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The Gap Year Dilemma: To Volunteer or Not Volunteer

16/08/2013 17:53 BST | Updated 16/10/2013 10:12 BST

With the A-level results in and university plans either scrapped or confirmed, the gap year exodus is soon to begin. Many young people will be seeking out character building volunteering projects in third world countries, determined to 'give something back' before years of hard study (and hard partying) take centre stage. But how informed a choice can anyone make about the volunteering trips on offer?

Last month, tour operator ResponsibleTravel.com made the bold choice of removing all orphanage volunteering holidays from their site. Co-founder Justin Francis took to the site's blog to explain the company's growing concerns about child welfare and care standards. Are these orphanage volunteering projects were actually doing more harm than good?

Justin said they are now working with industry leaders to develop best practice guidelines and criteria for child-focused volunteer trips.

"We want to ensure we only market volunteer trips that we have 100% trust in. We hope that by being independently created, the new criteria will help sustain the exemplary operators while removing those that may potentially tarnish the sector."

And this is the heart of the problem for the (dare I use the cringe-worthy term) 'voluntourism' industry: there is no globally-accredited mark of trust. Holiday-makers, backpackers and career-breakers seeking opportunities on projects that have a real, lasting and positive impact on the local communities and environments they operate in, have scant trustworthy information to go on. Take the tour operator's word for it, or read the (carefully selected) reviews. And don't the photos of smiling children, primitive homestays and cute wildlife on the website assure you this operator really cares?

Booking a volunteering holiday with a bad - or often just not 'responsible' - travel operator could mean your month spent helping local school children in Mali amounts to nothing more than a glorified package holiday. A trip characterised in the worst terms: first world do-gooders embarking on a kind of 'poverty tourism', the experience of which they share solemnly with friends on their comfortable return.

The reality is, responsible tourism is joining the mainstream as more and more people seek travel options that have a low impact on the environment, and respect for local cultures. The desire to take holidays that make a difference, or to volunteer one's time and skills overseas, shouldn't be mocked as a Western, middle-class cliché - responsible travel can benefit everyone.

So how do we choose? How do we navigate our way through the dizzying terminology for 'good' holidays? Are you looking for 'eco-friendly' or 'green' trips? Low-impact or slow travel? Community-based holidays or 'voluntourism'?

Real reviews on independent forums are a good start. Word of mouth is still the greatest marketing tool so genuine first-hand reviews and recommendations from travellers can begin to sort the good from the bad (although some must be taken with a pinch of salt).

Endorsements from credible and trusted tour operators takes it up a level - particularly when they are principled enough to withdraw potential business (a la Responsible Travel). And trusted journalists, opinion formers and bloggers can also help guide the way.

But this still leaves travellers making choices based on opinion and not universally accepted criteria. There is no failsafe solution, but the sooner travel industry leaders can agree on new standards for voluntourism, the better all our travelling will be.

Visit Goodtrippers (www.goodtrippers.co.uk) for news, reviews and advice on eco-friendly/responsible travel.