Voluntourism: Pros, cons & possibilities
05 February 2007
by Susan Ellis
list of media mentions of the concept.
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 30 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™.
The best site to learn about voluntourism is VolunTourism International, 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.
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:
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:
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: