Ranjitha Menon, a Kochi-based gynaecologist, and her husband, also a doctor, for instance, recently took a vacation to northeastern India where they decided to volunteer in a health camp organised by a doctors' association in a village in Assam.
"For us, visiting the northeast and volunteering in a health camp to help those who desperately needed assistance was a perfect amalgamation that can be termed a fulfilling experience. By being in such close proximity with the locals we didn't just see the beauty of Assam but could also understand the culture and tradition of the place that no guide could have explained," Ranjitha said.
Being a niche field, it's difficult to put an exact number on the number of people who opt for volunteer tourism; yet according to Saurabh Sabharwal, founder of Go Discover Abroad, a travel portal, it receives requests from 400-500 people - both Indians and foreigners - for volunteer tourism in India every year.
"Delhi and Palampur are the most popular destinations with volunteer travellers, and they are mostly looking forward to doing work in childcare, community development, and health work, apart from exploring the place," Sabharwal told IANS.
The cost of a package, which includes all the frills of travel and stay, along with getting in touch with organisations for voluntary work, can range from Rs.28,500 (USD 450) a week to Rs.6,300 (USD 100) for every extra week, Sabharwal added.
Sharat Dhall, president of travel portal yatra.com, said that most foreigners opting for volunteer tourism have long-stay plans in India. "Though it's difficult to put a number to those travelling for volunteer tourism, as and when we get to speak to customers we understand that travellers visiting India for longer hauls do have voluntary work as a part of their travel agenda".
"Trips of these kind are majorly confined to parts of northeastern India and lesser developed areas in the country where travellers can make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged by participating in development and support initiatives," he added.
Not everyone, however, goes through travel and tour companies for voluntary work although they may enquire about such possibilities. Officials at an orphanage in Uttar Pradesh's Agra city, for instance, said that they have foreign nationals volunteering for a month to as long as three months during their trip to India.
"Volunteers get in touch with us and ask for our requirements, and spend as much time as they can spare, but most of them come for at least three-four weeks. Some stay longer. After that they go ahead with their travel plans of exploring India," one of the officials said.
Bangalore-based psychiatrist Saranya Devanathan who often combines work with leisure and has planned her travel through travel portals like HolidayIQ.com, goes on to say that if more people engage in voluntary services while travelling for leisure, this will positively affect society.
"However, intent will define outcome. I would suggest some basic training in the kind of voluntary service (that the person wants to do), as well as awareness about the destination itself," Devanathan said. "For me, travelling on work and staying back to experience the destination and engage in such activities always feels good."
But it's not just in India that travellers are looking at volunteer tourism. According to travel experts, Indian travellers are exploring options of working with wild animals in Africa, teaching children in Kenya, teaching English to fishermen in Thailand and the like, adding a new dimension to a "fulfilling holiday".
(Azera Rahman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
--IANS (Posted on 17-11-2013)