Sustainable Travel and ‘Voluntourism’ – What’s the Crack? Interview with The Bamboo Project…

Backpackers these days get a bad rap, particularly in South East Asia, which is one of the world’s most popular places to take a ‘gap year’. Films such as ‘Gringo Trails’ attempt to show the impact of global tourism and the threat that it poses to the environment and the local communities. A grim picture is created. One in which travelers have little respect for the cultures or landscapes that they are visiting. But is this really fair? Do backpackers want to experience more than just partying and do they knowingly destroy the places that they travel?

Ang ThongHow can we protect incredible landscapes like this?

Is backpacking in general, a force for good or bad for the world? Like everything of course, it depends how you do it! We believe that backpacking is such an incredible and varied pursuit and that if done in the right way, can certainly have a positive impact on the world. After all, understanding other cultures and learning from each other is surely the only way to progress and live together in harmony! Backpacking can be an enriching experience for all. So, how can we make sure that our travels have a positive impact upon the countries and communities that we visit? And, at the same time – have an absolutely incredible experience!

The Growth of Voluntourism

In recent years, a number of travel companies have attempted to bridge the ‘gap’ between having a good time whilst you travel and putting something back into the communities that you visit. These companies aim to lessen the impact of the environmental footprint of the backpacker whilst at the same time contributing in a positive way to local projects; schooling, animal sanctuaries, eco-building and more…

But are these companies all that they are cracked up to be? Do they actually help the communities that they claim to care about? How can we be sure that they are not just jumping on the bandwagon of ‘voluntourism’ and using this latest trend simply to sell more tours!?

We caught up with British-born Mark and Steve who are the founders of ‘The Bamboo Project,’ a company that helps to put backpackers in touch with sustainable NGO projects in South East Asia and creates trips that are a mix of adventure and volunteering.

mark steveMeet Mark and Steve of The Bamboo Project

A Chat with Mark and Steve from The Bamboo Project

Tell us about your company and why you started it?

The Bamboo Project is not just a travel/volunteer company, it’s a collection of people, volunteers, adventure travellers, local NGOs, tour guides and international partners that all share a common goal: to provide a ‘win-win’ for both the communities we visit and the ‘customers’ we take along for the ride. It’s not complicated or difficult, it’s a simple, honest approach to group adventure travel that incorporates sustainable volunteer projects. Basically for those ‘backpackers’ who want to come to SE Asia, party hard, meet new people, explore new worlds but ‘give-back’ at the same time, the all-round ‘Give-Back-Packer!’

amboo 2Volunteer teaching English in a school in Koh Samui

It was started as both Steve and I felt that although ‘voluntourism’ does have a lot of negative press (and some of it deservedly so), this does not mean that there is still not a legitimate ‘need’ for its existence. As long as the tours / projects are done right, open and transparent then we see no reason why supporting under-privileged schools, elephant villages, a small independent NGO in the Northern hill tribes of Chiang Rai, the Cat & Dog population on Koh Samui, the marine life around Koh Tao, a locally founded NGO that offers free education and healthcare to 15,000 people in Siem Reap can ever be a ‘negative’ experience for either party. Again, a simple ‘win-win’!

dogsHelping out at an animal sanctuary in Koh Samui, Thailand

Check out Bamboo’s full range of volunteering projects here.

Why do people have to pay to volunteer?

Something we hear about all the time and to be honest I would have thought the same before launching Bamboo. It’s probably the one thing that bugs everyone, and gives the business such a bad rap. For us though it’s simple; you’re not paying to volunteer, you’re paying for EVERYTHING that surrounds the experience. Your accommodation, transportation, project materials, the staff that are with you 24/7, donation to the project, the ‘safe-in-the-knowledge’ that you know who you are working with, protecting you from when it all goes wrong scenarios, holding your hand if you feel insecure or pushing you in the right direction if you need a bit of help and guidance.

templesThe trips with Bamboo Project include travel and adventure too!

Sure, we appreciate that not everyone will want to join the team. There are a lot of independent people out there and of course we support and applaud them. I am not aware of any schools that would accept ‘walk-in’ volunteers and would worry if there are any that do. With us, and our reputation within communities we can ensure that everyone, both project and volunteer, is protected.

What questions should a backpacker ask before signing up to volunteer?

I love questions and the trickier the better! Any company in the world should embrace being asked the hardest of questions, because if they can’t answer them they’re probably in the wrong game.

For us we found that working with local NGOs is a must for the legitimacy of our organisation. We don’t pretend to be professors in sustainable development, so we hand over the cash and hard labor to the people who are. In our line of work I would most certainly ask “What benefit is the project to the local community?” and really there should be a zillion answers to this and potentially even photographic evidence to support them.

Both Steve and I have experienced the horrors of volun-tourism where companies literally ‘make-up’ projects for the benefit of looking good on their websites or to appear more appealing to a potential sale when in reality the project will only ‘run’ if ‘they’ manage to sell to people who are perhaps naïve enough to join.

VolunteerHelp where it is needed.

This is why we only work with local NGOs and organisations that have the experience and know-how of their own community, rather than a being company that dictates to a community what is going to happen as it will be more marketable to a certain demographic. So a good question to combat this would perhaps be:

Why did you set up this project in this region, do you work with locals from the area, how do you decide where to go and what to do?”

To which they should be able to give you masses of information about the process of working with (and listening to) local communities, why that particular region was chosen and with whom they work with to ensure the project is really benefiting those who need it.

Another good strategy would be to go on the Facebook page of that organisation and perhaps contact some of the people who ‘Like’ their page and ask for their thoughts towards that organisation. And finally which is probably the most obvious question of all:

“Where exactly does my money go?”

And this should be an EASY, quick response followed by countless photos, videos and testimonials. Which I see leads nicely to your next question…

Where does the money go when a backpacker signs up for Bamboo Project?

In our opinion, this should be question number one. If you don’t receive a clear and concise answer, it may be that something’s being hidden. For our customers, we have this explained on our website. We also have documents here in Thailand that support what it states – we don’t just throw figures at you in the hope it’ll confuse you!

It’s not always possible however to give an exact breakdown when dealing with NGOs. This is purely because we can’t control how they spend the money we give them. We have a rough idea but there are many variables involved.

These variables work like this; a four week development project in the northern hill tribe communities of Chiang Rai is more expensive to set up than a two week English teaching placement on Koh Samui and that Chiang Rai development project will vary depending on the number of volunteers and the needs of the community that’s at the top of the list to be supported! You get the picture. There are far more overheads involved. These variables continue in to how long a volunteer is staying, which project they have chosen, the time of year, if they’re accompanied by a friend who is or isn’t volunteering, are they experienced and so on.

teachingTwo week English teaching placement on Koh Samui

As we’ve touched on above, the volunteering part of any trip is free. The cost is generated by the amount of work behind the scenes that goes in to ensuring that the volunteer receives the very best time during their stay, that the project is supported the way we promise it will be, the staff receive a salary (we do have to eat!) and so on. We do have to operate as a business, and every business the world over has bills to pay. Without our volunteers understanding this and putting their trust in us, the projects we support wouldn’t receive anything like the support they receive now, and in some cases would simply have to shut down completely. 

What type of NGOs do you work with? Why is it so important that they are local?

We only work with established, experienced and ‘local’ organisations. This is quite simply because there are no better people to help a community than the community itself. We listen, observe and support local efforts to provide better health, education and to try and improve the local environment. A good example of this would be our projects in Chiang Rai that exist in conjunction with a home-grown NGO, established for over 30 years and who work with with over 100 hill-tribe villages. They understand each and every dialect, cultural nuance and specific ‘need’ of each individual tribe and we would never, ever tell them they’re doing it wrong. This for us is the only way we can ensure that our projects throughout South East Asia specifically target the exact needs of the community.

school chiang raiVolunteering at a school in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Unfortunately it often happens that international NGOs set up camp in some remote village or dark corner of a country (not just in Asia) and tell the locals what they’re going to get, how they’re getting it, when it’s happening and what it’s for. They arrive with the best of intentions and a genuine desire to help. However, they rarely consider the real needs of the community and don’t look at the long term goals or the projects sustainability. What’s right for the NGO is very often not required or simply cannot be maintained by the locals who don’t have the education, training or even tools required to maintain whatever it is. The NGO then completes the project, stands back, expects a huge pat on the back and leaves. We’ve seen this happen in Thailand and we’re not in to that, oh no. We actually want to help the locals achieve what they want to achieve. We want to aid them through financial and physical help and, if required, advice from a different perspective.

How does volunteering actually help?

In terms of the Teaching, and to some extent the childcare projects, that’s an easy reply as our ‘native’ English speaking volunteers can provide direct access to quality language learning simply by opening their mouths. The schools we work with have no funding or access to ‘expensive’ foreign teachers. Our volunteers, supported by our trained and qualified team, are able to apply and overcome a direct need to a poor community; the gift of language. For the emerging tourism market of SE Asia this is so important for under-privileged people and children to help themselves out of poverty. Having just a basic grasp of the English language opens up a whole mass of opportunities for locals.

teachingNative English speakers are very high in demand!

As for our development or building volunteers they are not only a bit of ‘elbow grease’, they also provide funding, awareness, cultural exchanges, a boost to the local economy and are able to speed up the entire process. With a group of 25 university students from the USA we were able to complete, within a week, a community centre that will house educational classes, workshops, village meetings, childcare facilities, out-reach medical days and so on for an entire hill tribe community in northern Chiang Rai province. Only with a group this size were we able to fully fund the construction of this much needed facility and have it completed in a week! And this project also employed 12 locally skilled craftsmen, who without this project, may have had zero income – it’s that old ‘win-win’ again…..

Samui-3Get your hands dirty! Building more resources for schools in Thailand

Of course it could be argued “why not just raise the money and send it over?” which of course is something that we love to see and encourage. Any amount of fund-raising or awareness raising to a worthy cause should be encouraged. We simply feel that our approach brings the fundraiser to the action, no better way to raise awareness than witnessing the need yourself. As long as it is professionally managed and executed and working in conjunction WITH the community. Moreover, you raise money, send it off, and can then only hope that it goes where you’ve been told it’s going. By joining the project yourself you actually get to see your money working for the benefit of the people, animals, children etc.

Tell us about some of your specific projects at the moment?

We currently deal with 27 projects across 4 countries in SE Asia with more in the pipeline as we begin to ‘clone’ our concept of ‘Give-Back-Packing’: working WITH local NGOs and charities with the mix of adventure travel touring goodness.

Our most popular projects are located on the beautiful island of Koh Samui with our Teach & Beach or Beach & Build. These both center on a small school on the quieter northern part of the island.

teach beachTeach and Beach Project in Thailand

Here we have two approaches to improving education and the actual learning environment of the school and quite simply this is achieved by providing quality English classes and micro-development on the buildings and the grounds. We want the kids to WANT to go to school rather than feel they HAVE to go to school – yup, it’s the same the world over!

Samui-1Beach and Build Project in Thailand

Over the past several months just 11 volunteers have been able to: implement and create a recycling system that provides additional income to the school, dig out a drainage system to stop one of the buildings from flooding during monsoon season, expand the dining and eating area so that the children do not have to eat their food whilst sitting on the floor, created an educational garden and given the entire school a good solid lick of paint. By working with the school staff we’ve also managed to produce a rather lengthy list of projects for 2015 that are going to require a large number of volunteers. These include building a new library building, from scratch! We’re currently recruiting any volunteers, skilled or not, to help us out on that one in particular.

Having the teaching and the development projects at the same location is perfect as it enables the volunteers to work together. The banter is a great inspiration to keep going and the fun that comes with dealing with 250 ‘wild’ Thai children is immense! Our team of coordinators is always on hand to help, support and guide and most importantly to make sure that the volunteers are kept informed. OH, and at the end of each day, when the volunteers have used up the last drop of sweat, or they’re covered in chalk dust, it’s rather nice that the best beach on Samui is literally a few hundred meters away – Pina Colada optional!

10563056_287341244781588_8369318958413241365_nRelaxing on the beach after a day teaching!

What do you think of backpackers who volunteer for a few days / visit orphanages while they travel?

That’s a belter of a questions and one that gets asked again and again in all sorts of press and with all sorts of answers. In my opinion anyone who wants to spend their own time in the pursuit of helping others can be nothing but a wonderful thing BUT (and this is a BIG BUT) it has to be only to the benefit of others and not your Facebook profile picture.

I have witnessed both the best and the worst of this business and it is clear and obvious what can be done in a few days to what can be done in 2 weeks or 2 months. If you have a few days spare, why not spend it raising awareness for a cause through your friends and social media? Or if you have a particular skill that you think may benefit a project perhaps contact the organisation offering such skills (We are looking for any good website programmers FYI).

Wherever there is money involved there are always going to be unscrupulous individuals looking to cash in. This is life 101 and isn’t confined to international volun-tourism as some articles may like you to believe. Regarding the orphanage debate in particular, we believe that the more media attention this is given the better due to the fact there are so many companies out there simply creating orphanages and childcare projects to get rich. We’ve experienced ourselves cases of children being ‘shipped’ to fake homes to act as orphans, only to be returned to their families at the end of the day or week! There are SO many dodgy companies out there making money off the backs of these kids BUT (Again my BUT is MASSIVE) there are also noble and worthy causes out there too. It’s such a pity that the minority of fake or just simply bad companies can tarnish the entire business.

volunteeringProtecting those most at risk.

So I guess to answer your question, during your travels I would not recommend visiting an orphanage or children’s home without A LOT of research before hand. Remember to ask those questions and get those answers.

How do you mix this volunteering with adventure tours? 

This really comes down to our spirit of adventure as an organisation and as people. Steve and I are in this game as we simply love travel, love the people we meet and the places we go and this is why we feel compelled to ensure we give something back to the countries that have given us so much. When working in SE Asia it’s not hard to find the adventure, every time you walk down the road here it punches you in the face, egging you to take the dive and release.

10556365_287336554782057_3586754803101551377_nFinding adventure round every corner!

In order for us to pay the bills we need to offer our unique take on adventure travel. So if you’re going to come to Thailand, drink your buckets, visit your temples, dance under the moon, race your Tuk Tuks, get that Tattoo (sorry mum!) why not do it ALL and more but give back at the same time. We offer adventure tours that incorporate volunteering and tours that don’t, but either way a percentage of the margin goes towards maintaining our projects and keeping them sustainable and supporting the people we meet along the way.

KAYAKTime to kayak…

party… and party!

Do you think backpacking is a force of good / bad for the world?

Naturally I would of course say “good”. Backpacking is about ‘finding yourself’ or even if you’re like me ‘losing yourself’. As long as you tread softly, politely and with a constant smile on your face, I can’t see how it could possibly be bad. Backpacking as a concept is wonderful. It is only the individual who can decide to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

How can a backpacker make sure that their visit makes a positive impact?

In general I would say avoid changing the environment you are in. By that I mean be culturally aware of your surroundings. SEA Asia is a shy, reserved place and should be respected as such. While on the flight over spend some time checking out the local taboos, but don’t get overwhelmed by them. Tolerance is one of many lovely qualities that SE Asian people have, as long as they see you making the effort they will be beaming with smiles.

beachDo you Bamboo!?

If you are thinking of doing something different such as giving back to the communities that you visit, do your research, ask the questions. If whomever you’re asking can’t answer then that in itself is the answer you need.

Check out The Bamboo Project to discover their projects and follow them on their Facebook Page to get to know more about what they do!

This is a sponsored article.