Until half a century ago, only a lucky few could travel abroad. Mostly, they used to be interested in sightseeing and in covering destinations. But now tourism has emerged as the world’s largest growth industry. There is a tendency both in the West and the East for many to take travel as any other consumer items like TV and fast food.

Apart from traditional tourists, a new kind of travellers has come into the picture. They are the VolunTourists. This new breed is not merely interested in covering destinations, but more in volunteering the knowledge, skills and resources to willing hands. They come to establish cultural rapport and develop connections with local communities in art, culture, history and geography. A visit to the new place and a new society is a source of recreation for them.

This makes for a win-win situation as both the helpers and the helped develop understanding about each other. It benefits the beneficiaries as much as the volunteers. Often, more openings emerge in return trip of volunteers.

Generally, VolunTourists stay in host country for a period of one-three weeks, stay with local families and consume local food. Usually, when VolunTourists reach their destinations, they first try to assess needs of the locals. They develop programmes accordingly.

VolunTourists often support children in schools and orphanages. They extend helping hand in school construction, construction of toilets, bathrooms and wells in rural areas. Often professionals like to provide their services in the areas in which they have certain level of expertise. Similarly, family volunteering vacation has also been found useful. As agents of change, even small kids get an opportunity to discover their place in the world and learn about other cultures.

Sometimes, VolunTourism is confused with philanthropic travel. In VolunTourism, there is scope for volunteers to spend time with the community; whereas in philanthropic travel the travellers just offer tax deductible donation to the locals as humanitarian partners as they have little to do in the implementation process of the projects.

Nepal is one of the important destinations of traditional tourists. Given that over 80 per cent of the CA members have been elected for the first time, they might have a new zeal to bring changes. There is likely to be considerable improvement in law and order situation. Strikes and closures might be controlled. In the changed context, both the domestic and foreign tourists would be able to move freely in the country.

VolunTourism has been gradually picking up in Nepal and would go even higher if promoted well. For example, when John Wood of Microsoft visited Nepal in 1998, he found only five books in one school library. He was moved so much that the next time he returned to the school with 3,000 books. If this was not enough, he quit Microsoft and started an INGO “Room to Read” in 1999. Under this programme, it is not only the libraries in Nepal, but also those in several other countries that have benefited.

With international publicity about political change in Nepal, it is likely that resourceful people who are able to volunteer their time and resources might visit Nepal to help poor people. Because of recent unrest in Terai, people outside have come to realise that Nepal is not only a country of mountains and hills as was understood. Nearly 50 per cent of the country’s population live in southern Tarai plains bordering India, where access to transport and communication are much better. Many of the VolunTourists, therefore, might like to visit the Tarai considering easy accessibility.

In order to facilitate the stay of VolunTourists in Nepal, it is necessary to educate and train local families in village areas to accommodate guests. They should also be made to learn such basic things as nature of meals and boiling water for VolunTourists. It would also be better if VolunTourists have prior knowledge of local languages like Nepali and Maithili before they travel to Nepal, though English speakers are found in many villages. It is also advisable that the VolunTourists are made to stay for at least two or three days in the capital city or at the district headquarters before they proceed towards their destinations to make them aware of the health, religion, government and local culture.

It is not necessary that VolunTourists visit Nepal to teach, but also to learn. For example, VolunTourists including children, might learn and enjoy Mithila paintings of Tarai women. They might also learn and benefit from traditional skills of Newars of Kathmandu Valley who are adept in metal, wood and stone carvings. The packages for VolunTourists need to be thoughtfully planned. For this, what is needed most is a National Coordination Policy for promotion of VolunTourism. The most backward and needy areas should be made destinations of VolunTourism to maximise economic benefits for the country.

Jha is executive director, Centre for Economic and Technical Studies