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‘It’s not too bad to miss Canadian winter:’ Voluntourism adapting to pandemic

Anna Klimova, a Toronto accountant, left behind her spreadsheet, calculator and a pandemic surge to count turtles and tag sharks at a research station in the Seychelles as part of a program run by Global Vision International (GVI), a voluntourism agency. 

“I was not afraid to travel. I was looking forward to it and it’s not too bad to miss Canadian winter,” Klimova says.

The volunteers on the island range from as few as two to as many as 11 and pay anywhere from $3,805 for two weeks to $9,605 for 12 weeks of volunteering. Though the pandemic forced the shutdown of the $2.6-billion voluntourism industry and its hundreds of projects marketed as essential for developing nations, some organizations reopened with limited offerings in September and COVID-19 safety protocols that go beyond the minimum standards of testing and quarantining. 

Jazzy Taberer, 25, the assistant program manager and science coordinator of GVI, says being on an isolated island is a significant advantage to attracting volunteers and keeping the volunteer pod COVID-free.

“Essentially, we have the island to ourselves, and the Seychelles National Park authority ranges as well. This is why the base works; we are not in contact with the community that much,” says the British marine biologist, who has lived on the island of Curieuse in the Seychelles for three years. There have been no COVID-19 cases on Curieuse but the Seychelles overall has 275 reported cases among its 98,000 residents, 90 per cent of whom live on the main island of Mahé.

Among the safety protocols are a 10-day quarantine before entering the Seychelles, daily temperature checks and careful sanitizing, with masks required when within 1.5 meters of others and when around wild animals.

The project’s goal is to collect biometrics of the Hawksbill Turtle, a critically endangered species. Data collection has continued through the pandemic with or without volunteers, says Taberer. And though the fall program proved successful and COVID-free, the new variant of COVID-19 caused the Seychelles volunteer program to close temporarily in early January.

Steve Gwenin, director of ethics and impact at GVI, says the situation is fluid and GVI is monitoring developments in each country. 

“We are being guided by national and international travel advice, considerations of and for our local communities and local restrictions,” says Gwenin. “Where we feel it may be relevant, we are sticking with our protocols and going beyond national restrictions if and where we feel they may not be stringent enough.” 

Aaron Slosberg, the director of student programming at Where There Be Dragons, says that when the pandemic hit, his organization scrambled to bring home 120 students from nine countries. The Colorado-based experiential learning and responsible travel organization runs semester-long and gap-year programs in 20 countries. Its focus is on building human connections and it generally avoids volunteering in traditional forms, Slosberg says. 

It recently piloted two programs in the U.S. focusing on immigration advocacy and wilderness in the Rio Grande area and conservation and water rights in the Colorado River Basin. Slosberg says that, despite the pandemic, the fall program drew triple the normal interest. 

The safety precautions have made the programs look far different, starting with a pod formation phase, he says. The 27 participants were required to keep a daily health log for 14 days prior to the course start. During a five-day orientation, they were masked, socially distanced and had their own rooms – until the sixth day of the program, when the group was tested again. Once negative results were confirmed and volunteers were symptom-free, the pod was considered secure. Most of the 71-day program was spent camping and away from communities. Each of the students had their own tent to isolate in if they had a mild cold or other illness. 

Slosberg says the biggest challenge was navigating shifting public health guidance and ensuring the group would not become a vector of transmission and harm to communities. 

“Despite all of the challenges with these programs, it felt really affirming when we talked to the students and read their feedback and that this was a really worthwhile experience and the alternative for them would be sitting at home,” says Slosberg. “Being able to offer interpersonal connection in a safe and controlled way was really powerful.”

Other organizations have approached reopening with varying degrees of public health measures, illustrating the ethical challenges in an industry that depends on volunteers paying to go abroad and antiquated ideas of what poor countries need.  

“The vast majority of voluntourism opportunities are unethical but the market demand for such trips isn’t disappearing,” says Pippa Biddle, the author of Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism. “To mitigate this demand, trip providers need to focus on products that do as little harm as possible.”

Biddle adds that during this pandemic, it’s especially important that local rules and regulations are followed. 

However, that’s not always the case. International Volunteer Headquarters, a New Zealand-based outfit that has sent more than 113,000 volunteers abroad since 2007, trumpets its pandemic programming on its website but largely limits its safety protocols to country requirements, testing within 72 hours of travel “if possible,” and the personal responsibility of the volunteer. IVHQ declined two interview requests.

A volunteer blog on the IVHQ site features a volunteer named Aysha in Arusha, Tanzania, where the reported case count was 509 as of May, when the government stopped counting cases. “Of course, I had to do a COVID-19 test before starting the trip,” Aysha writes. “This was the only additional thing that had to be proven once I entered the airport. When I arrived in Tanzania, I was totally amazed. There is no daily news about COVID-19. Everyone knows about COVID but nobody makes it the main topic of conversation. Instead, we are enjoying every single moment.” She is pictured mask-less alongside community members and young children. 

Biddle says volunteering abroad should be limited to highly skilled professionals who are addressing specific needs. “For those who want to take part in short-term or unskilled volunteering abroad, one of the only forms of voluntourism that is reliably, albeit not always, ethical is conservation volunteering, such as assisting scientific research,” she says. 

Biddle says conservation-oriented trips offer a bridge between voluntourism and educational travel that moves the industry in a more ethical direction by minimizing harm to communities, especially children, while meeting the demand from travelers for opportunities to “give back” while abroad. 

For Klimova, the benefits of doing conservation work outweigh the risks of getting sick or enduring flight cancellation during a global pandemic, and with tax season around the corner, she says she will miss the sunshine on the island and the rewarding experiences in the field. “It will be bittersweet when I leave, but it is worth it,” said Klimova.

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Natalie Jesionka

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Natalie Jesionka is a human rights researcher with expertise in human trafficking and social impact. She is a Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.