Trips that make the biggest impact in our lives are those that allow us to become immersed in another culture and be part of meaningful work. This allows travellers to experience life in another country in a way that isn’t easy to come by.
With GVI, cultural immersion is a key part of all of our volunteer programs abroad. This is why our travel opportunities are a great way to broaden your perspective and worldview. These experiences are truly transformative, can add to your understanding of the world and even change the course of your future.
So, it’s no coincidence that many of our participants describe their time abroad as life-changing, why many choose to join another program and even choose to work with us in the future.
As a participant, you’ll get to connect with people around the world and add to causes that you’re passionate about. And every program gives you the chance to make an impact that will last into the future.
So, if you’re looking to make the year ahead unlike any other, this list of 18 of the most meaningful volunteer vacations is a great place to start planning.
Volunteer vacations with animals
Getting to contribute towards the conservation of wildlife while travelling abroad can open you up to a world of creatures you may never have seen before, and give you a new appreciation for animals great and small.
1) Assist in reintegrating Thai elephants into the wild
What exactly is it about elephants that hold us in awe? Is it because they’re so nimble despite their substantial size? Is it the sensitivity they show when interacting with each other? Maybe it’s the sense of intelligence that seems to twinkle in their eyes?
Whatever the reason, working with elephants can be of great benefit to volunteers and elephants alike. This initiative trials a new model of ethical elephant tourism, where communities can earn an income from visitors to the village, and the elephants are reintegrated into their natural habitat in the hills of Chiang Mai. As a participant on this program, you’ll help track the elephant’s progress.
Thai society has long considered elephants a symbol of strength, majesty and prestige. And, their keepers are traditionally held in high esteem too.
But the rapid reduction of forested areas in Asia over the past 20 years has significantly reduced the number of Thai elephants in the region.
Because of this trend, cutting down trees without a permit wasn’t allowed. With less work available in the tree-felling industry, mahouts turned to the tourism industry to earn a living with the elephants.
For over a decade, GVI has been operating in Huay Pakoot village near Chiang Mai, to assist in reintegrating elephants that’ve been relieved from the tourism industry, back into their natural habitat. And, on volunteer vacations working with Thai elephants, you’ll also get to support traditional elephant keepers in developing new forms of income.
While the chance to interact ethically with elephants is a highlight of this program, many volunteer testimonials also mention that being part of village life was an insightful experience.
Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants
2) Get involved in dolphin and whale conservation in the Canary Islands
Watching dolphins dip in and out of the ocean, or whales blowing water from their blowholes may settle your nerves and take you to your happy place. But, these cetaceans – marine mammals – don’t live carefree lives, and they could do with more marine conservation efforts.
By taking part in ocean surveys, and assisting with beach clean ups and marine conservation awareness activities, you can play a meaningful role in safeguarding the marine life around the Canary Islands. And when you travel to Tenerife Island – one of eight islands belonging to the archipelago – you can do just that.
Working alongside experts in the field, as well as local and international marine conservation organisations, this volunteer vacation can be life-changing in more ways than one.
Not only will you have the opportunity to go out and explore the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of a volcanic island, you’ll also gain valuable skills and experience that can kickstart your journey to becoming a marine biologist.
Further reading: Volunteer in Spain’s Canary Islands: travel to Tenerife
Wildlife volunteer vacations
Getting involved in volunteer work with wild animals offers the perfect mix of excitement, ethical interactions, and everyday chances to spot new creatures hiding among the scenery. Here are some of the top programs you can choose from to get your fix.
3) Safeguard a jaguar stronghold in Costa Rica
The allure of the elusive jaguar has captured the imagination of civilizations throughout the ages.
But the demand for the pelts of these slinking cats has led to their population being hunted to near extinction.
The jaguars’ need for large roaming territories meant that as farmland expanded into their habitat, they began to prey on the livestock of farmers. This created a tense relationship between jaguars and farmers and resulted in them being hunted even more.
Costa Rica, a country known for its progressive conservation efforts, has become a refuge for the jaguar population. GVI works with organisations like Coastal Jaguar Conservation, Panthera and the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, in Tortuguero National Park, in efforts to protect jaguars, and has done so for more than a decade.
As a volunteer on this project, you’ll collect data on jaguar numbers and movements to find out what makes the population successful as well as how these conservation efforts can be maintained and replicated in other locations.
Your days will involve walking along a protected beach area (incidentally the only habitat where sea turtles and jaguars are known to interact) looking for signs of jaguar activity, as well as setting up and monitoring camera traps throughout the park.
While there, you might have the chance to catch a rare glimpse of a swatch of mottled fur through the thick jungle vegetation.
Further reading: Six unusual animals to look out for in Costa Rica
4) Contribute to cheetah conservation in South Africa
Conservation researchers have warned that the world may be underestimating the challenges faced by cheetah populations. As the world’s fastest land animal, there’s so much more we can learn about this spotted wild cat and its importance in the ecosystems they’re part of.
GVI staff and volunteers in Karongwe Private Game Reserve, near to South Africa’s well-known Kruger National Park, work on a range of conservation projects that add to the well-being of the global cheetah population. One of these projects involves collecting data on the feeding habits of cheetahs in the park.
The park is a predator-dense area, which means there’s a lot of competition for cheetahs from other, stronger and more resilient predators like lions and leopards. While their smaller size and leaner muscles make them well-suited for speed, cheetahs aren’t the strongest of the hunters in the savannah. Lions, leopards, hyenas and other large predators can easily overpower cheetahs and end up eating their food or encroaching on their territory.
Understanding how cheetahs survive in this type of environment allows researchers to advise other parks looking to grow their cheetah populations. Volunteers on this conservation trip have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in safeguarding Southern Africa’s cheetahs and their habitat.
5) Clear the way for baby sea turtles in their first journey to the sea in Greece
Endangered wildlife might not immediately spring to mind when someone mentions a Mediterranean beach. But part of the Meditteranean shoreline is in fact key to the survival of endangered sea turtles.
Most of these streamlined swimmers take over 20 years to reach maturity and when they do, mothers travel to their preferred beach spots to lay their eggs.
At these nesting grounds on the beach, turtle eggs are at risk of being discovered by land predators and mother turtles are exposed to poachers – who sell their meat, skin and shells. And, once hatched, baby sea turtles don’t have it any easier, since they’re the target of predators like seagulls and sharks. Adult sea turtles are also at risk of accidentally getting trapped in large fishing nets.
On a volunteer vacation in Greece’s Gulf of Kyparissia, you’ll spend your time camping on a Greek beach. In the evenings, you’ll walk the shore to measure and tag mother sea turtles during nesting. And in the mornings, you’ll look for nests dug overnight and put structures in place to safeguard them from flooding and predators.
While volunteers on this project are usually most excited about guiding hatchlings down to the water, many find being in the presence of mother sea turtles a deeply meaningful experience too.
Environmental volunteer vacation trips
One way to become one with the country you’re visiting is to immerse yourself in its natural settings and then make a positive contribution in these wild spaces. Here are some projects that can help you make this a reality.
6) Work to preserve Thailand’s coastline
Continuing with the theme of coastal conservation, let’s talk about our team’s work in Thailand’s Phang Nga province. Here, GVI staff and volunteers work to conserve the flora and fauna of this Asian ecosystem from the impacts of the country’s fast-growing tourism and fishing sectors.
The overdevelopment of beaches disrupts wind patterns along the shore, which affects the distribution of sand, resulting in the gradual erosion of beaches and coastal mangrove forests,
Another challenge in the area is the discarded fishing gear that floats around the ocean. Marine animals can become entangled in objects like fishing nets and may become fatally injured.
So in Phang Nga, our conservation activities look at addressing some of the biggest challenges to the survival of wildlife in the area. To increase turtle populations, new hatchlings are raised in nurseries until they are strong enough to be released into the ocean.
As a participant on a coastal conservation volunteer expedition to Phang Nga, you’ll work at a turtle nursery and assist local community members in setting up initiatives that minimise the negative impact that human activities have on the environment.
Further reading: Four reasons to volunteer in Thailand
7) Add to the conservation of an island ecosystem in Seychelles
Islands are home to many species found nowhere else in the world – such as the coco de mer palm and the black parrot of the islands in the Seychelles archipelago.
These one-of-a-kind species rely on the natural resources available on the island for survival, and as a result, are more vulnerable to threats from invasive alien species. These island species of plants and animals are an important source of genetic biodiversity, which adds to life on Earth on a global scale. And island settings also provide secluded environments where birds and marine life can rest, nest and nurse their young.
On a volunteer vacation to Seychelles, you’ll be maintaining one of these important island ecosystems on Curieuse Island. The entire island and its surrounding waters are a protected national park.
And as a volunteer with GVI, you’ll be part of the only research team permanently stationed on Curieuse Island. Habitat restoration, as well as coco de mer, mangrove and giant Aldabra tortoise research, are included on this project.
Between October and February, you’ll also get to collect data during the annual sicklefin lemon shark and sea turtle nursing seasons. While you might expect to be blown away by the beauty of this island, you may be most surprised to learn about its ecological significance.
Further reading: Top five reasons to volunteer in Seychelles
9) Safeguard the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System in Mexico
Ever heard of coral bleaching? Coral bleaching is caused by rising global atmospheric temperatures, where hotspots of ocean water fatally overheat coral reefs. These events are the topic of Netflix’s popular film, Chasing Corals.
Corals function as nursing grounds for fish, which means they are key to maintaining healthy fish populations. They also protect the coast from the effects of tropical storms.
Projects focused on plastic pollution, invasive species and unsustainable fishing methods all add to the well-being of corals by reducing the impact that these factors have on oceans.
You can be part of turning the tide of history by working to monitor the effects of coral bleaching on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System in Mexico. These colourful stretches of coral in the Carribean Sea make up the world’s second-largest reef after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
As a marine conservation volunteer on this project, you’ll be stationed at our base in Puerto Morelos on the coastline of Mexico. Your everyday work will include gathering data about the health of the reef, and removing plastic littering the coastal waters.
Further reading: The world’s disappearing underwater cities: coral reefs
One-week volunteer community development programs
Community development involves a whole host of work aimed at adding to the health and well-being, education and equality of people around the world. In some countries, the need for better infrastructure tops the list. You can be part of adding to the foundation that these countries have to offer their communities by getting involved in construction activities. Here are some of the best programs abroad.
10) Keep building on Nepal’s recovery from the 2015 earthquake
It’s easy to take our homes, schools, and roads for granted. Although it has been three years since the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, rebuilding efforts are still in progress. Many families lost their homes, children lost their places of learning, and sites of cultural and spiritual significance were completely destroyed. You can help with rebuilding and repairing homes and schools in the city of Pokhara, keeping families safe and children working towards a more prosperous future. You’ll also get to learn about Nepalese Hinduism in a unique way, by repairing local temples. In this way, you’ll be able to play a significant role Nepal’s history within the space of only one week.
Further Reading: The Top 6 Reasons To Volunteer in Nepal
11) Repair And Upgrade Schools In India
It’s easy to take our homes, schools and roads for granted. Although it has been years since the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, rebuilding efforts are still in progress.
Many families lost their homes, children lost their places of learning, and sites of cultural and spiritual significance were completely destroyed. You can add to the ongoing efforts taking place in Nepal by assisting with the rebuilding and maintenance of buildings in the city of Pokhara.
Please note that GVI does not allow volunteers to do construction tasks that require skilled labour. Instead, skilled labourers from the community are hired for specialised tasks, and volunteers will only do simple construction tasks like painting. Read more about our stance on construction volunteering.
These activities not only provide a structure for the community to make use of, but also offer the opportunity for better sanitation services and the implementation of better hygiene practices. This means that, through construction work, you can build on the well-being of the community in many different ways.
Further reading: How to trek responsibly when volunteering in Pokhara
11) Add to the foundations of community development in Fiji
Fiji’s Dawasamu island is the perfect setting for you to see how development challenges present in an island nation.
The waters surrounding the island make it a marine biodiversity hotspot, and a sanctuary for sea lovers from across the world. But, they also make sourcing materials and putting up structures a trying task for the island’s community.
Island resources are much more limited when compared to mainland locations because there’s less space to grow, mine or produce everything that’s needed. And, because they’re encircled by the sea, island nations are the most vulnerable to adverse weather conditions that whip up ocean storms, as well as the rising sea levels resulting from global warming.
On a volunteer vacation in Fiji, you’ll get to soak up the sun and hear the palm trees rustle in the breeze while learning about island living and adding to a positive global impact.
You’ll work alongside community members to set up greenhouses and water infrastructure. You’ll also contribute to the maintenance of school buildings and community centres.
Volunteer vacations Asia
With its myriad cultural influences, and vast opportunities to take part in sustainable development, Asia is a continent where participants can experience an epic volunteer trip abroad.
12) Teach novice Buddhist monks in Laos
What are you looking for in a volunteer vacation? Sweeping mountain vistas peppered with palm trees? Opportunities to immerse yourself in a culture different to your own? Proximity to serene natural spaces? If that sounds like a fit, then a volunteer vacation to Laos is the perfect choice.
Since 2009, GVI has been partnering with temple schools in Luang Prabang. Volunteers get involved by assisting local teachers in delivering English, mathematics and computer skills classes for young novice monks.
Some of these monks don’t commit to a full monastic life once they come of age, but rather join the country’s growing tourism sector. By joining this project, you’ll be supporting them in increasing their possibilities for employment in the future.
Further reading: Ten reasons to volunteer in Laos
13) Promote gender equality in Cambodia
There are many groups, both governmental and private, working towards gender equality in Cambodia. GVI participants play a role in supporting these organisations: to achieve their goals and amplify their impact.
Our volunteer projects aim to provide women with better access to education, alternative incomes, employment opportunities and public health.
One of the biggest challenges affecting gender equality worldwide is the lack of women’s access to opportunities and involvement in society when compared to men.
Participate in the global empowerment of women by working with Cambodia’s local communities and organisations in the city of Siem Reap. And as you do so, make the most of every opportunity to learn about local communities such as the Khmer people.
Further reading: Nine of the best things to do in Cambodia
Volunteer vacations in Africa
Experience the diversity of the African continent first-hand in projects focused on what matters most in different African communities.
14) Coach sports in Cape Town
Did you have a parent, sibling, grandparent or even a teacher who would spend the afternoons after school with you, making lunch, going through homework and playing games? If you did, you’ll know how much this meant to you as a child and how it shaped your future.
In South Africa, as in many other locations around the globe, teachers and parents in lower-income communities are under a lot of pressure. Educators need to cope with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient resources, while parents often work long hours to support their households.
You can contribute to one of these communities in Cape Town by conducting sports lessons both during and after school hours. Inspire a lifelong interest in sports, promote the value of exercise, and provide students with much-needed social engagement and encouragement.
Further reading: Top nine experiences to have in Cape Town
15) Support Ghanaian women in their self-empowerment efforts
Women in Ghana have been gaining more economic, social and political power, especially in the past few years. But, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that this trend continues.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one of the main catalysts for change is education. And, on GVI’s women’s empowerment project near Accra, you’ll be part of the movement towards quality education for all.
Get involved in organising and presenting professional development, alternative income, preventive healthcare, and English language workshops. While interacting with local women you’ll pick up on their languages and beliefs, and learn about cultures different to your own.
Further reading: 16 Interesting facts about Ghana
Volunteer vacations in Latin America
Go from low-lying seascapes to high-altitude mountain communities when you volunteer in Latin America and add to UN SDG 4: Quality Education.
16) Add to children’s access to education in Peru
In any location, an unequal distribution of resources to schools means that many children from lower-income communities won’t receive the same standard of educational support and opportunities.
In the region of Cusco, the tourist capital of Peru – thanks to its proximity to the world famous Machu Picchu – you can join community partners to add to education work in the area. As with all GVI programs, initiatives in Peru are set according to areas the community has identified as needing support.
You could get involved in supporting local educators in the classroom with English lessons, help facilitate skills development sessions for local entrepreneurs, or partner with local women on empowerment activities.
Further reading: 12 awesome things to do in Peru
17) Contribute to childhood development in Mexico
Globally, the access that children have to education is in the spotlight. In many countries, development challenges mean that children still don’t have access to schools that offer the best educational opportunities.
Without a quality education, children have less opportunities to learn about important things like how to follow a healthy lifestyle, complete their basic schooling, or access employment opportunities in the future.
As a volunteer in Mexico, you’ll be part of work that is continuously building on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 4: Quality Education. You’ll assist the local branch of Save the Children, in running everyday educational activities with children. You’ll support them in completing homework, facilitate English lessons, or even host story time sessions that spark their imaginations.
18) Work with women in Costa Rica to add to their well-being
Globally, it’s far more difficult for women to set up and grow a business or get a higher paying job than it is for men. This is mostly due to a lack of educational and professional support available to women across the globe.
Women make up almost half of the global population. Yet, according to the UN, women account for only 23,7% of national party members worldwide and make up only 13% of agricultural landholders.
With political power and farming being two of the most influential factors shaping the world today, these stats go to show that there’s lots to be done to boost gender equality globally.
But, what makes it easier for men to excel in society? While this is a complex question, it boils down to women having unequal access to education, healthcare, and opportunities for political and social participation.
The good news is that access to programs, like GVI’s short courses in computer and interviewing skills, can build on women’s self-empowerment in a meaningful way. And, through programs that offer these and other long-term opportunities, women can significantly increase their earning power and even their social involvement.
This is especially true for women in more rural areas, where education is not as readily available as in urban areas. By joining our women’s empowerment program in Costa Rica, you’ll work with women in the town of Quepos to set up their own social enterprise initiatives and develop alternative means of income.
While completing your stay, don’t be surprised when you start living the pura vida way (which literally means “pure life” in Spanish): by focusing on taking things as they come, enjoying life’s simple pleasures, and making the contentment of yourself, your family and the community you’re volunteering in, a priority.
So, no matter where you decide to travel to, or what volunteer program you choose to take part in, volunteer vacations offer some of the best opportunities to have meaningful life experiences. This is because they give you the chance to live, learn and interact with others in new ways.
And, with GVI programs promising you the chance to make an impact, receive support before, during and after the program, and have ample opportunity to up your personal and professional development, what more could you ask for?
Pick a GVI volunteer vacation that speaks to your passions, goals, and travel aspirations and get excited about having one of the most meaningful trips of your life.