The Live8 concerts helped put Africa on the itinerary of many gappers. But old favourites Australia and Thailand remain as popular as ever, says Emma Prest

"Bob Geldof showed there are middle classes and supermarkets in Africa, as well as the poor," says a spokesperson for gap year company, The Leap. "The environment and community projects in Africa are very popular."

The majority of gap year travellers to Africa spend their time constructing buildings or teaching English and sports to village children. Working on conservation projects in safari parks is also a favourite for those willing to spend a bit more money.

For some young people, the idea of a gap year involves living in a mud hut and making a difference. Africa fulfils these requirements. The reason, however, that it is not yet overrun with young backpackers in the way that Australia and Thailand are, is because Africa is not seen as fun. Most 18- year-olds want a bit of booze and beach, as well as adventure.

The vast number of gappers going to Africa choose to go through an organisation because it is regarded as a difficult continent to travel around. But not everyone takes that view. Josh Rowlands, 21, spent three months exploring Southern Africa on his gap year, but he chose not to use a gap year organisation. "It wasn't that difficult to get around," he says. "The roads are bad and public transport was limited at times, but there is a network of hostels. It is seen as a war-torn and dangerous area. But it has everything you need for an enjoyable gap year destination - the scenery is magnificent and every country is completely different, there are tropical beaches, lush rivers and empty deserts. The people are very friendly."

It's clear, however, that for all the potential adventure Africa has to offer, this continent has not yet acquired the right image. "Bob Geldof and Tony Blair have created interest in Africa. But whether gap year students want to work with starving children in Niger or Sudan, is a different story," says Peter Slowe from Teaching and Projects Abroad. The G8 summit and Live8 concerts raised awareness, but they may have put off some people, too.

Just as people have been inspired by Geldof to help make poverty history in Africa, gappers have been inspired by the tsunami disaster to help the people of South-east Asia. "The tsunami has made people think about whether they can help others," says gap year expert Tom Griffiths, founder of Gapyear.com. "There will be a lot more placements available next year when the new schools are built out there, and there'll be a trend towards tsunami relief work in the next few years."

Many gap year agencies, such as i-to-i, Teaching and Projects Abroad, Madventurer and Global Crossroads, have responded to this demand almost instantaneously. They are running projects, mainly in Sri Lanka, that involve cleaning up beaches, building, teaching or helping in childcare centres. Many gap year students who have travelled around Asia since the tsunami, have put in a considerable amount of time and energy to lend a helping hand.

While places such as Africa and South-east Asia grab the headlines, certain countries are perennial favourites with young travellers. "Australia is always very popular simply because of Neighbours and Home and Away," explains Tom Griffiths. "If you spend five days a week for 10 years watching these programmes, it seems natural for you to travel there. Australia is fun and cool."

The familiar language and culture undoubtedly make Australia a safe bet for most gap year students who want an adventure, but are perhaps not as keen to live rough and save the world. "I haven't done much travelling and Australia seems an obvious place to start," says Ella Walters, 18, who is embarking on her gap travels this year. "I plan to go on to Thailand afterwards."

India is another old favourite. This country offers a slightly different gap year experience. Apart from the usual voluntary placements, it excites those interested in spiritual growth and yoga retreats. The Golden Triangle - Delhi, Jaipur and the Taj Mahal - is a well-worn tourist path, but it is easily avoidable.

Thailand is a must-see for any young gapper. The movie The Beach produced a huge surge in travellers to Thailand. But backpackers are now becoming fed up with the swarms of tourists and the resulting seediness. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are the new places to explore. Japan is also proving less expensive than people think.

On the other side of the world, South America is attractive for a number of reasons. With fantastic scenery, ancient archaeological sites, and relatively undiscovered worlds, not to mention Latino culture, it is a draw for anyone. It is viewed as a cool place to go, but flights can be expensive and parents tend to worry about safety. "Latin America is very popular at the moment," says Alex Maclean-Bristol, from Project Trust. "An increasing number of people study Spanish at school. They see travelling to South America as an outlet for their language skills." The Leap has branched out to include South America as an expedition option in response to demand.

Despite the dominance of American culture, the USA is not a gap year favourite. Bunac, the organisation providing work and volunteering opportunities around the world, has been running work placements in the USA for decades, but the number of gap year students has dropped. This is primarily because of the difficulty of obtaining working visas, the fact that many students have already been to America and, perhaps, the current sentiment towards the US, says Callum Kennedy from Bunac.

Just as the gap year destinations are changing, so are the kinds of projects young people are choosing. There has been a growth in organisations offering conservation projects, to cater for 18 year olds who want to do turtle conservation, for example. Others are more interested in doing career-related projects, says Peter Slowe. "Originally everyone wanted to teach English or do care work. Now it is self-improvement projects such as a journalism or medical placement."

With the introduction of top-up fees, young people are likely to think even harder about what they want to study at university. Increasingly, they want to get a taste of the subject they have chosen in their year out. But top-up fees have affected gap year numbers. Many students don't understand the reforms being introduced by the Government in 2006 and some have panicked. In particular, they don't realise they can take a gap year in 2005, without having to pay top-up fees in 2006. At a well-known girls' independent school in London, which is usually full of potential gap-year students, only two girls have deferred entry to university this year. However, most gap year organisations claim that numbers of applicants have not declined.

Another noticeable change is that young people are cramming a huge amount into their year out. They are becoming more and more ambitious. Round-the-world trips are increasingly popular. With travel agencies such as STA specialising in round-the-world tickets for just £900, it seems silly to pass up the opportunity. These days, gappers don't do just one thing. They do a voluntary project, some independent travel and the really lucky ones even do a ski season after that. They mix helping others with having a good time - so long as they can afford it. Geldof wouldn't argue with that.

'I don't feel mature enough to start my degree yet'

Katy Dickson , 18, lives in Kent and is waiting for her A-level results.

I am planning on going to Tanzania in January. I want to take a gap year because I feel I'm not ready for university. I don't feel mature enough to start my degree at University College London quite yet. I think a gap year is an opportunity to see new things and meet new people. I think I will probably be gaining more than I will be giving. I have two siblings who have taken gap years and hearing their exciting stories and seeing them change has encouraged me to take one.

I went to Tanzania two years ago on a school trip for five weeks. I loved it so much and met so many really nice people that I have decided to go back. Five weeks wasn't enough time to get really involved in life out there. I went to Live8 and I definitely think it has increased my awareness of Africa and made me even happier about my decision to travel and teach there.

I have chosen not to use one of the gap year organisations. I think they are a waste of money. If I hadn't been to Africa before maybe I would go through a company, but having spent time there I know how to do it alone. I already know people out there - the headmistresses and people in the colleges where I stayed before. I am going to teach English in a school there for three to four months and then plan to travel round the world, probably to India, Nepal and Thailand.

Comments