Even more absurd is the notion of actually paying to work on holiday. But this is a booming industry: the international market in gap-year travel will be worth £20bn by 2010, and a Government review found 800 organisations set up to help people volunteer. Opportunities range from the ordinary - English teaching in Kathmandu, for example - to the downright weird, like cat-cuddling in South Africa. All you need is time to spare and an urge to blow up to £3,000 for the privilege. Voluntourism may seem like a natural progression from the study-abroad programmes popular in the 1970s, the ecotourism of the '80s and the gap-year explosion of the late '90s. But working holidays are as old as the hills. Take the thousands of east London families who travelled to Kent to work the hopfields from the early 1700s. They earned a paltry wage but escaped their depressing lives in the summer. Turn up the heat, add iPods and e-mail, and you've got the modern kibbutz. There are still lots of volunteering opportunities in the UK. Some even pay expenses. But the idea of working for nothing here can't compete with an escapist life in a third-world village with no electricity or running water. And if we find the concept perplexing, what must the locals be thinking of these earnest Westerners?
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