapped up my day by updating friends and family about my trip, fundraising on social media, and doing a bit of writing. Then it was off to bed for a good night sleep before repeating my schedule the next day.

Admittedly, after my BIG gopher experience on Saturday where I spent 12-hours buying goods, dropping them with Caritas, picking up the new list, and doing a second 7-passanger-van loadfull of buying and dropping off donations, I took a full day for myself to be a tourist. I felt like I earned a day off after than experience, plus all the other days I had been volunteering and learning about the aid crisis. So, what am I saying about the tourist part of Voluntourism?

While being a tourist should take a backseat to being a volunteer, it is still an important part of Voluntourism. I think the best way to approach the tourism part of being a Voluntourist is this: work like a volunteer but care for yourself like a tourist on vacation. Make sure that you are enjoying yourself and seeing the sites when you are not volunteering. Just make sure not to wear yourself out as a tourist making yourself an unproductive volunteer.

The best way to do this, not to repeat myself, is to budget like you are in the States on vacation and don’t be afraid to splurge. Stay at the best hotel you can afford. Eat out at nice restaurants. Purchase a souvenir as you walk home from a day of volunteering. Take a day to tour the city and just be a tourist. All of this helps support the local economy, provide jobs, and fund the municipality’s aid response.

Coffee at a café along the Main Square (March 2022)

As long as your focus is on volunteering and providing humanitarian aid while also supporting yourself using tourist centric accommodations and services then you are on the right track.

Fat Mama Tip: Before you leave for your Voluntourism trip create a daily schedule. It’s okay if you don’t stick to your schedule but at least you will have something to fall back on. For every full day you are at your location decide what your focus will be. If you have done your pre-planning correctly you will be able to create a detailed daily schedule full of volunteer hours, meetings with aid workers, time for fundraising and spreading awareness, reservations for dinners at the best bistros overlooking iconic plazas and monuments … you get the idea. A detailed itinerary will serve you well and make sure you are being a good Voluntourist rather than a vacationer or a burden.

Though I have used Krakow, Poland and my experiences with the Ukrainian crisis as an example of how to be a good Voluntourist, I think these tips and guidelines can work for most other Voluntourist opportunities as well. While I don’t know the meaning of life, putting more good into the world than bad seems like a good starting point. So why not do that with a truly unique Voluntourist experience?

Keep Calm and Quack On

Are you interested in being a Voluntourist but don’t want to go it alone? Great! Fat Mama is planning another Voluntourist trip to Krakow in the beginning of August 2022 and is looking for people to join her! The Voluntourist trip will be a pre-planned trip with a full itinerary that balances aid work and tourism. Even Fat Papa putting in his vacation request for this trip!

Just a few of the awesome volunteers I met who came from around the world to help (March 2022)

Learn all about Krakow and the history of Poland while also participating in much needed humanitarian work for Ukraine. To stay up to date about the upcoming Voluntourist trip click here to contact Fat Mama.

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