Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Voluntourism and visas

I wrote a little something for Intelligent Travel (love them, by the way) about voluntourism.
I’ve been volunteering during my trips near and far for the past 15 years. From teaching bad English to playing with orphans to distributing condoms to building irrigation systems, I’ve done it all. Without ever paying a program fee or using a voluntour packager.


There is one aspect of voluntourism, however, that I did not cover in my story for Intelligent Travel. The legal side of short term volunteering abroad.

Simply put, if you enter a country on a tourist visa, or a visa waiver, you are not permitted to engage in any paid or UNPAID work, unless you happen to be an EU national volunteering in another EU country. Many organizations and individuals, myself included, conveniently ignore that small print on the entry card. We simply write “tourist” as the purpose of our visit and NEVER mention any volunteer WORK.

In that respect, the adventure tourism packagers that organize voluntour programs are very straightforward and transparent and use the euphemism “recreational activities” on their Terms & Conditions forms. Which is true and accurate. You pay them money, and they provide you with activities, which may or may not include digging ditches and building houses.

Long-term volunteer projects require a special visa, which any reputable non-profit organization will help arrange BEFORE you arrive in your host country.

I am mentioning it, because while most police and immigration officers will let you be, there are some that can cause trouble and demand “baksheesh” for keeping their mouths shut. And as anyone who spent a night, or two, in a third-world country jail can tell you, it’s not pleasant. I did – in a certain banana republic, for this very offense. It cost me 400 bucks to get out without a nasty stamp in my passport. Your embassy will not help you – you WERE breaking the law, technically, by working without a proper visa.

Something to keep in mind if you plan on doing good deeds on your next vacation.

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