Israeli GoEco Tours blazes a trail in volunteer tourism for visitors to Israel and for Israelis who want to do good abroad.

With GoEco Tours, an Israeli and world pioneer in the relatively new field of “volunteer tourism,” travel doesn’t just benefit the visitor – but the visited, as well.

“We believe in giving tourists the opportunity to get involved with the communities they visit,” says Jonathan Gilben who founded GoEco in 2005 with his partner Jonathan Tal. The company has organized unusual itineraries for travelers – both in Israel and abroad – who are looking for more than an opportunity to snap photos of the natives.

From conservation work at the Dead Sea to community service in Nazareth, to a unique program where Westerners teach languages and skills to residents of rural Uganda, GoEco has given hundreds of people from Israel and around the world the opportunity to do good and feel good while they take time off.

More and more people have been trying out volunteer tourism over the past several years, as Generation X’ers seeking to do something to improve life on the planet embrace the idea of using their vacation days to help others and have fun at the same time. And with non-profit organizations hurting badly as a result of the recession, more groups than ever are seeking to recruit volunteers.

With so much choice, the potential volunteer tourist needs someone “on the inside,” who knows the pitfalls and can negotiate the territory. “For that you need someone with experience,” says Gilben. “GoEco is the first and only volunteer tourism organization in Israel, and we have directed many participants to programs in Israel and abroad that are both inspirational and fun.”

Revealing a different side of Israel

Gilben and Tal came up with the idea for GoEco in 2005, when they were coordinating volunteers for a program dedicated to saving sea turtles in Michmoret in central Israel – a program that was recognized by international environmental groups as one of the most important ever undertaken in Israel.

“We realized that there was a great interest in volunteer tourism, both among Israelis and among individuals from abroad who came to help. We believe that by organizing tours that bring people from around the world to help out in Israel, we are promoting a side of Israel that most visitors don’t get to see first-hand -the positive work of environmental improvement and community building that takes place in Israel every day,” says Gilben.

“If a program fits our criteria of doing good, promoting ethical values, ensuring the welfare and safety of participants – as well as having positive reviews from previous participants – we’re interested.”

The main thing, says Gilben, is to do good – and do it right. “That’s what we try to do, both in Israel and abroad.”

Among the programs that GoEco arranges for environmentally-conscious visitors to Israel is an eight-week summer session based at the Yotvata Nature Reserve in the Negev dedicated to helping repopulate the region with the animals that have thrived there in the past – many of which are mentioned in the Bible. It’s a long-term program for dedicated environmentalists, who collect data in the field, feed and clean up after the animals while they are cared for at the reserve, and take notes on animal behavior both in the reserve and in the wild.

Nurturing endangered species

Another program has visitors helping out at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, nurturing endangered species that are being readied for reintroduction into their native habitats. At Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev desert in southern Israel, tourists learn eco-friendly skills from experts, like organic gardening and how to build sustainable housing using mud.

GoEco has programs for the more urban-minded, as well. In Nazareth, for example, volunteers train to lead tour groups, teaching people about a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims live and work in close proximity. Volunteers also work in community centers, help renovate buildings and clean up neighborhoods.

While GoEco specializes in programs in Israel, and is one of the chief coordinators of volunteers for such programs, the organization also helps Israelis choose volunteer adventures abroad.

Israelis can elect to work on a conservation project at a South African wildlife rehab center, an iguana conservation project in Honduras, or in an orphanage in Nepal.

The company coordinates with non-governmental organizations around the world for most of its programs, but Gilben proudly points out that GoEco is the chief organizer and driving force behind a program in rural Uganda, where volunteers work with needy communities, teaching reading and writing and basic computer skills.

It’s not about the money

Gilben says that making money is not his chief goal, but GoEco is not a non-profit organization.

“My prime goal is to encourage volunteerism, and to ensure that volunteers have a positive experience – because if they have a bad time, having to deal with issues like inadequate food and shelter, they won’t have any energy to help out where they’re really needed, they won’t want to come on more programs, and they’ll tell their friends that it just isn’t worth the effort,” he explains.

“My job is to ensure a positive experience, taking care of the infrastructure, and making sure participants are able to do what they came to do. It’s a win-win situation all around.”

Gilben’s words are borne out by the reasonable prices charged for most of the programs. Accommodation and often meals are provided, usually for just a few hundred dollars (each itinerary clearly lists what is and is not included).

Many of GoEco’s programs are approved by the United Nations and European Union. “But to us, it doesn’t matter who the sponsors of a program are,” says Gilben, stressing that it’s the clients’ welfare and the quality of the experience for both those who give and those who receive, that count.