“Just another half-hour guys, please” I coaxed, soothed and encouraged my tired group to pull out another hectare of weeds. We were dramatically improving koala habitat, but it was tough work. It’s not how I would want to spend my whole holiday.
These were full-on voluntours – conservation work was the reason travellers were here with us. But there had to be a better way.
At the same time, we were running “normal” tours. Guests walked with us through beautiful wild koala habitat, seeing koalas, kangaroos, possums and birds. These tours are really popular, and we take out 5,000 people every year, in small groups of 2 to 8 guests. Many of our guests saw the work the conservation groups did, and asked if they could help. “Too right you can! Let’s just do a couple of weeds here…”
We realised we could do more on our “normal” tours if every guest pulled out one weed. That’s 5,000 weeds a year MINIMUM. Most of our guests pull out 10. That’s 50,000 weeds a year!
But is it real voluntourism? Well, we asked ourselves, what is voluntourism? Does it have to be uncomfortable and boring? Do you have to do it all day, every day for a week? Or should it be about the results?
We can achieve more conservation work by incorporating it into all our tours. It would be crazy not to. Our guests have embraced the concept magnificently. In our six month trial, around 90% of our guests pulled out a weed. The ones who didn’t had good reason – illness or injury that prevented them from leaning over. We made it clear that weeding was completely optional. In that six months we were thrilled and overwhelmed by our guests’ enthusiasm for the project.
It seems we are not the only ones thinking this way. Most successful voluntourism projects around the world combine the hard work with fun.
There is still a place for hard-core voluntourism. We still run trips with a substantial component of weeding, but we’ve made sure it’s just enough to be fun. These trips do achieve a lot. But our “normal” trips are achieving more.
We call it conservation tourism.
Update January 2015: we’ve now been running the Make a Home for Koala Clancy conservation project for 2 years, and the progress is overwhelming. Huge areas of the You Yangs are now cleared of the weed. Importantly, too, our koala sightings have gone up 370% since before the project – that means more koalas are using the area we are weeding. It’s working!!