Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

How Travelers Can Help Local People, an Alternative to Conventional Voluntourism

I want to get your reaction to an idea, but first I need to give you some background.

Voluntourism, travel designed to facilitate guests helping local people by volunteering their time is considered to be one of the biggest growth areas in travel.

A year ago April a post on suggested that incentive travel is  “potential growth area for 2009 and beyond,” for the, “voluntourism industry.”

In 2009 Travel + Leisure magazine gave its first Voluntourism Award to  Gap Adventures, a Global Tour Operator that operates 90,000 clients annually, hundreds of whom participate in voluntourism.

Put voluntourism in Google Search and you get 129,000 hits.

I trust that most voluntourism is well intentioned, yet there is something about the majority of the projects that bothers me. Building schools and clinics, tagging and counting turtles, helping in a local pre-school and similar projects almost always involves people from rich countries paying to do badly tasks that local people in poor countries should get paid to do well.

In most cases the scarce resource that voluntourism provides is money, not labor.  The guests’ labor is often the price that the local communities have to pay for the money.

While in most cases the communities are probably better of with this kind of voluntourism than they would be without it, it strikes me as slightly hypocritical and mutually denigrating.

I did not always recognize this.  It was not until my wife, who growing up poor in rural El Salvador was a resentful recipient of missionary charity, emphatically pointed out to me how self-serving our voluntourism projects were that I began to search for an alternative.

I found two: Medical voluntourism and teaching languages, especially English.  In both cases visitors have the rewarding experience of helping local people with something besides money, that local people cannot provide for themselves, truly need and want, and that the visitors are uniquely qualified to provide. 

The problem has been how to apply these models to a significant number of our guests.  Most of them are not doctors. Even for those that are it would be challenging to fit into a typical vacation, say a cataract operation

Then it hit me, all my guests speak English. Would it be feasible for our guests to teach local children? How would it work?  Would guests want to do it?

Becoming proficient in English for a child in Costa Rica (and most other parts of the non-English speaking world) can provide more long term benefit to the child than having a cataract removed might have for an adult.  Simply put, English at least doubles lifetime earning.

The challenge is that unlike doctors services where an hour of medical treatment can make a lasting difference, it takes years of continual exposure to become proficient in a language.

I know a few North Americans who have dedicated years of their lives teaching English to Costa Ricans, but they are not voluntourists.  They are expats and they own language schools that cater mostly to a middle-class clientele.

What I need is a way for my guests to have the rewarding experience of using only a few hours of their vacation time teaching English to selected motivated children who otherwise would not have an opportunity to learn the language. I also need the children to have the prolonged exposure in the language that leads to fluency.

Lots of different teachers for the same kids.

So that’s the background.  Here’s the question:  If there were a very fast and easy to learn teaching method that after 20-30 minutes of reading would allow new teachers to jump in and pick up where former teachers have left off share knowledge of English with a child and indicate the child’s proficiency level to the next teacher, do you think you find rewarding spending at least two hours on your next vacation to the non-English speaking world sharing your knowledge with a local child?  Do you think other people would?


The best blog I’ve found on voluntourism is Voluntourismgal. The blog is oriented to the “industry” rather than the traveler.

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  • […] week’s post, How Travelers Can Help Local People, an Alternative to Conventional Voluntourism, sparked some very strong feelings and provocative […]

    • At May 16, 2010
      9:26:24 am
      Diane O said:

      I have been following the topics in Vacation Time is Precious, but this is my first response. The idea of some sort of cultural exchange when visiting a foreign country is compelling. Our first trip abroad was to Costa Rica last year with our 2 daughters, ages 14 and 12. I had always wanted to visit Costa Rica, but the trip was planned for their benefit, at least as much as it was for mine. Since both girls had been studying Spanish in school for several years, one thing I hoped was that they would have an opportunity to try using it. It turned out to be nearly impossible to get them to say so much as por favor or gracias. They were shy around adults, and didn’t feel comfortable being put on display to trot out their meager Spanish vocabulary. Interestingly though, they were quite comfortable interacting with the guides (who acted more like kids) in the natural setting on the river rafting portion of the trip. They enjoyed helping them with their English pronunciation and supplying the right words. One memory they often recall was simply the drive from the take out to Cano Blanco Port because our driver and one of the guides who came with us did not speak English, and we all had to try very hard to communicate. When we were in Tortuguero, the girls were fascinated by the village, and although we went for a visit, we never got to talk to anyone.
      Reflecting on these experiences, and thinking about how kids of all ages seem to interact better with, and be more influenced by, other kids than adults, I think it would be worthwhile to use kids and approach the “teaching English” thing more like a mutual teaching and cultural exchange. The simple dialogs that are used in Spanish programs in the US could be used as templates for developing vocabulary and dialog that would enable the kids to meet and learn about each other and have an adventure together. Our girls would have loved a tour of the town, a visit to the playground or the beach, or to learn a game, and in the process to practice communicating. I’m sure there are lots of 2 – 3 hour activities that could be arranged to generate dialog and verbal exchange among kids.

      • At May 14, 2010
        10:01:16 am said:

        We are open to the English teaching idea, although we are not “grammerians”. I would think that the majority of your customers would be interested.

        • At May 14, 2010
          9:59:28 am
          Blair Brenner said:

          Hi, Michael:

          My e-mail/gmail went poltergeist on me two days ago so I’m not sure if you received my enthusiastic response to your response- Please feel free to share the info I provided via a blog or in any other manner.

          Look forward to talking with you more-


          • At May 14, 2010
            9:57:48 am
            Marylou Austin-Nichol said:

            I can’t think of anything that I would enjoy more. I am a retired school principal and the one thing I truly miss is my contact with young people.

            • At May 08, 2010
              3:32:36 pm
              michael epstein said:

              Hello Michael….I believe your intention is going in a good direction, however the idea of only a couple of hours is really not enough to either establish any kind of meaningful connection with the students, and the little time you are advocating would not be fulfilling to me if I was the teacher. For me a minimum of a half a day would be rewarding, and why not repay the teacher with a meal with the students at lunch time. I believe that the satisfaction generated would make this a personal enriching vacation -the icing on the cake that would make the vacation time like no other.
              Keep up the good work…Michael

              • At May 14, 2010
                11:38:46 am
                Michael Kaye replied
                to :


                These are very good suggestions. We can make the amount of time flexible. The meal might present some problems for hygienic reasons, but we could do something like have the kids repay the lesson with a tour of the village.

              • IF there were a very fast and easy way to learn such a teaching method, it would be really useful for a lot of things, not just “voluntourism”. There isn’t. Some people, though they would love to be, are never going to be great teachers. Just because they can speak English, does not mean they can teach it.

                Besides this flawed assumption, the three main things that made me uncomfortable with this idea were:

                a) the title of this post. In order for us even to be considering this, the post should be called “How Travelers Can Help Local People Who Need and Want to Learn English.” I think this was addressed in previous comments, but teaching English is not necessarily better than building a fence if no one is doing a needs assessment and following up – knowing that this is a need – and making sure THIS is the most effective and overall positive way to do so.

                b) the statement: “What I need is a way for my guests to have the rewarding experience of using only a few hours of their vacation time teaching English…” This shouldn’t start with what WE need.

                c) my biggest issue with this: why kids? In my opinion, volunteer work and larger NGO projects in general should have a goal of helping people more easily solve these same problems in the future. If the problem is that kids are not learning English and they need/want to, then having someone transient teaching a few of them for a few hours is not helping anyone solve the same problem more easily in the future. If anything, why not have the travelers teach the TEACHERS – because at least then you are investing in a resource which can be improved and renewed. (I fear that the answer is that “the travelers want to work with kids” in which case go back to b.) We need to consider child safety issues as well as I’m pretty sure having a stream of visiting foreigners working with kids for short stints will be less beneficial and pose more risks than a well vetted and trained permanent teacher)

                I have a lot more thoughts about voluntourism and potential impacts on my blog. Here is a post about what I have seen go wrong with voluntourism:


                Thanks for sparking the conversation, Michael (and for passing it on Alexia!)

                • At May 05, 2010
                  9:44:26 am
                  Michael Kaye replied
                  to :

                  These are all good points, Daniela. Rather than respond to them in this reply to your comment. I will quote them and respond in future posts where more people will have a chance to see them and join the discussion if they are so inclined. I can see already that this is topic I will want to explore on the blog for some time to come.

                • At May 04, 2010
                  5:40:17 pm
                  Len said:

                  This is something I have been talking about for a long time. What good does it do for someone to spend $1000 on transportation to get somewhere to build something in a week that $1000 could have built four times over by local people?. Voluntourism is about good feelings for the tourist more that results for locals. I am a family doctor. We seem medical students who don’t speak Spanish going to Latin America or South America to help out for a few weeks on a medical mission. Why? How well can you treat someone if you cannot speak their language. Better to find a small local hotel, tour guide stay with them and contribute to the local economy and have a vacation at the same time!

                  • At May 04, 2010
                    11:28:48 am
                    Linda Wolan said:

                    This sounds like a great idea! I think the biggest obstacle will be providing a quick “teacher” training to your volunteers to get them up and running quickly so they can have a meaningful experience and contribute to the community while still having time for a traditional vacation in Costa Rica.

                    • At May 04, 2010
                      10:21:32 am
                      Paul C said:


                      I cat agree more that most of the volunteer stuff I see seems insulting

                      Great idea…I’m in

                      • At May 03, 2010
                        8:28:28 pm
                        Jennifer Fletcher said:

                        Excellent ideas.( However,IS there a fast & easy method of teaching a language?!)

                        But,yes, I think it’s a great idea to volunteer at teaching English,rather than at the other stuff you mention .It’s the old story about giving man a fishing rod rather than a fish…. Other languages are liberating, especially English in today’s world.And many people in Costa Rica can’t afford expensive language schools, as you say.
                        I’ve taught French, a little basic Spanish & English as a 2nd language when they were short-staffed for a few months in the HS I worked at here in Canada (some of the students were actually from El Salvador!).It’s not so easy teaching ESL – just being a native speaker doesn’t mean it’ll be a cinch.You have to work at it & see it from the students’point of view, as a foreign language.
                        I love your idea of helping children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn English .I firmly believe that motivated & bright people whose background may not be privileged should be given every chance of bettering themselves through education, right up to University,if they are academically inclined,& to other kinds of higher education if not.
                        Here in Montreal there are many young people who are trilingual – English, French & Spanish or whatever their native tongue is.

                        This is a great idea.I’m sure most people will be interested in giving some time to contribute to this worthy project.

                        • At May 03, 2010
                          7:23:54 pm
                          Jeff Coffey said:

                          Michael, I totally agree with your observation. Having participated in a mission trip in the past, I left not with a strong sense of accomplishment, but rather with the image of walking by local unemployed people, fully capable of being paid to do what I was volunteering to do. Needless to say, I began to question my efficacy there, who was it that was actually benfitting? The Sponsors?, Myself? Indeed I think that I benefitted the most from that experience, so maybe the experience really should be called something else.

                          I think that if there is a coordinated approach to teaching English, with a local teacher who considers it important to expose the students to native English speakers and English as a second (third, etc.)language speakers, and as an opportunity to perhaps come in and expound upon certain English concepts, differing dialects, plain useage, etc., – almost like a “guest speaker”. The volunteer could give a presentation that would maybe illustrate some aspect of the English language that the students are currently working on, while presenting it within a larger story, and rely on the teacher to really hammer it in before during and afterwards. I think that it would have to be a coordinated effort between a group of volunteers who could help the local teacher by accepting assignments from the teacher according to where the class would be during the volunteer’s/guest presenter’s travels through. The volunteers would coordinate stateside, and be led by someone who can initiate the contact with a local teacher/interpreter. Volunteers could possibly help offset the cost of the program by bringing school supplies, lesson materials, (whatever they need most that is practical), etc., to distribute to the school/students. Start small and focus on one school, one committed teacher, and get some success going. Find out what works and what doesn’t, and focus on what does! I think that you would find more people willing to accept assignments if they weren’t forced to explain the “Past Particple….”, but rather prepare a presentation that use words, concepts, etc. using the “Past Participle…” in a creative way. Yes, that would require some forethought on the part of each volunteer, to weave a lesson into a presentation that illustrates a concept, but hey,that is part of the committment. The volunteer would learn much more about the subject than his students, and learn much more about their native language and cultural situations as well. I think that the key is coordination by a committed leader who is close to a willing school and a teacher who is willing to cooperate on the development of their curriculum. Also, they may need to be able to fill in the gaps sometimes when no travellers are expected. However, if planning is done perhaps 1 or 2 semesters ahead of time, the teachers will know ahead of time when volunteers can be expected and can plan accordingly. Sorry for the diatribe, my $.02, but I do think that you have an excellent idea that could really benefit many people, and can be done! Cheers!

                          • At May 03, 2010
                            6:12:17 pm
                            Lynne Caletti said:

                            The National Wildlife Federation used to have Family Summits in different parts of the United States. They included five days of classes and outdoor activities for adults and children but encouraged participants to take a half or full day doing some volunteer work in the area that they had arranged for ahead of time, usually planting, picking up trash, or working on a trail. It was voluntary. I think one to two days of volunteering out of a week to ten days would be wonderful. I have heard that it does need to be something that is needed and wanted and would not compete with local workers. Couldn’t the people who live there be asked? Were you thinking about an hour each day or an hour total teaching English? My husband has done some volunteer dentistry in Mexico and Guatemala. He needed to be careful not to compete with the dentists that were working in those countries, so they worked in rural areas with the indigenous people. I do remember seeing on Gap’s website in the past where people worked on a water project for two to three days and they toured the rest of the time in Guatemala. Is there more of a need in Guatemala and Nicaragua? Safety would be an issue, and it would be helpful for people teaching English to know some Spanish. Actually, it would be a good experience on both sides for older children to help teach also with their parents.

                            • At May 03, 2010
                              2:36:23 pm
                              Shannon Borrego said:

                              I swore I wasn’t going to post a comment this week because I think I “talk” too much! However, I cannot resist commenting on this topic! I SO agree with Michael’s observations that many of the projects which tourists take on are not really in the best interest of the community. I remember going on a trip to the Amazon and one of the members in our group suggested that we all throw in money to cover the cost for a church to be built for the local Indian tribe. On the surface this seems like a wonderful thing to do, right? Well, it was my feeling that the local people did not particularly want us to do that. It seemed rather arrogant of us and there was this sort of self-congratulatory air about the whole thing. The church was a project which the people were working on together in a spirit of unity and when we came in and plunked down the money, it was somehow demeaning to them. My mother and I were the only ones who did not contribute to this project and I’m sure the others in our group thought we were just being cheap. However, I honestly felt that we should have asked the people if they wanted this instead of grandly taking over their project.
                              As to teaching English: I love the idea, but I think that volunteer teachers should only step in for 1 hour, not 2. There will most likely be some teachers who are good, but others who are not. It isn’t fair to subject the students to 2 hours of a rotten teacher. It also is easier to integrate one hour of a vacation into teaching than 2.

                              • At May 03, 2010
                                2:42:46 pm
                                Michael Kaye replied
                                to :

                                Keeping talking, Shannon. This is very helpful. As we progress we will keep close track of how long the lessons should last.

                              • At May 03, 2010
                                2:08:19 pm
                                Meena said:

                                Dear Michael , that is great idea , but the one problem That I can foresee is the time restriction for most of us vacationers . One would have to find extra time to do this , though I am sure that it would be very gratifying . I dont know if it would be possible to have a kind of volunteer exchange or pool , where travellers could register to teach a few hours of English at an assigned site .. I am well aware of the time it takes , since I am involved in a literary program for non English speaking adults .
                                Regards ,