Volunteer tourism is becoming increasingly popular. More and more travelers, including many recent graduates, seek opportunities to sink their culturally hungry teeth into the globe. It’s a way to experience the world and for university students, a way to fulfill credit hours and practice skill sets.
According to a report by NPR, more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending $2 billion each year to leave their suntan lotion behind in favor of working in an orphanage or teaching a language. One thing is clear: younger generations are ditching the resort brochures for authentic experiences, but many remain skeptical of the popularity of “voluntourism” programs, including Nicolas Guerrero, who founded Nomad Republic after his own questionable volunteer experiences.
“My partner, Sebastian Garcia-Lopez, and I, love to travel,” reflects Guerrero. “We finished high school five years ago and decided we wanted to volunteer around the world.” Although he says his trip was positively outstanding for many reasons, he was also impressed by two key factors: “I noticed none of the other volunteers were Mexican or had traveled to Mexico. And most of the travel companies had made fake trips.”
Guerrero is not the first to wonder about the legitimacy of volunteer abroad experiences. In an infamous and scathing essay by Ivan Illich called To Hell with Good Intentions, Illich scrutinizes “dogooders” who arrive in Latin America—and other parts of the world—with little idea of the cultural legacy at play and a bag of ideas that completely miss the mark. Guerrero recalls, “In Thailand, we went to a school to work with kids and did nothing. We played with the kids, which was nice, but left no impact. We wanted to create a company that would leave a lasting impact and change lives. It’s not just a trip for a picture with little kids.”
Since 2013, 115 Nomad travelers completed programs focused on projects specifically catered to communities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Kenya, India, Peru and Thailand. Nomad earns 30 percent of the set cost of a trip—trips range from a weekend to a month in duration—50 percent of the price going towards logistics and the remaining 20 percent going directly to the chosen community. A longer trip costs on average around 1,600 USD.
Listening to understand specific needs of the served communities and matching the “know-how” of volunteers and university students to those places, is the bedrock of Nomad’s philosophy. On a recent trip to Kenya, 67 Nomad travelers worked in three different communities with projects catered to their needs. One community, which Nomad met with beforehand to co-design the project with leaders in the area, expressed the need for medical attention. “We brought 15 medical students from Mexico and set up centers and saw 720 people in 18 days,” says Guerrero. “Also, we worked with psychology students doing the same thing, as well as engineers and architects to build a school.”
Another example of impact was when a group of marketing students helped a community in Mexico learn how to better transport and sell their production of honey. And in 2015, Nomad Republic wants to increase the amount of people coming to Mexico to see a different side than the spring break party trips and also to increase travel for Mexicans to other countries. “We want international students to come to Mexico,” Guerrero says. “It’s an amazing country with lots of culture and beauty. The impact we make is helpful for students because, what we have seen, is that the volunteers learn much more than sometimes the communities. They can practice their know how—that’s what they donate.”
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To date, they are partnered with five universities, and they plan to build relationships with up to 50 universities in Mexico and reach out to campuses in the US.
Guerrero says staying connected to participants is a unique priority for his company—on one recent trip, a group of participants felt moved enough by their experience to tattoo Nomad Republic’s logo on their bodies. But their approach is catching on and leaving a lasting impression, and not only in the form of tattoos. Quicksilver signed on to sponsor an upcoming surf-volunteer trip taking place end of March 2015.
Guerrero encourages travelers from trips outside of his home country to volunteer for a Mexico-based experience. The Mayan Experience trip beings in Bacalar, credited with being one of the most beautiful lagoons on earth. It combines local sites, volunteering, beaches and festivals. You might even see a whale shark as it is one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world.
Nomad Republic wants to harness the good will of those seeking travel volunteer opportunities by providing real impact trips to prove the skeptics wrong. This summer a new online platform will launch making them more competitive and visible in the tourism market. “Our goal is to become a new kind of Expedia for volunteer travel,” explains Guerrero.
Nomad Republic is paving a thoughtful, culturally sensitive, and downright enjoyable path for global citizens with good intentions to share their skills and leave lasting impact.