The Caribbean is an incredibly diverse place geographically, politically, and culturally. From mountains to beaches, the Caribbean is truly a stunning corner of the world and a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. Thanks to its natural and cultural variety, the Caribbean is often thought of as a paradise to vacation to, and not much else; this is both a blessing and a curse.
Despite the international image of paradise and the flocks of tourists that visit every year, for the average Caribbean islander, life could not be further from paradise.
There is a real need for international development programs and volunteer support in the Caribbean. Similarly to the rest of the developing world, the Caribbean has some serious development challenges in need of major attention, including high rates of both poverty and HIV/AIDS. However, these needs are often covered up by (or thought of as countered by) a large tourism industry, which is not as economically prosperous as it may seem.
Tourism - a less than perfect boost to the local economy.
The Caribbean is characterised by the existence of all-inclusive resorts with a plethora of luxury hotels and cruise liners dominating the tourism market. Although tourism is vital to the Caribbean’s social and economic development, this model comes with many drawbacks.
As tourists are often confined to the boundaries of their resorts, money that visitors spend in the region rarely trickles down to the masses, and instead concentrates itself in the pockets of a few foreign investors.
In essence, the current tourism industry benefits very few and offers little chance for tourists to discover the charm, vibrancy, and tropical culture truly present in this part of the world.
Voluntourism - a more impactful alternative.
Though the Caribbean islands are often overlooked in favour of volunteering holidays in Africa and Asia, thanks to a growing focus on ‘“local tourism” or “grassroots travel”, there has never been a better time to experience volunteering in the Caribbean.
Volunteer programs in the Caribbean help support worthy causes and provide an alternative, fairer form of tourism.
Voluntourism allows visitors to immerse themselves into the local community through their volunteer work, build relationships with locals, encourage cultural exchange, and dispel stereotypes about the region and its inhabitants, all at the same time. The best volunteer programs in the Caribbean promote locally owned businesses and companies, so that the wealth derived from foreign visitors is more evenly distributed, allowing small business owners and social enterprises to benefit directly from tourism.
Being a voluntourist in the Caribbean means that you are not only immersing in the local culture and contributing to a local project, but you are also supporting the local economy. Voluntourism allows the vendor you bought your fruits from or the taxi driver you rode to your placement in to help send their children to school, provide food for their family, and support their daily needs.
There are plenty of local initiatives, NGOs, charities in the Caribbean that need international volunteer assistance to fulfill their goals. Most community development projects in the Caribbean are underfunded and lack human resources and expertise, despite having the potential to meet a great need for a specific community.
Unfortunately, in countries where levels of poverty are high, it is often extremely challenging to mobilise local people to volunteer their time; it is not hard to see why. If your main concern is feeding your family, volunteering could mean missing out on the opportunity to earn an income, since it is not always possible to benefit immediately from community development projects. Thus, the support of international volunteers is welcomed and needed in the Caribbean. Furthermore, in many cases the fact that an international volunteer has come to the Caribbean to devote their time and energy to a community project actually encourages locals to participate, regardless of their financial constraints or responsibilities.
A Land of Opportunity - just south of the more well-known one.
The Caribbean is a perfect region for volunteering abroad, giving back, gaining international experience, and immersing in a new culture. All of these opportunities are set against the beautiful backdrop of the infamous Caribbean islands, where white sandy beaches, coral reefs, rainforests, and stunning mountains are filled with diverse flora and fauna you won’t find anywhere else in the world!
How could you NOT be attracted to volunteer programs in the Caribbean?
Plenty of Islands - each one with its own unique set of attractions.
Though there are handfuls of islands in the Caribbean, the following two are the most common locations for volunteer programs in the Caribbean:
Jamaica is at the centre of the Caribbean. Its heartbeat is felt in the music that blasts from the gigantic sounds systems that come alive almost everyday throughout the country. The culture is rich and vibrant, from the music to the food to the character of the local people. Jamaica is a fun-loving island, ideal for relaxing and immersing yourself into a friendly local culture. If one thing stands out about Jamaica, it’s the people; volunteers are always taken aback by the warm hospitality and sense of humour of the Jamaican people. Jamaica is one of the Caribbean’s leading tourist hotspots, so there are plenty of attractions and activities to keep volunteers occupied outside of their placements too.
Tobago is the twin sister of Trinidad; together these islands form the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The two islands are separated by just a 15 minute plane journey, yet they remain significantly different. While Trinidad is home to the capital city, Port of Spain, and the majority of the nation’s population, Tobago is a small island with a relatively small population, but still manages to be one of the most popular ecotourism destinations in the entire Caribbean. With stunning beaches, protected coral reefs, and lush rainforests, Tobago is a paradise for nature lovers and volunteers seeking a quiet get-away from their routine. There are plenty eco-adventures to partake in on both islands, but if you want to vacation on a Castaway type island, then volunteering in Tobago is the one for you.
Meaningful placements - an opportunity to truly give back.
Thanks to the diversity of the Caribbean islands, volunteers are guaranteed to find a meaningful placement that suits their interests; from standard volunteer placements in areas like animal care, community development, and teaching to more unique projects focused on specific fields like equine therapy, veterinary medicine, or cultural preservation.
Working with animals in the Caribbean mostly involves treating abandoned and neglected animals, such as dogs and cats, as owning pets can present an extra burden to already struggling households in the Caribbean. If you chose to contribute to a community development project, you will become part of the process of change. Community volunteers may spend their time helping a local NGO deliver much needed support to local communities, assist a development agency in grant writing or fundraising campaigns, or maybe even work for the government to help assess the needs of communities as well as their concerns and problems with government support. In the Caribbean, there is a drive to recognise and re-launch many cultural and heritage sites, to both promote tourism and respect the region’s history, so becoming a cultural preservation volunteer will allow you to learn and give simultaneously.
Whatever experience or skills you have, it is you have a willingness to help then that will enable you to make a difference as a volunteer in the Caribbean!
Once you have chosen your island, be sure to research companies or organisations that operate within the country (Hint: Check out GoAbroad’s Programs!) and ensure your volunteer placement in the Caribbean will be meaningful, productive, and most importantly, fulfilling a real need. And don’t forget to include at least a few days of a holiday experience to discover the beauty of the region!
This article was contributed by V2 Volunteer & Vacation based in England that is dedicated to promoting sustainable, responsible tourism in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Established in 2013, V2 combines volunteer and tourism opportunities to provide a well-rounded travel experience in the Caribbean.