In September 2003 Prince Harry grabbed his backpack and headed off for the start of a gap year.
His travels included spells on an Australian sheep farm and community work with charities and organisations in Lesotho, southern Africa.
The path he took was a well-worn one and typical of the market at large. Post A-levels and with a career to come, he set off with the intention of helping the less fortunate.
Of course, chances were that nothing much would go wrong. The trip would have been planned for months, and run with the help of reputable organisation Raleigh International and Voluntary Service Overseas.
Things do not always work out so perfectly, though. Recently, VSO – perhaps the most well-known and well-respected volunteering organisation – warned many young people are wasting their time on gap years, and often spend huge sums to work on projects that do little to benefit local communities.
More worryingly, VSO also suggested unskilled Brits may do more harm than good, draining projects and communities of resources if they need training or constant help.
“Spending your gap year volunteering overseas is now a rite of passage for young people and the gap year market has grown considerably,” said VSO UK director Judith Brodie.
“While there are many good gap year providers, we are concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them. Young people would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures.”
According to research by Mintel, a staggering 10% of all the UK’s outbound travel expenditure, and 1% of outbound trips, is from the gap year market. With 200,000 people undertaking projects each year – spending an average of £4,800 – the ‘voluntourism’ sector is worth about £960 million annually. No surprise that the rogues are out in force.
But once again, the story has somehow turned around to bite the travel industry. National newspapers have been quick to twist VSO’s comments, suggesting UK-based companies in the gap year market are simply profiteering.
The gap year sector in the UK is self-regulated. Of the 100-plus companies in the market, 36 are members of the Year Out Group – a non-profit umbrella organisation promoting high standards.
All are obliged to provide public liability insurance and abide by the group’s charter and code of practice. Since setting up in 1998, only one complaint has been referred to its ruling council.
Year Out Group managing director Richard Oliver said its members supported VSO’s claims. The problem, he said, was that many volunteers were naïve when picking where to go or who to go with.
“People don’t do enough research, and think a quick look on the Internet is the way to go about booking,” said Oliver.
“All our members encourage clients to do their research. They will put them in contact with recently returned volunteers and encourage parents to get more involved.
“The problem we face is the sector regenerates itself – every year a new set of clients needs to be educated.”
Recent reports have revealed some projects promoted by unregulated companies have little value. These include a ‘turtle census’ in South America that counts the same animals each week, and volunteers who signed up for rural conservation work ending up as office staff.
Oliver stressed these stories were among the less worrying examples he’s heard off. Causing much concern is the trend for young, mainly female, volunteers to head off independently to Ghana and seek projects once they arrive.
“The High Commission in Accra told me it has become a real problem – there is a rumour going around the UK that it’s easy to get involved once there. It shows why people should have some support,” he said.
Year Out Group member Madadventurer, which combines volunteer projects with overland travel, said it was vital for reputable organisations to collaborate with local communities.
Operations director Tim Gunan said: “We only pick projects where the local people have identified a need. That way volunteers are welcomed by the community and can make a valid contribution.”
While the cost of booking with established operators is higher than going direct, Gunan stressed the benefits of this ‘package-style’ support was worth paying for. Clients also benefit from the strong social responsibility that placement agencies bring.
I-to-i is one of a few operators to insist that volunteers working with children overseas undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.
Whichever way people book, the one certainty about the gap year market is that it will grow, and not just among the young.
Those in work are taking time off to volunteer, with career breaks now seen as a good way to improve your CV. Meanwhile, the retired are signing up for projects in increasing numbers.
To demonstrate the potential in the market, two-week packages are available for those who want to fit aid work into a vacation. Meanwhile, a company aiming solely for the over-40s – Gaps for Grumpies – has just been launched.
“We are making in-roads in the older generation,” added Gunan. “They have an awareness of global issues and often, because of their careers or life experiences, can contribute more than the young.
“We have already seen that large travel companies are starting to get involved in the sector and that is sure to continue. But big organisations can only get involved if they stick to its principles, like First Choice with i-to-i.”