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

Mar 28, 2019 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management

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(Last updated on: 06/04/2020)

Volunteer tourism is a form of travel that has become increasingly popular in modern society and it seems the trend is growing, along with its appearance in literature discussions. But what is it and where does it fit in the broad tourism industry? In this post I will provide a comprehensive definition of volunteer tourism, explain what the term volunteer tourism means and explain how this form of tourism has become particularly popular among volunteers, travellers and academics.

What is volunteer tourism?

Volunteering is an integral part of society and with travelling becoming more accessible, volunteers have begun to appear in the tourism industry.

But what is volunteer tourism?

In brief, volunteer tourism is a type of tourism where an individual will travel abroad to a destination that is predominantly considered ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ to offer their support to those in need. And when we use the phrase ‘those in need’, which is expressed a lot in volunteering, we refer to those who are surrounded by extreme poverty, do not have adequate education and healthcare facilities and frequently have little building infrastructure.

Often in academic discussions you will come across terms such as ‘voluntourism’, ‘volunteerism’, and ‘volunteer travel’. Each term is essentially referring to the same principle: the joining of both ‘volunteering and ‘tourism’.

Volunteer tourism is a specific form of tourism, designed purposely to provide a product or service to meet the needs of a particular market segment, meaning it falls under the umbrella of niche tourism.

Niche tourism is becoming more and more popular amongst tourists, who are seek ‘different’ and ‘novel’ experiences more than ever before. In fact, some academics argue that sectors such as volunteer tourism, which used to be small sectors of the industry, have grown to such an extent that they should no longer classified as ‘niche’. Others suggest that the niche market be segregated into macro (meaning big) and micro (meaning small) niches. This is an interesting debate that is addressed at length in Marina Novelli’s seminal text on niche tourism– I recommend you take a look if this is an area of interest to you.

There are many organisations, like Projects Abroad, which offer a range of different volunteer tourism projects. Volunteering opportunities are generally located in undeveloped countries such as; Nepal, Ghana, Cambodia and South Africa.

Whilst there isn’t a wealth of data on volunteer tourism projects, TRAM (Tourism Research and Marketing) found in 2008 that volunteers typically pay on average £2,000 for the privilege of volunteering.

This cost covers, housing, meals, projects, materials, administration and on-site staff support. Unfortunately, it also usually results in a hefty profit in the pockets of the volunteer tourism host organisation too. This is discussed in further detail in my post on the impacts of volunteer tourism.

You might also be interested in my post- ‘What is ‘begpacking’ and why is it so bad?’

There is a growing body of research on volunteer tourism, however Wearing’s book, which introduced the concept back in 2001, remains the most useful in gaining an understanding of what volunteer tourism is. You can find his book on Amazon here.

Of course, there are more recent texts that I would recommend any student or person investigating the volunteer tourism industry refers to alongside Wearing’s text. This includes Angela Benson’s Volunteer Tourism (Contemporary Geographies of Leisure, Tourism and Mobility) which was published in 2015 and Wearing’s International Volunteer Tourism: Integrating Travellers and Communities published in 2010.

A definition of volunteer tourism

Volunteer tourism projects

One reason that it is suggested that volunteer tourism has become a macro niche tourism form is because there are a wide range of opportunities in volunteer tourism that does not limit one project to one activity.

There table below demonstrates the main sectors of the volunteer tourism industry and the various areas that prospective volunteer tourists can get involved with.

Group Activities
Community welfare Childcare, Elderly, Disability, Human right/legal
Teaching Teaching a foreign language (TEFL), Sport coaching
Environmental Nature conservation, Wildlife protection, Global warming
Medical Hospital support, Pandemic support (HIV, Ebola)
Building Construction, Renovation
Research Wildlife monitoring, Land-mapping-zoning

I argued in my PhD thesis, that these categories can be narrowed down even further, with TEFL tourism being a subset of the teaching sector. You can read more about TEFL Tourism here or Click here for Request a TEFL Brochure.

Definitions of tourism

In providing a definition of volunteer tourism, it is first important to understand the meaning of the term tourism.

Tourism is a form of travel defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation as “the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside of their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes.”

There are four basic forms of tourism.

Domestic tourism. Travelling to a place that is outside of their usual environment but remains in the same country.

International tourism. Opposite to domestic tourism. Travelling to a place that is outside of their usual environment but remains outside of their home country.

Outbound tourism. Travelling to a place that is outside of their usual environment, travelling outside of their home country.  

Inbound tourism. Opposite to outbound tourism. Often described when a person travels to your home country from their home country.

Volunteer tourism will typically encompass international, outbound tourism, although it is also possible for volunteer tourism to be undertaken on a domestic basis.

definition of volunteer tourism

Definitions of volunteering

It is also important to to understand the meaning of the term volunteering when attempting to define volunteer tourism.

There is no universal definition of volunteering. Volunteering England have summarised the general view that volunteering is;

“Any activity which involves spending time, unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment.”

Volunteering England also provides an insightful report on various definitions of volunteering, drawn from government legislation and reports, and research articles on volunteering.

You might also be interested in my post- Different levels of tourism policy and planning’

It is important to distinguish the resemblances and distinctions in volunteering and volunteer tourism. The table below gives a generic insight, although it is important to remember that with such a varied range of volunteer tourism options available to consumers nowadays, this is a generic guide as opposed to be indicative.

Volunteering Volunteer tourism
Pro-longed length of stay Short-term
Domestic travel International travel
Individual or group focused Group focused
Basic knowledge is desired No experience or knowledge required
Fundraising focused Requires payment on average of £2,000

Non-academic definitions of volunteer tourism

Both the academic and non-academic communities have attempted to create a widely accepted definition of volunteer tourism, although there does not appear to be one universally utilised definition to date.

Serve the World Today, define volunteer tourism as;

“Volunteering your time, skills, and energy with an organization, issue, or causes to help make a difference in communities around the world as part of your vacation package”.

The Cambridge Dictionary simplifies its definition as;

“A type of holiday in which you work as a volunteer (without being paid) to help people in the places you visit”.

volunteer tourism
Image source

Academic definitions of volunteer tourism

In his early work, Stephen Wearing defines volunteer tourism as tourists who;

“Undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment”.

Stephen Wearing is a notable author of sustainable tourism, focusing on volunteer tourism and eco-tourism.

Marina Novelli, an academic writer on niche tourism, describes volunteer tourists as;

“Individuals offer their service to change some aspect of society for the better”.

Marina Novelli is a geographer who has led and advised projects funded by the United Nations and the World Bank on tourism development.

More recently, academics have begun to scrutinise the motivations behind volunteer tourism, which inevitably impacts on the definition of volunteer tourism.

You might also be interested in my post- ‘6 tips to write your research project FAST’

For example, Irmgard Bauer published a recent journal on volunteering doing more harm than good. And although the article is on medical volunteering, it still relates to volunteering in its broader sense of travelling abroad.

The possibility of ‘voluntourists’ doing more harm than good has not only sparked academic attention but has played a role in critical debate in one of the Worlds leading newspapers, The Guardian. This is addressed further in my post on the impacts of volunteer tourism.

How the meaning of volunteer tourism has shifted in recent years

The practice of individuals going on a ‘working type holiday’ is a relatively new form of tourism that has grown at an increasingly fast past (although it cannot be considered a working holiday as volunteers do not get paid to work). Volunteering is a long-standing activity, but the combination of volunteering and tourism is comparatively new, and we are already witnessing growing changes in the form of tourism.

Volunteering projects are predominantly organised by charities and are philanthropic in nature. The trend in volunteer tourism has shifted away from this altruistic activity into the arms of tour operators, who often charge large amounts. Tour operators are profit driven and discount the prime objective of helping those in need.

Volunteer tourism is a billion-dollar industry and undeveloped or developing countries require continuous money and support. Communities begin to exploit their potential income, which creates a cycle of dependence. Communities rely on aid to get by and without volunteer tourism, communities do not have that potential source of income. And as a result, there are growing concerns towards the volume of children being exploited to ‘allure’ tourists and their money.

UNICEF estimated around 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent. A group founded by JK Rowling to end institutionalisation of children discovered an orphanage in Haiti trafficking children following the earthquake. The rise in orphanages is not the result of abandoned children requiring shelter, but from the demand in volunteer tourists willing to pay to support communities.

Early definitions of volunteer tourism define volunteers as those who undertake holidays that aid and alleviate poverty, someone who provides benefits to others and most importantly, not for themselves. In early definitions, there is a noticeable importance on the meaning of others.

However, in contemporary literature there is a notable shift in the characteristics of volunteer tourism. The philanthropy movement of tourism is described as a form of ‘moral consumption’, expressing a strong link between the tourist and their motivated reality to change the world for the better. And in many cases motivations become selfish, as opposed to selfless.  

There is also a strong commonality in the way volunteering is promoted to individuals. If we look at recent articles and online blogs, we can see volunteers are persuaded by the chances of;

1. Advancing your career.

2. Having an adventure.

3. Learning new skills. And,

4. Enhancing your CV.

I have explained this further in my post on volunteer tourism motivations.

definition of volunteer tourism

Types of tourism linked to volunteer tourism

Volunteer tourism projects are threading through other forms of tourism, making the form of tourism more accessible and engaging to a wider pool of travellers. The table below outlines some of the various tourism segments which frequently encompass volunteer tourism.

  • Alternative tourism. Opposite to mass tourism, alternative tourism involves authentic and personal travelling encouraging interaction with local people, environment and communities.
  • Sustainable tourism. Visiting a destination with the purpose of making a positive impact on the economy, society and environment.
  • Ecotourism. Travelling responsibly to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.
  • Responsible tourism. Any form of tourism that minimises negative economic, social and environmental impacts whilst enhancing benefits for local people.
  • Pro-poor tourism. Pro-poor tourism is not a specific form of tourism but an approach to the industry, that generates economic, social, environmental or cultural net benefits for the poor.
  • Charity tourism. Tourism that involves alleviating material poverty, restoration of environments and research into aspects of society or environment.
  • Gap year tourism. A form of tourism predominantly associated with travelling, volunteering or working abroad.
  • Backpacker tourism. A typically low-cost form of travel, with more interactive experiences with local people.

Conclusion

Today, we have come to know volunteering and its’ notions of giving and helping – but where does it fit into the broad industry of tourism?

The accessibility and availability of international travel has led volunteers to make the most of helping those across the world that cannot help themselves. As we can see, there are associated forms of tourism linked to volunteer tourism and there are common themes that emerge from each form of tourism, and that it is an overall thoughtful travel style to reduce any possible negative impacts when travelling, whilst ensuring maximum positive impacts.

Whilst volunteer tourism becomes a growing trend in contemporary society, there are rising contestations on the potential harm the form of tourism perpetrates. Its’ relationship with sustainability remains rather unexplored and would make an interesting potential research project!

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:

2 Comments
  1. Lana Olsen

    Thorough blog post, but from my perspective, missing some key elements. I thought I’d take the liberty to share a little bit from my own experiences and research. I hope you receive the following points in the most positive light.

    One of your opening lines “volunteer tourism is a type of tourism where an individual will travel abroad” is somewhat misleading. I conducted a study with two of my colleagues a couple of years ago with Tourism Cares (Olsen, Vogt, Andereck, 2018). This was based on the phenomenon of traveling to volunteer, but within a national context. Too often the term “volunteer tourism” is linked to what you said: going abroad to volunteer. Yes, often this is the case. But not always.

    In terms of your declaration “there are rising contestations on the potential harm the form of tourism perpetrates. Its’ relationship with sustainability remains rather unexplored and would make an interesting potential research project!” Yes, there is much work to be done regarding impacts, and the sustainability of, volunteer tourism projects. But there are several authors that have conducted studies on these topics such as (but definitely not limited to): Butcher & Smith (2010); Lupoli, Morse, Bailey, & Schelhas (2014); McIntosh & Zahra (2007); Wearing, Young, & Everingham (2017). I think it would be worth your while as an academic to check these out.

    Unfortunately the public tends to equate the term “volunteer tourism” or “voluntourism” to negative impacts traveling to volunteer has on a host community due to press coverage in recent years. However, I think this is unfair. There are countless examples of what I call soft or “one off” volunteering opportunities that can result in positive impacts. The nonprofit “Not Just Tourists” come to mind as a “one off” opportunity, but understandably so, not necessarily under the umbrella of volunteer tourism. But what is? I believe there is a huge spectrum between volunteer volunteer tourists, and volunteer tourist tourists. I think the terms need to be revisited yet again.

    I’d love to discuss this more with you if you would like to at some point. This is my field of work/interest, and I am very passionate about it.

    All the best to you!

    Reply
  2. Lucy

    This post is really great, and i appreciate how in depth your writing is, exploring all forms of volunteer tourism, and statistics which are also supporting the argument. It is defiently topic which needs to be explored further and made known to many more people. From my experience volunteering abroad, i witnessed many incidents which have shaped my opinion on volunteering abroad, and i think education on the topic is key!

    Check our my post on this topic also, for some further reading!

    https://therealhumanitarian.com/what-is-volunteer-tourism-is-it-bad/

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  7. Returning Home After Volunteering Abroad - 5 tips for positive reintegration | Lifeasabutterfly - […] round off my volunteer tourism blog post series I bring to you a guest entry from Claire, author of…
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  10. COVID-19 has devastated the popular but flawed volunteer tourism business – here's what needs to be done | Capital - […] leisure travel, restriction of movement threatened to destroy volunteer tourism businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), devastating the projects that…
  11. COVID-19 has devastated the popular but flawed volunteer tourism business – here's what needs to be done – News of the world - […] leisure travel, restriction of movement threatened to destroy volunteer tourism businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), devastating the projects that…

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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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