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Why should you become a volunteer tourist?

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There are many reasons why people volunteer. Whether their volunteer tourism motivations are predominantly selfish or selfless, whether there is one dominant motivation or multiple motivations, everybody has their own reasons to become a volunteer tourist.

In this post I will explain the types of volunteer tourists, the reasons why people volunteer and how this has changed in recent times.

Today, many people recognise volunteer tourism as a kind act of giving. But the combination of volunteering and tourism is relatively new, and the form of tourism is growing at an exponential rate. With this growth, we have seen changes in the industry, along with changes in the meaning of what volunteer tourism really is, as I explained in my previous post ‘A definition of volunteer tourism: What is it and where does it fit in the broad tourism industry?’

We are also witnessing growing changes in volunteer tourism motivations. Whilst the reasons why people volunteer may have been predominantly altruism-based in the past, we now see strong notions of egotism amongst volunteer tourists. This has changed the face of the industry, bringing with it a range of associated impacts.

For more on the history of volunteer tourism I suggest you take a look at Wearing’s seminal text, available on Amazon here.

Types of volunteer tourists

We are all motivated differently and the volunteer tourism industry is no different. The reasons why people volunteer can be further understood by examining what types of people are choosing to take part in volunteer tourism.

Some people may choose to volunteer because they feel it is important to support communities and have an ultimate desire to give back. Others may feel voluntary work will provide professional development and support career-building, along with the fact that the work will enhance their CV. Others choose to volunteer to immerse themselves socially among different cultures and networks. And then some simply have a desire to seek adventures and explore new cultures and communities.

Some academics have categorised volunteer tourists by these motivations. Below I will outline the main volunteer tourist typologies in the literature.

Volunteer tourist typologies

Callanan and Thomas categorise volunteer tourist motivations around six main objectives:


Duration of project.

Focus on experience.


Active versus passive participation.

Level of contribution to locals.

Tourists are classified into one of three categories; shallow, intermediate or deep.

Shallow volunteers are classified as those that are dominated by personal interest. They prefer short trips (e.g. a few weeks), demonstrate few skills, experience low levels of direct contributions to locals and tend to be more passive in participation; consequently impacting on their ability to contribute to the local environment or community sufficiently . They are focussed on self-interest and self-development and demonstrate motives such as CV and ego enhancement.

At the other end of the spectrum, those that tend to think more about the community are classified as ‘deep’ tourists. These tourists typically partake in projects that are longer in duration (at least six months) and possess specific skills and qualifications. For these tourists, the project and the impact on the environment and community are key to the volunteer experience.

Reasons why people volunteer

McGehee et al, separate tourist motivations into three categories; the Vanguards, the Pragmatists and the Questers.

The Vanguards. The Vanguards are the most motivated. Demonstrating interests in skill building, seeking the most physically and mentally intense experience. This tourist type is predominantly the youngest.

The Pragmatists. The largest group of volunteer tourists. Motivated by cultural and social immersion, and the desire to connect. This tourist tends to be middle-aged volunteers.

The Questers. The Questers tend to be the oldest and tend to gravitate towards altruistic motivations yet demonstrate a lack of awareness of what their motivations are.

Daldeniz and Hampton separate motivations into two categories; VOLUNtourists and volunTOURISTS. Their typology heavily debates the motivations of volunteer tourists and whether they are motivated by the prospect of a volunteer experience or the vacation in itself.

VOLUNtourist. Someone who travels and is largely motivated by the will to help those less fortunate.

VolunTOURIST. Someone who travels and is motivated by their desire to travel and explore.

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

Volunteer in the week but tourist on the weekend?

Whilst the above typologies are useful in attempting to understand the reasons why people volunteer it can be argued that they are over simplistic.

The volunteer traveller has long been a challenge to define (as I have explained in this post) and the lack of clarity about the role of a volunteer tourist has created what has been described in the literature as ‘role ambiguity’.

The term ‘role ambiguity’ is essentially referring to the fact that volunteer tourists may not always be clear about their role all of the time. In fact, their ‘role’, so to speak, can change depending on the time of day or day of the week.

There is research to suggest that some volunteers perceive themselves as tourists at some points during their trips (for example when they have completed their volunteering duties and are visiting tourist attractions or going out to parties) and as volunteers at others (Sin, 2009).

Mustonen (2005) builds on this by identifying the shifting roles of volunteer tourists, who may go from being tourists seeking out pleasure, relaxation, stimulation and so forth during part of their trip to altruistically helping the community or environment at other times.

Many volunteer organisations offer more than just an opportunity to volunteer and allure people in by offering a ‘holiday type vacation’ too. This emphasises this concept of ‘shifting roles’, particularly from the organisation perspective.

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

Reasons why people volunteer

It is clear that there are a lot of different reasons why people volunteer. Volunteer tourism motivations can be diverse, multiple can even be merged into one-another.

Below is a list of the main reasons why people volunteer as identified in the volunteer tourism literature.

Opportunity to travel

Volunteer tourism involves travelling to another country in most circumstances. This is appealing for many tourists and provides them with the opportunity to travel.

There are some great companies who offer packages which include lots of travel opportunities. Click here for Request a TEFL Brochure


Volunteer tourism generally involves meeting new people. Whether the tourist is spending time with the local population, other volunteer tourists, or both, it is likely that they will form relationships with them. This camaraderie is often reported to be a highlight of a volunteer tourism experience.

Reasons why people volunteer

Skill development

Volunteer tourism provides tourists with the opportunity to develop a range of skills, depending on the type of placement that they are undertaking. Developing new skills and enhancing their CV is often reported to be one of the dominant reasons why people volunteer.


Many people will choose to take part in a volunteer tourism project because they want to feel like they are giving something back. Back in the early days of volunteering, this was the most frequently noted motivation, although with the rapid growth of the industry and changes in the types of people who are choosing to volunteer, this is sadly often a secondary motivation nowadays. This is addressed further in my post on volunteer tourism impacts.


Volunteering abroad provides a sense of adventure and fun! Lyons and Wearing’s book entitled ‘Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives’ documents some brilliant case studies if you would like some examples- you can purchase the book here.

Personal growth

On completion of their placement, many volunteer tourists explain that they feel that they have ‘developed as a person’. This is one of the motivational factors commonly noted. People may also describe this as ‘finding themselves’ or ‘learning more about themselves’.


There is an inevitable educational benefit when undertaking a volunteer tourism project. Whether the tourist undertakes formal learning, for example by undertaking a TEFL certificate, or whether it is learning through their travel and cultural experiences, it id difficult not to learn a lot when working as a volunteer tourist!


For many people, learning a language is of particular importance to them. These tourists may choose to undertake their volunteer tourism placement in a location which speaks a language that they are hoping to learn.

Influence of family/peers

Some volunteer tourists choose to undertake their placements because of pressure from family or peers. Perhaps their parents have suggested it is a good idea or their friends are going and want them to accompany them.

Structure of programme

For some, the reasons why they volunteer are down to the volunteer tourism programme itself. They may like the itinerary, the company ethos or the way that the programme is organised.

Reasons why people volunteer

Cultural immersion

Volunteer tourism allows participants to be exposed to a new culture in a way that isn’t possible with regular tourism. Many people state that this is a major motivating factor when deciding to undertake a volunteer tourism trip.

Novel experience

Volunteer tourism enables tourists to have a unique and novel experience. It is something that they may never do again and something that they will not experience at home.


Some volunteer tourism projects are based around religious centres or acts of religion. They may be organised by a church group or they could provide assistance to communities based on a religious approach or ethos. Many people will be motivated to join a volunteer tourism project that is linked in some way to religious practice, whereas others may simply be intrinsically motivated as a result of their religious beliefs.

Personal challenge

Some tourists seek to challenge themselves and joining a volunteer tourism programme can certainly do that! Whether you are challenged by language barriers, because you are placed outside of your comfort zone or because you are asked to do something unfamiliar to you, volunteer tourism can be a challenging experience!

Course requirement

Many volunteer tourism projects make up a part of an academic course. This can be a compulsory element or a voluntary element.

To live in another country

For some people, the reasons why they volunteer are dominated by their desire to live and work abroad. Some may prefer warm climates, others may be motivated because of the culture, cost of living or local attractions on offer.


Whilst most volunteer tourism projects do come at a cost to the volunteer, they can also offer lower costs of living for the duration of the project as they tend to take place in developing economies. This can be a motivating factor for some volunteer tourists.

To escape

Some people seek a form of escapism. Volunteer tourism offers tourists the opportunity to escape their everyday lives at home and to experience something different.

Search for authenticity

More and more nowadays, tourists are in search of experiences that are more niche, unique and authentic than the traditional package tour. Volunteer tourism offers tourists the opportunity to be exposed to a culture in a way that is more authentic and ‘real’ than they would be able to achieve if undertaking a normal holiday.

Reputation of volunteer tourism organisation

Most volunteers (although not all) will book their experience through a volunteer tourism organisation. The reputation and stature of said organisation can play a role in motivation. It is, however, unlikely that this is a dominant motivation, but rather it is likely a side-factor that is taken into consideration when organising the trip.

Are motivations selfish or selfless?

Motivations are largely grouped into two categories; personal or interpersonal.

Personal motivations are typically passive and focus more on the adventure of the project, the ability to enhance CV and build on career prospects and own professional development. Personal motivations are more focused towards personal challenges and egotistic in nature.

Interpersonal motivations, on the other hand, are mainly steered towards active participation. Focusing on culture immersion and supporting communities with an ultimate desire to give back and be dominantly altruistic in nature.

Volunteer tourism

Personal (Selfish). Having an advennture, enhance CV, professional development, career-building and personal challenge.

Interpersonal (Selfless). Support communities, desire to give back, altruism and culture immersed.

So what impacts do these motivations have on the voluntourism industry?

Selfish volunteer tourists’ focus is steered towards self-development and personal enhancement and therefore typically produce a low-level impact to the local community and environment. Whereas selfless volunteer tourists are centrally focused towards high level contribution to the local community and environment and therefore have a much more positive impact.

Natalia Jesionka, a researcher on human rights issues across the globe, wrote an article on the reality of volunteer tourism, reflecting on inexperienced volunteers exploiting their privileges to go abroad for their own egos. Similar to the views expressed in her article, others have begun to question the possibility of volunteer tourism worsening the gap between the rich and the poor.

Selfish motivations of volunteering are commonly led by egocentric behaviour. Egocentric behaviour allows an individual to ‘redescribe’ their thoughtful act of kindness as selfless.

It is the inability to differentiate between the self and the other. For example, if we were to give a homeless person food, we are concerned for their well-being, but by giving the homeless person food we are making ourselves feel good, and if we did not give them food, we would feel guilty. And because we do not want to feel guilt, we give the homeless person food, for our own advantage of not feeling guilt.

In academic terms, egocentric behaviour is a motivational drive of self-interest, the desire to help others only when those actions provide self-happiness.

This concept is further addressed in my post on volunteer tourism impacts.


In summary, it is clear that volunteer tourists have different motivations and these motivations can easily be grouped into two categories; personal and interpersonal.

Personal motivations have the least focus on community well-being and voluntary work in itself. Whereas interpersonal motivations reflect very little travelling desire and is largely focused on the voluntary work.

It is clear that the combination of volunteering and tourism raises questions on the complexity of voluntourist expectations and the difficulty in shifting roles between work and leisure.

So what do we know?

We know there is a lot of recent debate and scrutiny on voluntourism and their motivations becoming largely self-focused as oppose to selfless, and this topic makes for a good research project.

There is a lot of room for great research topics here, and I’d personally suggest looking into particular age groups or one particular type of motivation, i.e. egocentric and the relationship on the voluntourism industry and its affects and results.

Do you have something to add? I’d love to hear your views- drop them in the 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:

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