How To Not Feel Like A Tourist When Volunteering

    Posted: July 7, 2017

    ‘Traveler or tourist’ is a topic that has been hotly debated in hostels around the world, but a more interesting question is ‘volunteer or tourist’?

    Volunteering is a completely different activity to being a tourist, but that doesn’t stop international volunteers feeling like they fall into the latter category. The chances are high that you’ll stick out, be guilty of wearing brightly-coloured (and incredibly comfy) travel pants, and wield a camera from time to time.

    However, that doesn’t mean that volunteers can’t shrug off that tourist feeling and dig deeper into the culture of their host country.


    Go for longer

    Volunteering for long periods of time does allow you to do more. The longer you stay, the more you’ll be able to contribute to a project and learn about your host country. As you get more involved, you’ll have time to adapt to local customs, feel comfortable in your surroundings, and shed the tourist label.

    That being said, all of GVI’s projects are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and each location has a set of short, mid and long-term objectives, meaning that even if you only have a week or two to volunteer, you will be contributing to these goals in a tangible way.

    Staying longer doesn’t mean committing to projects for several months – even a few weeks can make a difference to the impact you have and how integrated you feel in the local community.


    Go with a purpose

    Tourists crave adventure and new experiences – volunteers are searching for ways to better the world and themselves. Volunteering isn’t a vacation. If you’re choosing a destination purely because it has nice beaches and lively nightlife, you may want to consider going as a tourist, not a volunteer.

    It’s not a matter of being noble; it’s simply that volunteers have different goals in mind. By choosing your volunteer project and heading overseas with a clear purpose, whether that be gaining skills in a certain area or to give back to communities in need, you’ll instantly feel less like a tourist.

    Further reading: 5 Reasons to Volunteer Abroad

    Leave your camera behind (at least some of the time)

    Before you go abroad to volunteer ask yourself – would you still be going if you didn’t have a camera?

    If your main motivations for volunteering are to take pictures of cute kids or wanderlust-inducing destinations, you probably won’t get out of tourist mode while you’re there. On the other hand, going for a more fulfilling experience, to learn more about another culture, and to gain skills that will boost your career, you’ll be able to immerse yourself more completely in your destination.

    Tourists and cameras pretty much go hand in hand, so ditching yours will help you feel more like a local. Live the experience through your senses, rather than the camera lens. You can always set aside some time to snap some great shots before you leave!

    Learn the local language

    You’ll barely scratch the surface if you never learn the local language. You can usually recognise tourists because they persistently speak English (louder and slower if they have to) everywhere they go.

    While many of the people volunteers work with in various projects will speak English, to experience full immersion you should try to communicate in their language. Take a phrasebook or download an app – it doesn’t matter how you do it, the important thing is making an effort.


    You don’t have to become fluent. Simply having a few phrases up your sleeve, such as please and thank you, can make a world of difference in how you interact with locals.

    Further reading: 10 Tips To Make Language Learning Fun

    Don’t spend all your time with other volunteers

    When you’re volunteering abroad, chances are you are going to make a group of tight-knit volunteer friends. You’re all there with the same purpose and mindset, so it makes sense that you’ll click. To avoid feeling like a tourist though, you should try to break away from the comforting presence of other foreigners every now and then.

    Spending time with locals can be harder – there are linguistic and cultural barriers to cross, and they may not understand your feelings of being a fish out of water as well as other volunteers. The rewards are great though, as you’ll be invited to take a closer look at the way people really live. This is also a chance to work on those language skills!

    Do as locals do

    No one is expecting you to blend in completely, but while volunteering abroad you should do your best to mesh with local culture. That can mean taking your cues from locals about what to wear, where to eat, and how to behave in public. Adapting to local norms can help you ditch that tourist feeling.

    Women volunteering in India, for example, might find that they fit in better when they wear more conservative clothing, as Indian women do. This doesn’t have to mean donning traditional clothing, but respecting local culture and covering knees and shoulders can make a difference to how you feel. You might be tempted to wear skimpy shorts and tank tops in the heat, but people will instantly spot you for a tourist and treat you like one.

    You never have to feel like a tourist again with GVI’s volunteering and internship opportunities. Discover programs that will take you off the tourist trail and into the heart of communities around the world!

    Feel ready to start making a difference? Find out more about GVI’s international, award-winning volunteering programs and internships, and choose from community development, animal care, teaching, women’s empowerment, and conservation projects worldwide.