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The Search for Meaningful Travel
2009/05/15
By : Nora Dunn
Meaningful Travel is a catch phrase that can take on many forms. But look a little deeper than the superficial definition, and look past some jaded travelers who tell you that making a difference in the world as a traveler is impossible, and you will see a host of opportunities that could redefine your idea of travel entirely.

What is Meaningful Travel?
On the surface, Meaningful Travel might simply be a euphemism for Volunteer Travel, or Voluntourism. Although this is not far off the mark, Meaningful Travel can mean (pardon the pun) so much more.

Travel enthusiasts who are committed to a better world have tapped into the Voluntourism industry as a way to provide their services while away from home. However, there is an increasing number of organizations out there who claim to be the promoters of volunteer vacations that, upon closer inspection, seem to be more concerned with their own bottom line and the traveler's perceived idea of what makes a sustainable difference than they are with actually helping local communities in need. High-end price tags and flashy packaged tours of impoverished areas (that scream of voyeurism rather than volunteerism) tend to round out the offering of these less than honest companies.

Meaningful Travel, in its most basic form, is a way for a traveler to feel they have done something that will make a difference at the end of the day. Be it helping to build a well in Africa, reading storybooks to kids after school in Ecuador, or learning to live in an ecologically sustainable manner, making a meaningful difference can mean a lot of things.

Most of us, though, don't know how to go about finding meaningful travel opportunities on our own. This is where the volunteer travel industry comes in.

Tough to See Both Sides
I was in remote northern Thailand in May of 2008, when Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma and narrowly missed me. I started an international NGO-on-the-fly, where financial donations from people around the world were funneled into a fund so I could purchase goods in Chiang Mai and send them to Burma. I figured that there were many items that, in light of the cyclone, the people of Burma would need but not have access to. But when I tried to find an aid organization in Burma to tell me what they needed and accept the donation, all I came up with was a host of requests for money, not donations in-kind.

I couldn't understand why all these organizations just wanted money. Like many donors, the people who gave money to my cause were not interested in being anonymous contributors to large aid organizations with a host of overhead expenses and "administrative fees" that would erode the power of each dollar donated. I was in a frustrating situation; in trying to do (what I thought was) the best for the people of Burma, I felt my hands were tied.
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