Mind the gap year exploitation

Frances Jaine was going to Thailand for her gap year with a friend. She had worked for months to save funds, and took care to book the trip with a firm that specialised in organising volunteering abroad.

“We hadn’t travelled without our parents before, and southeast Asia was a long way away,” she said.

The idea was that Jaine, then 19, and her friend would help out in a school in a remote Thai village for a month. They wanted to do something positive on their travels, rather than just loll around on a beach.

When they arrived they were in for a shock. They learnt that they were supposed to teach Thai culture, for which they were not obviously well equipped. “We ended up just doing drawing most of the time,” recalled Jaine last week, now 21 and a student at Leeds University.

Worse, the school closed every day at lunchtime and Jaine and her friend were left with nothing to do. There was no sign of the local travel rep, who, it was promised, would guide them in local customs.

So just two weeks into their contracts they left the village. It was a bitter disappointment. Not so much for the money they had wasted — they had paid the firm £750 each to sort out the placement — but for the sense that they had been no help at all in the village.

Each year some 200,000 young people undertake gap-year projects, spending on average about £4,000 each. Many are drawn to “voluntourism” — a specimen of well-meaning travel that also attracted princes William and Harry.

The government recently announced plans to send hundreds of new graduates on similar trips — with the additional effect of keeping them off benefits in recession-hit times. These taxpayer-funded gappers will help to build schools and improve sanitation in remote communities.

That’s the idea, at least. A Sunday Times investigation has shown that the goodwill of young volunteers is exploited by some companies sending them overseas — and that the work young people carry out while there is increasingly regarded as positively unhelpful.

If you Google “volunteer gap year” the company that comes top of the search is Real Gap, which has seen rapid growth recently and was sold last year to Tui Travel as part of a deal worth £43.8m. Real Gap offers would-be voluntourists projects teaching in schools, raising awareness of Aids, working with orphans, and turtles, and injured wildlife, learning medical skills at a bushman clinic and helping elephants and landowners to live in harmony.

The projects offered by other companies are similar. They appear attractive, but people who sign up are not infrequently disappointed.

Sarah Byrnes went with Real Gap to an orphanage in Thailand in 2006. The firm’s reps, she says, had promised locals that the volunteers would help to rebuild the orphanage and put in water systems. But the volunteers were surprised when the local co-ordinator asked them to contribute £200 towards this.

“We were 18 to 20 years old at the time and didn’t have that kind of money,” said Byrnes. “It put us in a horrible situation as we didn’t want to disappoint the kids so we scraped together more money to try and achieve what had been promised.”

David Stitt, managing director of Real Gap, said this was the first he had heard of Byrnes’s complaint. “The local organisers have plenty of funds to operate the programme without asking for donations,” he said. “Of the 7,000 customers who travel with us annually, fewer than 3% complain. Most of the complaints are from customers who have not contacted us while they were overseas but wait till they get home — giving us no chance to fix the problem.”

Patrick Glennie, 22, from Edinburgh, went with another company to Ecuador to work with street children.

“There were loads of volunteers,” he said, “and they didn’t seem to know what to do with all of us. You’d turn up and they’d just ask you what you felt like doing. There was no organisation to it. And no specific project.”

A lot of the time he would end up just playing football with the street children to whose lives he was hoping to make a difference. “The project I went on was one of the cheaper ones and it was still over £2,000,” he said.

Laura Matile, a 20-year-old student at Bath University, returned from Honduras 10 days ago feeling similarly disenchanted. “We never really saw anyone from the agency,” she said. “We were supposed to be building a house for a family of seven but we were never going to see it to completion. They said the money went on building utensils, but the ones we were using were just bits of wood with a few bits of metal.”

The internet is full of gappers making similar complaints about a range of firms.

Judith Brodie, the director of Voluntary Service Overseas UK, an international development charity, has expressed concern about the number of badly planned and supported schemes which are “ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies who organise them”.

Besides finding interesting destinations for travellers, companies who sell gap-year trips promise to look after their customers. Again, this doesn’t always happen.

Naomi Christie travelled to China with I-to-I in 2003 to teach English. She had no complaints about the work, but when the Sars respiratory infection became epidemic the school where she worked was closed.

“I-to-I recommended that I book a flight back home, but did not help with the organisation of that, travel to the airport, or overnight stay in Beijing, all of which I arranged myself, which was quite a challenge as a 19-year-old who couldn’t speak Mandarin,” she said.

“They presented themselves as a kind of insurance for when things went wrong, but that wasn’t how it turned out. They just didn’t help. I thought, what was the point? If I hadn’t had my parents’ credit card I’d have been in trouble.”

A spokesman apologised for the inconvenience to Christie but stressed that such failures were rare, noting that after the Asian tsunami of 2004 and violence in Kenya two years ago volunteers were quickly evacuated by the firm.

The question remains: is it worth paying an intermediary to set up a trip? Frances Jaine has learnt since her return from Thailand that orphanages and schools are thrilled to have volunteers simply turn up. “There is really no need to pay somebody to arrange that. They’re ecstatic to have you, and you can stay as long as you want.”

Others point out that, in some circumstances, volunteers can get the whole trip paid for. CCIVS, part of Unesco, lists on its website volunteering organisations in Europe which sometimes even pay for the flights.

Gap-year firms insist there is real value in going through them. “People could probably book directly at a cheaper price, but there are considerable risks,” said Stitt of Real Gap. “There is no guarantee that if the programme was cancelled or had gone bankrupt they would get their money back.”

This will bring a hollow laugh from would-be travellers who have lost money to companies without even going overseas.

Alex Cakir is a student at Cambridge University, where a woman commandeered the stage before an economics lecture in December to talk about her not-for-profit gap-year experience company, Frontier. Cakir used Frontier to book a trip this summer. “I was keen to go somewhere remote, simple, safe and genuinely requiring help,” he said.

The trip he wanted, to the Cook Islands, cost £1,095 — but didn’t include flights, food, spending money, air transfers or any activities, which is a typical arrangement.

Cakir tried to find out more but was told he could get answers from a dedicated project co-ordinator only upon paying a non-refundable £200 deposit.

“Paying over the phone before getting a paper copy of the contract was a little discomforting, but I was offered a £50 discount if I did so,” he said.

He paid, but was still not given the kind of information he sought, and after researching a similar trip himself decided to cancel. Frontier refused to pay even a partial refund.

This is what also happened to Katharine Boltwood, who used Frontier to set up a place on a project in Peru two years ago when she was 19. She carefully explained that she wanted to be with other young people and didn’t want to do any teaching. However, as the date for departure approached, it became clear that nobody else had booked to join that trip, and Frontier was urging her to teach instead.

In the meantime, her father Mike investigated the support that would be available to Katharine in Peru. The first Frontier rep he contacted there turned out to have moved to Australia, as did the second one. The third number Frontier gave him proved unavailable. After talking it over, the Boltwoods decided to cancel. Again, Frontier refused a refund.

Eibleis Fanning, Frontier’s managing director, says financial compensation is made where research shows that a customer has suffered financial loss or hardship, not as a result of their own actions. The Boltwoods took the matter to court, and recovered Katharine’s hard-earned funds.

Cakir is incensed that Frontier presents itself as non-profit. This is technically correct, but company accounts show that the non-profit pays management fees of about £1m a year to related for-profit companies with the same directors and shareholders.

Fanning says the non-profit structure suits the company’s activities better than a limited company. “All contracts for the provision of management and other services are on arm’s-length terms,” she added.

She accepts that there have been problems but insists that they have now been sorted out and that “customer feedback for 2009 has been extremely positive”.

Others have negative feedback about the paid volunteering sector in general.

Pierre De Hanscutter is the founder and director of a voluntary organisation in Vietnam. “Two years ago, we had a guy who said he would like to help find us volunteers,” he said. “That was great. He introduced himself as a non-profit organisation, but we found out that he was selling our project to travel agencies around the world. We ask volunteers for $150 [£90] to cover expenses but his organisation was selling volunteers a place for $1,500 for two weeks — no flight included.”

De Hanscutter takes exception to the very idea of humanitarian projects as tourist destinations. He has visited other projects and seen the effect.

“Every two weeks new tourists come with no qualifications. They teach the children to say ‘hello’, ‘one, two, three’ and ‘what is your name?’. And two weeks later new people do exactly the same. It gives fun to the customer but it is destroying the education of the children.”

Peter Griffiths, a development economist, goes even further. He says that millions of intelligent and enthusiastic people want to work in the Third World to make poverty history — but they should stay at home.

“The Third World does not need recent graduates who want to learn their job by experimenting on them,” he explained. “You are a drain on their economies unless you are truly a world expert.”

Some of these countries have huge numbers of unemployed graduates. “Their degrees are more suited to the country than yours, they are street smart, and cheaper too. So why would aid agencies or anyone else want to employ inexperienced westerners?”

It was something like this point that prompted Oliver Bray to set up a gap-year travel company Xtreme Gap that avoids voluntourism.

“I took my gap year 10 years ago,” Bray said. “I was fresh out of school and I was expected to teach English grammar to hundreds of people in Tanzania. It became clear that I wasn’t qualified. I resigned because it wasn’t fair. An African teacher was out of work because the school was getting a free teacher from England. And none of the money I paid went to the school.

“It dawned on me that it was a bit of a swindle. I worked out that the profit margin was astronomical.

“I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. Even the controversial companies might do some very worthwhile projects. And it’s probably only a small number of travellers who come away feeling aggrieved.”

All the same, he prefers to send young people to do extreme sports and other adventures: “You gain life experience, skills and qualifications, knowledge about yourself and the world — and you do something out of the ordinary.”

There is, however, another way of looking at voluntourism. As Mike Boltwood sees it, even the poor service his daughter Kate got from Frontier had some benefit.

“She didn’t go to Peru, but she did represent herself in the small claims court,” he said. “She learnt some new skills, and got some useful experience. She went to university a more mature person — just not in the way she’d anticipated.”

2170 words. First published 9 August 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.