Voluntourism - Pros, Cons, and Possibilities

By Susan J. Ellis

In a 2005 Hot Topic, I briefly mentioned the growing trend of volunteer vacations or “voluntouring.”  In the last month or so, media attention to this idea has heated up considerably.  I’ve seen short feature stories on the ABC Evening News and Fox News, as well as articles in places as diverse as The New York Times and British Airways High Life Magazine.  One of the organizations promoting “vacations in service,” GlobeAware, provides a list of media mentions of the concept at http://www.globeaware.org.  Steve McCurley has also noticed this burst of attention, since he selected volunteer vacations as his topic for the current “Along the Web” feature of e-Volunteerism 

All of this is especially interesting to me because thirty years ago I drove several travel agents (remember those?) nuts trying to uncover something useful I could do for one to two weeks on a vacation, other than help with a scientific expedition.  We never found anything although I now know we might have discovered some of the early “work camps” still operating from the 1950s.  But last week when I saw British Airways offering a package deal to its customers to fly them to an exotic location and connect them to a volunteering project, I realized the concept had come of age.

What Is Voluntourism?

As the word implies, voluntourism combines vacation travel with volunteering at the destination visited.  Search the Web and you’ll find dozens of organizations – both nonprofits and travel businesses – deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.  It’s also spawned a new vocabulary: voluntourist, ethical holidays, travel philanthropy, and more.   Voluntourism is aligned with the more established concept of “sustainable tourism,” defined by Sustainable Travel International as “lessening the toll that travel and tourism takes on the environment and local cultures.”  Their motto is: Leave the world a better place (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org/).

The best site to learn about voluntourism is VolunTourism International (www.voluntourism.org), which provides a wealth of articles about the concept, offers a free Voluntourist e-newsletter, and sponsors an annual Global Voluntourism Forum in Washington, DC.  Their special twist is to mobilize the travel industry (tour operators, travel planners, and convention bureaus) to partner with nonprofits and service-learning programs.   VolunTourism’s commercial site (www.volunteertourism.com) explains: 

VolunTours™ is more than just volunteering. VolunTours™ is a new way to travel. It is a revolutionary form of interacting with your destination and your destination interacting with you. VolunTours™ is the next step in the development of unique meetings & conventions' experiences.

Two examples of sites that connect people with voluntourist opportunities are:

What’s Good about Voluntourism?

When it’s well-organized and thoughtfully planned, the traveler can indeed use vacation time to great advantage, helping the host country and gaining many personal benefits.  Some of the most obvious pluses are:

  • It meets the needs of busy people who want to volunteer and travel – with special benefits to families seeking a memorable shared experience and to the many adult singles (of all ages) who prefer taking vacation time in the company of others.  Given the research about Baby Boomers, it seems evident that voluntourism will be very popular with them for many years to come.
  • Well-managed spurts of volunteer help can be extremely productive for many types of projects that need a lot of willing hands.  After a natural disaster, for example, the enormous clean-up and rebuilding work goes on for years, and a continuous stream of fresh recruits can keep the momentum going.
  • Ideally, voluntourism is a people-to-people experience, in which both the helper and the helped become acquainted with one another.  Just as Peace Corps or UN Volunteers strives to create cultural exchange and understanding, even brief periods of working together gives everyone involved insight into the world of the “other.” 
  • Positive experiences as a voluntourist can lead to more sustained service, either in return trips to the same country or to more informed and deliberate forms of volunteering back home for international or development causes.

Are There Problems with Voluntourism?

Note that above I said “when it’s well-organized and thoughtfully planned….”  If the voluntourism organizers don’t truly understand the complexity of making this sort of experience successful for everyone, it can be more harmful than good.  A few issues are:

  • How are the volunteering opportunities chosen?  Are these real needs and can volunteers truly do something useful in as little as a week?
  • Is there an application process or qualifications for volunteers or does the receiving site have to take anyone and everyone who wants to come?
  • What’s the ratio of service to sightseeing?  Voluntourists do not have to martyr themselves and can opt to play as hard as they work, but service projects that are so slim they only give a respectable veneer to an otherwise leisure tour hurt the entire idea.   Urban Dictionary, after remarking that a volunteer vacation “looks good on one's CV as a gap year activity,” adds this fictional – but telling – conversation (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Voluntourism):

Voluntourist 1: Shall we go to Khao Lak to engage in a spot of voluntourism?

Voluntourist 2: No, tsunami voluntourism is old hat now. All the bars are closed and hardly anyone is living in the houses built, anyway.

Voluntourist 1: Good point. (pauses) Sierra Leone?

Vouluntourist 2: Are you insane?

  • Does the project provide orientation and training to both the foreign volunteers and the local recipients of the service to make sure both sides are fully prepared to get the most from the experience?
  • Who‘s on site to troubleshoot possible problems? 
  • What exactly is the risk management process here?  Are both sides protected from willfully bad conduct?  How?
  • What happens to the local project over time if some other destination becomes more popular?  In other words, is there any commitment by the tour organizers to complete work started?

In general, the biggest gripe about volunteer vacations is that they simply expand the trend of episodic volunteering, in which feel-good bursts of service give the volunteer pleasure but do not result in much useful help for the recipients or the complex cause.  It is also often noted that problems away from home can be more appealing to support than those close to home.  

What Does this Trend Mean to Traditional Volunteering?

It strikes me as fascinating that at the same time we in the developed world have evolved frantic risk management policies and procedures, particularly the requirement of all sorts of police and other background checks, it has been possible at the same time to create more and more off-shore volunteering opportunities, seemingly without any screening demands at all.  Is this a function of paternalism, in which under-developed countries are thought to be so needy they shouldn’t worry about formalities?  Is it simply an overlooked loophole? 

When important projects with few resources can welcome willing volunteers from far away, the risks may be worth it to both sides.  Can this teach us all something about balance?  Might we be able to apply this calmer attitude towards risk back home? 

At the moment, the vast majority of volunteer vacation projects send people from North America and Europe to developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia.  This is largely because it requires money, time, and access to travel abroad and those three resources are available mainly in the First World.  But perhaps someday the concept can be practiced in both directions.  Hurricane Katrina was a disaster than engaged people from around the world.  For Americans, it may be sobering but also illuminating to recognize that we might be recipients of the help of others, too.

More important, are there some organizations that can develop domestic volunteer vacations?  Think about these possibilities:

  • Are you located near a popular tourist destination?  Why not approach some travel organizers about offering a play/service package during which voluntourists participate in your project for a few days or weeks?
  • Do you serve people who come from the countries some volunteer vacations help?  Might you connect with the voluntourism groups to offer post-vacation domestic opportunities to continue helping these people throughout the year?
  • Can you partner with an overseas organization to do travel exchanges, in which individuals or groups alternate volunteer vacations in both locations, allowing for more ongoing service projects that need attention over a longer time?

What do you think about voluntourism?
Are there ways we can make it work to our advantage?

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