Lending A Helping Hand

Wearing a hard hat and face shield, Stan Vicich stands beneath a 50-foot eucalyptus tree on a volcanic island off the coast of Australia. His arms outstretched, he's waiting for a grunting, silver-haired koala named Delma to shin far enough down the tree trunk to be grabbed and thrust into a burlap sack. Several other tourists like Vicich are stationed nearby, some waving aluminum poles with rags on the end near the koala's face, one documenting it all on video. After a few more maneuvers, Delma backs down the tree and the mission is completed. "This is my first time seeing [a koala] in the wild," says Vicich excitedly, his right hand bleeding from where Delma has just scratched him. "My 7-year-old will be jealous," adds David Trapnell, a group financial controller from Perth, posing for a photo with the marsupial as she pokes her head out of the bag.

Despite the hard work involved in koala trapping, this has been a dream vacation for Vicich and Trapnell. Along with seven other volunteers from Australia, Quebec, Singapore, Zimbabwe and the United States, they're spending two weeks on St. Bees Island helping scientists track local koalas. The purpose of the fieldwork: to discover why koalas here live in perfect balance with their habitat (as opposed to most other places, where they tend to devour it). "It's given me a lot more than the traditional package tour," says Vicich, a part-time IT manager, also from Perth. A growing number of intrepid tourists are echoing the sentiment. Bored with beach-bumming, tired of look-alike hotels and droning tour guides, they're turning to volunteer vacations--moderately priced trips that send travelers to places like Romania to care for orphans, Uganda to plant trees, Mongolia to rebuild monasteries or Costa Rica to repair schools.

A fledgling industry catering to their do-good instincts has blossomed in recent years. Bill McMillon, author of "Volunteer Vacations," has watched the number of organizations in his annual guidebook grow from 83 to more than 280 in the past seven years. Initially, tours attracted mostly down-and-out students eager to see the world on the cheap. More recently, groups like Earthwatch have begun targeting affluent baby boomers and young professionals who are feeling guilty about their comfortable lives. The St. Bees Island expedition costs $1,795 for two weeks, not including air fare.

The idea of paying money for a vacation that often involves physical labor, shared rooms and no running water may seem insane. But many say they develop a deeper connection to the places they visit when they can help out in some way. Last fall Noah Janssen, a New York-based financial analyst, helped install a solar panel at a community center in Choudandi, Nepal, where only 15 percent of the population has access to electricity. He still keeps in touch with the Choudandi headman. The trip, run by the Katmandu-based Himalayan Light Foundation, cost Janssen $1,200 for one week plus air fare, including $500 for the panel, which volunteers are expected to donate. Janssen says it was worth every penny. "If I can support Nabin [the village leader], then I can feel good about the trip," he says.

Volunteers also note that they learn much more staying and working with local families than they would from an air-conditioned tour bus. Sarah Baden, 29, also from New York, became addicted to volunteer trips in high school and has taken one every year since. "I couldn't imagine traveling any other way," she says. After graduating from college, she spent a full year traveling the world, hopping from one volunteer assignment to the next, mostly through the Vermont-based Volunteers for Peace, which charges only about $200 to $500 for its excursions, not including air fare. Staying mostly with families, Baden has traveled to more than a dozen countries, including Japan, Vietnam, Greece, Kenya, Israel, Bolivia and Morocco. Not all of her accommodations were rudimentary. In Hiroshima, where Baden cared for elderly Japanese at a nursing home, she stayed above a traditional Japanese teahouse, where she was served fresh sushi every day and had a heated, vibrating toilet seat.

Individual tourists can have only a limited impact on the communities they come to serve, of course. But residents say they welcome any help--and appreciate the sentiment. Alistair Melzer, principal research officer of the Koala Research Centre of central Queensland, who oversaw the volunteers on St. Bees Island, says he was surprised by his troops. In the past, he and other koala scientists had worked by themselves or with local volunteers, and had expected the Earthwatch group to be "touristy" and "amateurish." Instead, he found them to be pragmatic self-starters. In the end, they culled more solid data than any previous field team. "This is the most successful trip we've had on St. Bees," he said. Delma, sadly, would have to agree.