In China, tour operators, hotels and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) are offering volunteer opportunities to international travelers as an alternative way to create a personal and meaningful vacation. In Guizhou, a lush, rice-terraced and mountainous southern province, the tour operator WildChina (www.wildchina.com) offers their travelers the opportunity to work closely with Baibi Villagers to improve their school facilities and infrastructure, building a basketball court, stairs and bathrooms. They even incorporated assistance from a school group in Shanghai to help maintain the mountain roads that lead to their farmlands, and the tour participants routinely contribute to the Library at the Biasha School by donating books, stationery and school supplies. Additionally, WildChina facilitates experiences for their tour patrons to work closely with the Guang’ai School for Orphans in Hebei province, orchestrating musical exchanges with other schools and planting trees on their campus.
This mentality also necessitates tour companies to be on top of world events and adapt their travel programs accordingly. For example, this past April, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai province in northwestern China, bordering Tibet, WildChina took action. They donated their eco-friendly camping tents, used for their signature Tibetan Yushu Horse Festival journey (www.wildchina.com/china-adventure-travel/overview/tibetan-yushu-horse-festival), to house Yushu earthquake victims.
At the Linden Centre (www.linden-centre.com), an American-owned boutique hotel and cultural retreat within Xizhou village, Yunnan Province, guests have opportunities to visit and teach in local kindergartens and elementary schools and help with the Linden’s own “English Corner” classes for villagers. The Centre is also working on town revitalization projects with the local government. Says Brian Linden, who owns and operates the hotel, “Guests will soon be able to work with a local craftsmen, and help restore some of the historical homes and temples. We are also discussing with the local government how we can have our guests spend time on archaeological sites, thereby participating in the uncovering of local history.” And the Chinese government seems to like it too. The following is a translation of an actual local government statement:
“We love to have foreign visitors work side-by-side with some of our local craftsmen. The sense of volunteerism, giving back to the community, sets a great example for our community.”
According to David Clemmons, Founder of voluntourism.org, travelers find the most rewarding aspect of these volunteer experiences to be the opportunities that the work provides for interaction with local residents. Says David, “If that element is not included in the experience the trip will have the opposite affect. People believe that through these types of volunteering experiences, they will have a deeper connection with the local residents, a connection that goes beyond what they would experience if they had simply traveled as a tourist.” (www.voluntourism.org)
This is true in both urban and rural areas. In Beijing, WildChina travelers can meet with local NGO representatives to learn about preservation of the rapidly disappearing hutong houses in the city. In natural, undeveloped regions travelers can give back by assisting with environmental and wildlife projects. WildChina even offers an environmental service program that can involve elementary school children!
In Sichuan Province, the Laohegou Forestry Center lies in the heart of one of the region’s most natural areas. Once the area’s major job provider, the center is struggling to find an alternative to logging, now banned by the government. Laohegou is home to many rare plants and animals, including the endangered giant panda, and offers a bounty of forest trails and wildlife watching opportunities. However, the local community lacks the skills and resources to open Laohegou to tourism. The area was also hit hard by the May 12, 2008 earthquake, and the region is sorely in need of aid and relief.
This trip offers families and student groups an unforgettable opportunity to help rebuild Laohegou, while experiencing some of China’s most beautiful natural scenery and exciting endangered species. Focused around service work, the trip includes several short-term volunteer opportunities in the greater Laohegou community and culminates in a longer, physically challenging project within the Forestry Center itself.
From the NGO side, Nicola Haffenden, a Canadian who teaches English in Songgui, a small village in rural Yunnan Province, had the following to say about her experiences and why she contacts local accommodations and tour operators and encourages them to bring and refer visitors:
I came to Yunnan with a Sino-American NGO to work as a teacher in a small Bai ethnic township. As much as my work here revolves around teaching English, helping the local teachers to improve their oral skills and testing standards, working in this community is also about cultural exchange. For my students and their families, my colleagues and I are some of the only foreign people they have ever seen. We bring our cultural differences and experiences to our classrooms as well as to the homes of our students, which we often visit as it gives us a chance to know more about our students’ daily living conditions, family life and what they like to do with their spare time. Being in someone’s home allows you to share not only your language abilities but also your culture. This kind of exchange and chatting is what local people here like to call “xian” or “jiaoliu,” which means to relax or communicate. It is something that is really valuable to the people I have met and an essential part of the voluntourist or volunteer experience.
Many of the things we can do as volunteers have a small but deep impact on the lives of the people and communities we touch. Nicola found out just how much when she learned that one of her students wrote about her experiences in Nicola’s English class as an essay in her Chinese class. The student wrote about how Nicola “danced for them at the end of our late night study halls and how I helped them to harvest corn on their day of labor in the fall, how I shared information about Western holidays with them, giving them candy and telling ghost stories at Halloween, and how I made them change the lyrics of the well-known Olympic theme song ‘Welcome to Beijing,’ to ‘Welcome to Songgui.”
Explains Nicola, “it will be these small things that change and impact my life and remind me of the lives I too have impacted.” This is the essence of the voluntourist’s experience.
David Clemmons agreed, “Travelers look at voluntourism as a passport to a deeper, more meaningful cultural and even life-changing travel experience.” Clemmons should know, he began volunteering when he was six years old, and has been traveling and volunteering ever since. He formed voluntourism.org in 2003 as a global resource for these kinds of experiences.
For more information on volunteer projects in China contact The China National Tourist Office at 888-760-8218 (NY) or 800-670-2228 (LA) or online at www.cnto.org.