'Voluntours' growing in popularity in Singapore

A volunteer from the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) conducting a storytelling session for children in Bandung, Indonesia as part of a Words on Wheels project. The number of people who go out of Singapore to volunteer has more than doubled f
A volunteer from the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) conducting a storytelling session for children in Bandung, Indonesia as part of a Words on Wheels project. The number of people who go out of Singapore to volunteer has more than doubled from 300 in 2011 to 750 last year.PHOTO: MARK SOH

More Singaporeans venturing out to fulfil their wanderlust charitably

Visiting Nepal was a dream come true for Mr Andy Sim, 42, who loves it for its natural beauty and rich Buddhist culture.

But to make his trip an experience of a lifetime, the corporate communications executive went one step further. Instead of simply going on a vacation to Nepal, he decided to volunteer.

In 2011, he paid about $1,500 to spend about a week at the Pema Choling monastery near Lukla to teach English to Buddhist monks aged between five and 12. The experience, he said, was life-changing.

Mr Sim is among a growing group of "voluntourists" here, people who seek to fulfil their wanderlust charitably.

The number of people who go out of Singapore to volunteer has more than doubled from 300 in 2011 to 750 last year, said the Singapore International Foundation, which runs a programme that sends volunteers to countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar.

Its director of international volunteerism, Ms Margaret Thevarakom, said: "We believe Singaporeans are keen to make a difference."

At least two major local travel agencies said they too have seen more demand for trips with charitable elements, such as tours with one or two days of volunteering at orphanages or schools.

Chan Brothers Travel spokesman Jeremiah Wong said it started such tours in 2007, and now "organises more of these on an ad hoc basis". The tours have been "very well received", he said, citing how a a cruise tour in China involving tree-planting and school visitations had 200 participants back in November 2011.

The trend could be due to Singaporeans "getting more attuned to the happenings around the world and increasingly aspiring to do more in giving back", he said.

Mr James Teo, 50, managing director of a distribution firm, said the tours allow travellers to sightsee and contribute to society without breaking the bank.

He paid about $1,000 for a five-day trip to help villagers in Cambodia next month. "There's not much of a price difference."

Such tours, added Mr Wong, are not priced significantly higher to ensure that "anyone who has the intention to volunteer... will not be deterred by the cost".

Dynasty Travel's director of marketing communications Alicia Seah said adding a volunteer programme to a tour itinerary could be free or cost as little as $20.

But cost also varies according to the type of activity, she said. For instance, programmes involving bazaar sales could cost more due to venue and facilities.

Besides teaching kids or painting schools, tourists on "voluntours" can do things such as play games with children at orphanages, or plant trees, added Ms Seah.

The number of people who sign up for these tours at Dynasty Travel has grown steadily at about 20 per cent every year since they were started three years ago.

Ms Seah said that this was largely fuelled by firms which include volunteer work in corporate trips.

Ms Samantha Chen, 25, for example, will be going to Bangkok with her pharmaceutical company to help schoolchildren next month.

Said the human resources executive: "When we help with painting and cleaning up the school, it helps with team building and also improves the environment for the children there."

audreyt@sph.com.sg