The commodification of volunteer tourism

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(Last updated on: 05/04/2020)

Volunteering and travelling opportunities were once an only option for skilled medical professionals who would work their trade and support those in need. But in contemporary society, volunteering and travelling have emerged into a commercialised industry which has seen the commodification of ‘volunteer tourism’.

The majority of the volunteer tourism industry that we see today is (sadly) designed to either suit the needs of the volunteer or to suit the needs of the organisation’s financial pocket. It all too often no longer has the philanthropic principles that it once did.

See also 26 ways that your volunteer tourism project is doing more harm than good: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism

The increase in the number of volunteer organisations, particularly commercial operators, have changed the face of the volunteer tourism industry. What was once seen as an act of giving is now contested and threatened as a profit driven industry. The commercialisation of the industry has witnessed immense scrutiny and contradicts the original claims that volunteer tourism is a means of avoiding commodification of tourism.

This post will reflect the recent concerns regarding the commodification of the industry, underpinned by academic research.

volunteer tourism

#1 Money goes to the business, as opposed to the cause

Concerns have begun to arise regarding how money made by volunteer tourism organisations is spent. Volunteer tourism organisations make heavy profits from the fees they charge volunteers, but most of the money raised goes to the business as opposed to the cause.

Author of the Volunteer Travelers Handbook, Shannon O’Donnell, expressed how she discovered that 0% of her programme fee was passed on to the host community and the family in which housed and fed her. Shannon O’Donnell then went onto developing Grassroots Volunteering, a dual database of organisations that connects travellers to causes and communities to support decommodify the volunteerism industry.

Click here for Request a TEFL Brochure and see an example of a typical volunteer tourism business.

#2 Evidence of an unintentional new form of colonialism

Christian, a member of an international volunteer organisation in Ghana, suggests volunteer tourists are “entitled young rich people convinced they can save Africa”. Christian’s statement reflects the evidence of an unintentional new form of colonialism due to volunteer tourists unintentionally flaunting their wealth, social class and health, leading to a poor portrayal of entitlement.

This can lead to a sense of mockery towards the communities in need of help which can contribute to the gap between the rich and the poor widening. The widening of the rich and poor gap can develop greater powers of economic and political measures and thus create further inequality.

The system of inequality or the gap between the rich and the poor may result in the creation of neo-colonial impacts.

Reasons why people volunteer

#3 Ambiguous business approaches

One of the key discussions highlighted within recent literature is on the ambiguous nature of many volunteer tourism organisations.

The volunteer tourism industry is forever growing with new businesses entering the market all the time, from those that claim to be charitable or non-profit organisation driven, to projects funded by large organisations such as the World Bank, and tour operators.

Tomazos and Butler express how many volunteer tourism organisations declare themselves with such titles as ‘special tour operators’ or ‘ethical NGO’s’, to which their status as an organisation is ambiguous. It is also unclear as to what the organisations goals are, both short and long term.

See also 15 reasons volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism

#4 Ethical concerns regarding profit being made for a supposedly ‘charitable cause’

The volunteer tourism industry is a billion-dollar industry, yet much of this money never reaches the host community.

For those who do receive adequate money, the volunteer tourism projects can create a cycle of dependence. By this I mean communities rely on aid to get by and without volunteer tourism, communities do not have an income.

The commodification of volunteer tourism

Aside form this, there are ethical concerns regarding forgery; with profits being made for a supposedly ‘charitable cause’, when indeed they are swallowed up by the commercial volunteer tourism organisation. It can be argued that this is a direct result ion the commodification of volunteer tourism.

For example, there are growing concerns towards the volume of children being exploited to ‘allure’ tourists and their money. UNICEF estimates that around 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent. Equally exposed, in Cambodia, according to the United Nations, 40 years following the Khmer Rouge genocide, orphanages have grown.

See also A definition of volunteer tourism: What is it and where does it fit in the broad tourism industry?

#5 Lack of regulation of the sector

There is an overall lack of regulation of the volunteer tourism industry, whether that’s in its financial well-doing or monitoring of progress. The lack of regulation of the sector leaves doors open for opportunists, and although organisations do tend to demonstrate how their profits are distributed, this mostly lacks concrete monitoring and evaluation; which thus causes further concerns.  

For example, how beneficial are unqualified and unskilled teachers in improving standards of education? How long will a house last if it has not been built by a trained builder? Are the animals involved in conservation projects in safe hands if the volunteers have not had the necessary training? All of these questions I posed in my earlier post on the negative impacts of volunteer tourism.

Volunteering in the Vishas of Beunos Aires

The lack of regulation of the sector plays a critical role in the safety and security of the industry and thus the impacts and benefits it will have on the host community.

It is easy to research what requirements are expected by which organisation. Click here for TEFL Jobs Board.

#6 Benefits of volunteer tourism are undermined

Debates on the negative impacts of volunteer tourism have dominated discussion in recent years.

For example, the monetary focus for doing good poses several ethical questions and highlights the inappropriateness of using monetary gain in benevolent intentions.

When organisations focus more on the demand of volunteer tourists and the monetary gain they ultimately exploit the industry and the benefits of the organisation on the host community are questionable.

#7 Marketing material designed to attract business as opposed to portraying a reflective picture

It is common that the way in which the marketing material is designed is purely to attract volunteers and to satisfy the organisation’s financial needs.

Volunteer tourism projects can only survive if volunteers want to volunteer, without them there is no project. And because of this, the context in which the marketing material is designed is to attract the volunteer and business potential as opposed to portraying a reflective picture of the actual issue and the actual cause of concern that needs addressing by volunteers.

The tourism rhetoric demonstrated through evocative marketing material often implies a different experience from reality. Pictures of beaches, elephant riding or smiling children may fill prospective volunteer’s heads with romantic images of what the volunteer tourism experience entails, as opposed to what is an accurate reflection of the experience. I would argue that not only is this unethical, but that it will not necessarily attract the best volunteer tourists to do the job.

This is yet another problem of the commodification of volunteer tourism.


It is clear that the industry is becoming more commercialised than before. As I have demonstrated through my analysis of the definition of volunteer tourism, the industry has changed. It is no longer the philanthropic, charitable cause that it once was.

The commodification of volunteer tourism has yielded a new type of tourism. A post-modern tourism form which suits the needs of the commercial organisations involved as opposed to the host community, thus undermining the very reasons for the development of the volunteer tourism industry.

I personally find the commodification of volunteer tourism to be a sad reality. I’d be interested to hear your opinion too. Please drop your comments below.

Additional reading on volunteer tourism

There are some excellent resources on this topic. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Studying or working in volunteer tourism? I recommend that you consult the following texts:

Looking for an easy read? Here are some books that you might enjoy over a cup of tea:

Want more like this? Here are some of my other posts that may interest you:



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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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