(Last updated on: 14/12/2020)
Volunteer tourism is a growing industry. A type of niche tourism, it attracts people who want to gain valuable experience, ‘do something good’ or enhance their CV. But what exactly does volunteer tourism entail?
The volunteer tourism industry has been substantially researched and critiqued in recent years by tourism industry stakeholders and researchers (including myself). Whilst it can be a great way to help a cause, it can also negative impacts too. In this article I will tell you what is meant by the term ‘volunteer tourism’, the types of volunteer tourism projects available and the motivations of volunteer tourists. I will also discuss the commodification of the volunteer tourism industry along with the positive and negative impacts. Lastly, I will outline the things that tourists should consider before committing to a volunteer tourism project.
Are you ready to learn more about volunteer tourism?
- What is volunteer tourism?
- Definitions of volunteer tourism
- How the meaning of volunteer tourism has shifted in recent years
- Types of volunteer tourism projects
- Types of tourism linked to volunteer tourism
- Types of volunteer tourists
- Volunteer tourism motivation
- Opportunity to travel
- Skill development
- Personal growth
- Influence of family/peers
- Structure of programme
- Cultural immersion
- Novel experience
- Personal challenge
- Course requirement
- To live in another country
- To escape
- Search for authenticity
- Reputation of volunteer tourism organisation
- Are volunteer tourism motivations selfish or selfless?
- The commodification of volunteer tourism
- Money goes to the business, as opposed to the cause
- Evidence of an unintentional new form of colonialism
- Ambiguous business approaches
- Ethical concerns regarding profit being made for a supposedly ‘charitable cause’
- Lack of regulation of the sector
- Benefits of volunteer tourism are undermined
- Marketing material designed to attract business as opposed to portraying a reflective picture
- The positive impacts of volunteer tourism
- Helping the host community
- Money is directed to areas that would not normally benefit from tourism
- Enhanced cross-cultural understanding
- Reduction in racial, cultural and social boundaries
- Volunteers can utilise their skills that locals may not have
- Enhanced social capital
- Contribution towards international development
- Negative impacts of volunteer tourism
- Limited benefits due to the short longevity of volunteer placement
- Culture shock
- Not being able to see where their money has been spent
- Experience given not matching expectations
- Marketing material not reflective of actual experience
- Volunteers unaware of what ‘difference’ they have made
- A feeling of awkwardness when locals are viewed as inferior to volunteers by the host population
- Role ambiguity
- Cross-cultural misunderstanding
- The need for volunteers is simulated
- Unauthentic experience
- Feeling unneeded or ‘unused’
- Language barriers
- Physical hardship (insects, lack of sleep, physical exertion etc)
- Lack of amenities/activities
- Neglect on locals’ desires and lack of community support
- Hindering of work progress and completion of unsatisfactory work
- Disruption of local economies
- Reinforcement of conceptualisations of the ‘other’
- Rationalisations of poverty
- Instigation of cultural changes
- Increased dependency in host communities
- Lack of financial and vocational benefits directed towards host community
- Local employment displaced by free-labour tourists
- Lack of specific skills, knowledge or experience by volunteers
- Local environments/communities exploited by volunteer organisations for profit
- Cross-cultural misunderstanding
- Foreign interest prioritised over local
- Volunteers possessing limited volunteering or professional experience
- Language barriers make it difficult to undertake volunteer work
- Hosts unclear of the role of the volunteer
- Reinforcements of cultural stereotypes
- Employment losses
- Volunteer tourism organisations not employing local staff
- Lack of quality control and background checks on volunteer tourists
- Lack of regulation of the sector
- Evidence of colonialism
- Aid not going to those most in need
- Inadequate volunteer training/inductions
- Hosts devastated when newly established bonds with volunteers are broken upon the end of their placement
- Undesirable power relations created between host and volunteer
- 10 things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip
- #1 Develop skills to aid career development
- #2 Cheap travel opportunities
- #3 To have a ‘grass roots’/cultural experience
- #4 Exhibit philanthropic behaviour
- #5 Enhanced relationships/cross-cultural relationships
- #6 Becoming ambassadors of home country
- #7 Realisation of the importance of material possessions
- #8 Education
- #9 Personal growth and development
- #10 Greater awareness of ‘self’
- #11 Enhanced citizenship
- #12 Opportunity to do/see something fun and exotic
- #13 Enhanced level of self-criticism
- #14 Self-satisfaction and desire to change
- #15 Enhanced spiritualism
- #16 Positive personality changes
- #17 Relaxation
- #18 To have a greater understanding of the host community
- #19 Increase desire to ‘give’
- #20 Opportunity to achieve training and/or qualifications
- Volunteer tourism: Work with me
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.
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.
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.
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;
- Advancing their career.
- Having an adventure.
- Learning new skills.
- Enhancing your CV.
Types of 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.
The table below demonstrates the main sectors of the volunteer tourism industry and the various areas that prospective volunteer tourists can get involved with.
|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)|
|Research||Wildlife monitoring, Land-mapping-zoning|
I argued in my article published in Annals of Tourism, that these categories can be narrowed down even further, with TEFL tourism (the subject of my PhD) being a subset of the teaching sector.
Types of tourism linked to volunteer tourism
Volunteer tourism projects are closely linked to a range of other forms of tourism, making the form of tourism more accessible and engaging to a wider pool of travellers. The list 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.
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.
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.
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.
Volunteer tourism motivation
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 volunteer tourism 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.
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.
The commodification of volunteer tourism
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.
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.
Here is a summary of the things that you need to consider when it comes to the commodification of the volunteer tourism industry:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The positive impacts of volunteer tourism
The positive impacts of volunteer tourism are predominantly underpinned by academic research on the ideology that volunteer tourism can be used as a tool for of sustainable development.
In Wearing’s early work, he defined volunteer tourism as ‘aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments and research into aspects of society or environment’. His definition ethos clearly has a significant focus on the way in which volunteer tourism can benefit host communities, these are outlined below.
Helping the host community
The most notable positive impact of volunteer tourism is its impact on the host community and there are many ways in which volunteer tourism helps the host community.
The ultimate aim of volunteer tourism is to improve the well-being and livelihoods of the host society and environment. This typically involves working with locals who are otherwise ignored or neglected by society in some way.
First, volunteer tourism combines a foundation of support for an all roundedstronger community. And by stronger community, I refer to a community that has external support that heightens its internal strengths.
Secondly, a stronger community boosts community happiness. When a community feels stronger this feeling of strength transcends into a happy environment.
There are many ways that volunteer tourism can help a host community, some of which are discussed below.
Money is directed to areas that would not normally benefit from tourism
Undeveloped countries with an influx of volunteer tourism projects are not typically ‘hot listed’ for other forms of tourism, i.e. leisure tourism, business tourism or sport tourism. And therefore, communities do not receive the financial benefits that other communities may do.
Volunteer tourism projects are, in part, a solution to this problem because they allow for money to be directly placed into areas that would not normally benefit from tourism. This therefore provides substantial economic benefits for the host community. It is to believed that the volunteer tourism industry could be worth more than $173 billion dollars, thus demonstrating the worth that this could have for individual communities!
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. This money fuels the necessary projects for the development of local communities.
Volunteer tourism projects not only provides a direct source of income, but the time and effort to conserve and preserve societies and environments provides a financial support in which host communities financially benefit from in the long-run.Whilst, on the outset, this might seem like a large amount of money that is directed to said communities, it is not always as clear-cut as it may seem. With the rise of commercialism within the industry and for-profit host organisations, many have begun to question how much of the money spent by a volunteer actually goes to the local community. This is discussed further in my post on the commodification of volunteer tourism.
Enhanced cross-cultural understanding
When examining the positive impacts of volunteer tourism, some academics have found substantial evidence of enhanced cultural understanding (e.g. Coren and Gray, 2012; Palacios, 2010; Raymond and Hall, 2008).
Volunteering helps the local community by building the foundation for enhanced cross-cultural understanding by combining a variety of cultures, trends and geographic lines that would have otherwise be divided in the reality of a politically divided world.
The cohesion of cultures transcends insightful knowledge for the host community, providing them with personal opportunities to learn more about other communities and cultures outside of their environment.
Likewise, the volunteer tourists also learn from host communities and are provided with personal opportunities to learn more about the host culture and therefore this personal level of learning heightens cultural sensitivity and awareness.
Reduction in racial, cultural and social boundaries
Likewise, Raymond and Hall’s (2008) research on the positive impacts of volunteer tourism have found there to be reductions in racial, cultural and social boundaries between the volunteer tourist and the host.
By enhancing cross-cultural understandings, we inevitably reduce the context of racial, cultural and social boundaries. This is done through merging cultures, and social differences during volunteer projects.
The appreciation for cultural diversity and learning from other cultures and people increases respect and understanding.
During volunteer projects, racial, cultural and social differences are allied, providing a deeper understanding of one another’s differences.
Relationships are built during volunteer tourism projects and knowledge is shared amongst the host and tourists. These relationships heighten the level of knowledge learned from volunteer tourism, reduces the boundaries of racial, cultural and social remarks and works as a catalyst for encouraging a heightened awareness of such remarks and their impacts.
Volunteers can utilise their skills that locals may not have
There are many skills that volunteer tourists can bring to a local community, particularly skills that locals may not have. For example, teaching English is a very common voluntary project and provides host communities with basic knowledge of English language. This an area of particular personal interest as it was the topic of my PhD research.
In an article entitled ‘Volunteer tourism, development and education in a postcolonial world: conceiving global connections beyond aid’, author Carlos Palacios carried out an ethnographic study in Australia, focusing on an Australian program that organises short-term voluntary programmes for university students. His research discovered that such voluntary projects can provide local communities knowledge on basic life skills, like the English language, intercultural competence and awareness of global development.
Furthermore, volunteers are predominantly from Western societies were there is advanced knowledge on ecosystems and conservation strategies. The knowledge from Western societies is derived from actual research projects and therefore provides volunteers with advanced knowledge and understanding that can be utilised during their volunteer project.
In my recent post ‘A definition of volunteer tourism: What is it and where does it fit in the broad tourism industry?’ I highlighted the range of opportunities that volunteer tourism offers in terms of projects and activities. The range of opportunities reflect the number of skills volunteers can bring to the local community.
These projects and skills are;
- Welfare skills for childcare, elderly, disabled and human right/legal.
- Teaching skills for teaching a foreign language (TEFL) and sport coaching.
- Environmental skills for natural conservation, wildlife protection and global warming.
- Medical skills for hospital support and pandemic support (HIV, Ebola).
- Building skills for construction and renovation.
- Research skills for wildlife monitoring and land-mapping-zoning.
Enhanced social capital
Social capital is the resource in which social interaction and network opportunities take place and which enable a society to operate effectively.
Volunteer tourism in nature, merges different cultures and communities together, which can be beneficial for society, as evidenced in McGehee and Santos’ (2005) research on the positive impacts of volunteer tourism.
During volunteer tourism projects, trust is built, values are shared, and friendships are formed, all of which are critical in enhancing social capital.
Contribution towards international development
The world is divided by two social parities: the developed world and the undeveloped/developing world.
The developing world, also referred to as undeveloped, is largely dominated by extreme poverty, with little stability to develop due to financial constraints and social limitations. Whereas, the developed world refers to nations that are largely more ‘modern’ in society and have the financial ability to ensure their economy, society and environment are managed and protected.
Volunteer tourism projects allow both social parities to merge into one social construct. When the developed world becomes more involved in supporting the undeveloped world, we collectively work towards international development- In fact, all of the positive impacts mentioned above in some way work towards international development!
For more on international development in this context I recommend the text-Introduction to International Development: Approaches, Actors, Issues, and Practice by Paul Haslam, Jessica Shafer and Pierre Beaudet.
Negative impacts of volunteer tourism
Volunteer tourism can be viewed as a form of tourism incorporating volunteer services. This form of tourism combines tourists who are in search of an experience that contributes to their personal development, but also having a positive impact on the social, natural and economic environments in which they are hosted. Volunteer tourism meets the needs of those who prefer to travel with a purpose and is often associated heavily with niche tourism for those who seek a different experience.
As the volunteer tourism industry grows, we are witnessing growing changes in volunteer motivations. In the past, reasons may have been predominantly altruism-based; however, we are now seeing strong notions of egotism amongst volunteer tourists. This has changed the face of the industry and brings with it a range of associated impacts for both the host and volunteers.Thus, it is important to consider the positive and negative impacts of volunteer tourism on the volunteer, as much as it is on the host.
Although motivations can differ, there remains several reasons why volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think. To understand the reasons why people volunteer, see my recent post on volunteer motivations.
There is a growing body of literature that highlights the negative impacts of volunteer tourism. Below I will explain the top documented reasons why volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think, as highlighted through a range of academic studies.
Limited benefits due to the short longevity of volunteer placement
Volunteer tourism projects are predominantly short-term placements, typically lasting around 2 weeks. During such a short time frame, there is very little to get done apart from helping the community and volunteering. There may be little personal benefits to volunteering for such a short period of time and thus this is often deemed one of the negative impacts of volunteer tourism to the tourist.
The second noteworthy negative impact of volunteer tourism is culture shock.
Tourists often commit to volunteer programmes with little understanding and knowledge of the community’s culture, history and way of life. This can lead to a culture shock when volunteers are required to immerse themselves fully during the length of the volunteer programme.
Not being able to see where their money has been spent
Volunteer programmes typically cost the volunteer around £2,000, according to the research organisation Tourism Research and Marketing (TRAM).
During the programme you will be helping onside and participating in a very hands on experience, however, you will often not be able to see where your £2,000 worth of project fees are being spent. This is discussed further in my post on the commodification of tourism.
Experience given not matching expectations
A small number of studies have identified the dissatisfaction expressed by volunteers when their placement expectations have not been met.
Coren and Gray’s work discovered this feeling of dissatisfaction when they were aware that the money they paid for their placements had not reached the communities in which they were led to believe it would.
I have also personal experience of this. At age 22 I travelled to the vishas of Buenos Aires to volunteer my time to help the local communities. I envisaged working most days and doing things such as teaching, running activities with the children and supporting members of the community. In reality, volunteers were on site only a few hours each week and spent much of their time chatting with each other about the Argentinian nightlife scene and their previous nights antics.
Marketing material not reflective of actual experience
Volunteer projects are heavily marketed to ensure they encourage a good amount of volunteers, however in some cases the marketing material of programmes is not a true reflection of the actual experience.
In fact, many volunteer tourism organisations invoke images and rhetoric of tourism far more than they do of volunteering! This gives the perception that aspects such as relaxing on the beach or visiting the local tourist attractions may be a more significant promotion of the volunteer tourism experience than they actually are.
Volunteers unaware of what ‘difference’ they have made
Another one of the key negative impacts of volunteer tourism is that volunteers may be unaware of the ‘difference that they have made’.
Because volunteer programmes are predominantly short and last around two weeks or less volunteer tourists may not be able to see any tangible results from their efforts.
This is most likely the result of programmes benefiting long-term as opposed to foreseeing immediate benefits. And similar to #3 when you are not able to see where your money has been spent you are unaware of what difference you have made.
A feeling of awkwardness when locals are viewed as inferior to volunteers by the host population
During volunteer programmes cultures are emerged with one another in a way that would not otherwise emerge without the act of volunteering programmes.
Volunteer tourists are predominantly from developed countries and therefore have very different lifestyles to those of the host community. This can lead to unequal power relations in which leaves volunteers feeling uncomfortable. It can also cause resentment or dissatisfaction from the local population.
Christian, a member of an international volunteering organisation in Ghana, describes volunteer tourists as “entitled young rich people who are convinced they can save Africa”. And Christian’s observation of volunteer tourists dispel attitudes of being the only source of help, which can (without intent) lead locals to feel inferior to volunteers.
Another one of the negative impacts of volunteer tourism is the notion of role ambiguity. This because what exactly it is you will be doing during the programme can appear fairly vague to the volunteer tourist.For example, lets take a look at a volunteer programme description from Projects Abroad.
“As a volunteer, you’ll become part of our ongoing efforts to support children in Cambodia. You’ll do this by planning and running fun, educational activities to promote early childhood development. For example, you can play a ball game to help kids improve their hand-eye coordination.”
It can appear that volunteer programmes can be unclear of what it is exactly they require you to do and when you arrive your expectations may not be met.
As I said before, volunteer tourism programmes require different cultures to emerge with one another that would have not connected otherwise.
Volunteers often travel to volunteer programmes with little knowledge and understanding of the hosts culture and vise versa. This can result in cross-cultural misunderstanding and therefore make the experience somewhat awkward and challenging for the volunteer.
Cross-cultural misunderstanding can also cause issues with regards to the local community. Tourists may unintentionally cause offence or be rude, due to a lack of understanding of the local culture. This is commonly seen, for example, in the Middle East when tourists wear revealing clothing or in many Asian destinations when tourists do not remove their shoes indoors.
The need for volunteers is simulated
In severe cases the need for volunteers may be simulated.
Tourism Concern reflects on the heightened media surrounding volunteering in orphanages, in which it has been identified that many children have been purposely pulled from their families and ‘orphaned’ in order to serve the volunteer tourism programmes surrounding orphanages and to make a vast profit.
Volunteers benefit through the feeling that they have made a difference, but it can appear some programmes in some shape of form are staged and in fact inauthentic. As mentioned above, the need for volunteers is simulated and thus creates unauthentic experiences for the volunteers.
Feeling unneeded or ‘unused’
There may be too many volunteers in one voluntary programme and therefore you may feel as if you are ‘getting in the way’ or not helping as much as you had hoped to be because there are enough people on the programme. Or that perhaps your skills are not being utilised to their full potential.
Again, similar to miss cultural understandings, there is a lack in the tendency of communication barriers due to lack of language knowledge between both the host community and the volunteers. This creates language barriers and thus makes it difficult to communicate between the volunteer and hosts and can result in cross-cultural understandings and feelings of awkwardness.
Physical hardship (insects, lack of sleep, physical exertion etc)
Yes, volunteering can be a very emotional challenge for some, having to witness the hardship others in the world suffer daily, but also for the volunteers, there is the encounter of physical hardship.
You must prepare yourself mentally for the diverse living situation, the higher chances of falling ill, lack of sleep and overall physical exertion if you are helping day in and day out.
Lack of amenities/activities
Of course, those that require help will typically have less, and this also means a lack of amenities and activities for the volunteers. Most commonly, there are less resources, health facilities, food service and more as well as excursions and other activities that you may decide to do during your time away from the volunteer project.
Neglect on locals’ desires and lack of community support
Often it is assumed volunteer programmes will favour local communities and their desired support. However, this may not be the case. Matthews’ study of turtle conservation in Costa Rica identifies the influence that volunteer tourism projects had on poaching and stallholders selling turtle products.
In his research he found that, while poaching is not commendable, the turtle industry was an important part of the community. When volunteer tourism was introduced, many were put out of work and the community became resentful of the volunteer tourists.
This example illustrates that while volunteer tourism projects should consider the benefits to the volunteer, it is important that the projects are also designed in line with the host and community’s wishes.
Hindering of work progress and completion of unsatisfactory work
In my previous posts, I mention the short longevity of volunteer programs. Programs can run as little as one to two weeks per program. This is not a lot of time to make real progress or to see tangible results.
In fact, often work is hindered by the tourists. This may be because of time constraints or because the volunteer tourists lack the necessary skills, as discussed later in this post.
Disruption of local economies
A key negative impact of volunteer tourism is the disruption of local economies.
Volunteer tourism projects are typically funded through volunteers paying on average £2,000 for their experience (TRAM, 2008).
Volunteers will often offer their services voluntarily, when oftentimes these positions could be filled by members of the local community This causes financial disruption within local economies and can cause resentment towards the tourists.Although volunteers offer their services, do they know exactly where each program fee goes? Probably not.
Another point to note is that volunteers often tend to bring ‘gifts’ for locals like shoes and water, but this act of generosity can divert business from local markets.
Reinforcement of conceptualisations of the ‘other’
In his article, ‘The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism’, Daniel Guttentag reflects on the work of Simpson, who points out that whilst interviewing gap-year volunteers, many of them emphasised the difference between ‘them’ (the locals) and ‘us’ (the volunteers); consequently establishing a dichotomy between the both of them.
Volunteer tourism programmes can take away the sense of responsibility and ownership for local people. Locals can be made to feel inferior and treated as so by the volunteers (although this is often unintentional). Concepts of racism, imperialism and globalisation also emphasise the ‘them and us’ notion that invokes conceptualisations of ‘the other’.
Rationalisations of poverty
Following on from #4, Daniel Guttentag expresses that all authors who have voiced concerns in regards to locals being ‘poor but happy’ indicates a rationalisation of poverty.
Often those with less than others are described closely with expressions like ‘They don’t have TVs but it doesn’t bother them because they have never had one and don’t know what they’re missing out on’ or ‘they’re happy with how they live because they’re used to that style of living and don’t know of anything else’. These expressions used to describe communities from undeveloped countries allows material inequality to be justified and excused.
Volunteer tourism, does, however, help tourists to learn more about how others live and the poverty that they might be exposed to.
Instigation of cultural changes
Volunteer tourism can instigate negative cultural changes amongst host communities.
It is common for Western volunteers to inadvertently tarnish cultural traditions and invoke notions of globalisation and Western imperialism. This can lead to changes in the way that the local people live. Aspects such as their behaviour, the clothes that they wear and the way that they speak can change as a direct result of the presence of volunteer tourism.
For more on this topic, I recommend that you consult Mary Mostafanezhad’s recent text, Volunteer Tourism (New Directions in Tourism Analysis).
Increased dependency in host communities
Another concerning negative impact of volunteer tourism is dependency.
Volunteer tourists often perform jobs that locals could do. As a result, this invokes dependency for host communities, whereby they begin to rely on the performance of volunteers.
Volunteering programmes often provide emotional and physical support for host communities. However, it is very easy for communities to become reliant on the volunteers and volunteer programmes to support them, whether that’s financial, social or environmental.
For instance, Lauren Kascak, expressed that during her several trips to Ghana, locals favoured international medical volunteers due to the free health care and refused to take health insurance and instead relied on volunteers like Lauren to take care of their medical concerns.
Lack of financial and vocational benefits directed towards host community
Volunteer organisations often make heavy profits from the fees they charge to volunteers.
However, how much of this ends up in benefiting the host community? There are wide debates on the likelihood of volunteer organisations retaining volunteer placement fees for themselves.
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 on to develop the website Grassroots Volunteering , a dual database of organisations that connects travellers to causes and communities to support in attempt to decommodify the volunteer tourism industry.
Local employment displaced by free-labour tourists
Why would organisations pay for labour when volunteer tourists are willing to 1) work for free and 2) pay to work for the community? It’s as simple as that.
Lack of specific skills, knowledge or experience by volunteers
Volunteer tourism projects have minimal requirements regarding the skill set needed to volunteer. And a result, volunteers often commit to programs with little knowledge and understanding of the host community and without the relevant skills.
In the UK and other Western countries there are many regulations and policies that are required of workers of volunteers. In the UK if you do not hold a teaching qualification you cannot teach. If you are not a trained builder you cannot built.
This is not, however represented in the volunteer tourism industry, where many people commit to projects without the necessary knowledge or skillset. This can cause many problems, ranging from the completion of unsatisfactory work to invoking resentment from locals who may be better equipped to perform said duties.
Local environments/communities exploited by volunteer organisations for profit
More often the issues that arise are not with the volunteer but with the organisations themselves.
Many volunteer tourism organisations appear to be driven by profit, rather than be focused on providing meaningful solutions to alleviate poverty or to help the environment.
Many hidden truths have emerged in discussion of the volunteer tourism industry, alliterating the exploitation of local environments and communities by commercial organisations. In fact, in severe cases, the presence of volunteer tourism not only reaps few rewards for the host communities, but actually exaggerates the negative aspects through increased dependency, cultural implications etc, as discussed throughout this post.
This can be seen explicitly in orphanage exploitation. There are growing concerns towards the volume of children being exploited to ‘allure’ tourists and their money. UNICEF, estimate that around 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent and are, therefore, not orphans at all.Equally exposed, is Cambodia, where there have been a growing number of reports of illegitimate orphanages and orphans.
Volunteers often have little understanding and knowledge of the community’s culture, history and way of life. The same applies to local communities not knowing a lot about the volunteers’ culture, history and way of life.Volunteers require emotional and cross-cultural skills in order to adapt to other environments and communities without jeopardizing potential relationships that can support bridge the divide between the developed and undeveloped world.
However, when volunteer tourism programs aggravate cross-cultural misunderstandings, this can lead to widening the gap between the rich and the poor and creating unequal power relations.
Foreign interest prioritised over local
An increasingly noted negative impact of volunteer tourism is the notion of foreign interest being prioritised over local interest.
Most volunteer tourism programmes have foreign ownership and are managed overseas, separate from the location in which programmes take place in. Often, profits and personal gain are the priorities of the foreign organisation, leaving host communities’ needs excluded or even blind-sided.
Volunteer organisations make large profits from the fees they charge to volunteers. However, how much of this ends up in the host community’s pockets? How much communication is there between the host community and the volunteer organisation? In fact, it is a recurring issue that volunteer organisations do not address the root problem that needs addressing.
Volunteers possessing limited volunteering or professional experience
The majority of volunteer programs are drawn towards gap-year students. This means that, more often than not, volunteers bring very little volunteering or professional experience to the program.
Having limited experience means that volunteers may lack cross-cultural understandings and the skills in which you would gain from professional work, i.e. teamwork, management skills, time management skills etc,. These are all skills that benefit the volunteer program immensely.
Language barriers make it difficult to undertake volunteer work
Language barriers between volunteers and the host can make it very difficult to undertake volunteer work. Not only does it make it difficult to work effectively, it also creates a divide between the volunteer and host which can lead to unequal power relations which is discussed further in #26.
Hosts unclear of the role of the volunteer
As mentioned earlier, hosts are typically excluded from volunteer tourism programmes, and therefore this makes them unclear of the role of the volunteer. They may not understand exactly what the volunteer is doing and how they are contributing to their lives.
Reinforcements of cultural stereotypes
Many believe volunteer tourism is a form of social capital and that it can break down stereotypes. But this is not always the case. More often than no0t, volunteer tourism programmes reinforce negative stereotypes of the volunteer tourist. Whether locals believe volunteers are rich, exploitative or ‘snobby’, volunteer tourism can help to reinforce such stereotypes.
Likewise, volunteers may have a specific perception of the local community.They may view them as inferior, poor or lacking intelligence, for example.Again, without an in-depth understanding of the community within which they are operating, such stereotypes can often be reinforced by the volunteer tourists.
This is another example of a negative impact of volunteer tourism.
There is a common theme in the literature that appears to be employment.Some studies find that locals are displaced by volunteers or have experienced employment losses.
As noted earlier in this post, volunteers undertake various work in the community and override the potential work for the local community.
Volunteer tourism organisations not employing local staff
Although volunteer tourism organisations have the potential to provide local communities with employment opportunities, they typically do not.
There are a range of employment opportunities for host communities to benefit from, one being the ability to work with the volunteer organisation to be voice concerns and opportunities for the host communities to the organisation.Another would be an opportunity to meet and greet volunteers and guide them to their location. Plus, many more opportunities. But more often than not, host communities are not employed, and volunteer organisations would rather bring in foreign help or use the free labour provided by the tourists.
Lack of quality control and background checks on volunteer tourists
Background checks will depend on the nature of your volunteer role, i.e. with children or vulnerable adults. However, these background checks are very vague and lack concrete quality. Thus, lack of quality control and background checks can potential put host communities and other volunteers in harms way.
According to Privacy Rights – “There is no one law — federal or state — that says all volunteers must be checked. Rather, the rules that apply to volunteers, much like employees, are as varied as the duties volunteers perform and the organizations they serve. Whether a volunteer is required by law to submit to a background check depends on many things, but primarily the kind of organization for which the volunteer work is performed.”
Whilst this issue is relatively unexplored to date, there is some emerging evidence of the negative impacts resulting from a lack of sector regulation. In my research on the perceptions of volunteer tourism, for example, hosts from Nepal informed me that they viewed volunteer tourism negatively due to the amount of sex tourists who were abusing children whilst working in orphanages.
Lack of regulation of the sector
There is a lot of scepticism on the regulation of the sector and the impacts that this may have.
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?
There have been cases of pre-professional medical volunteers treating patients without the adequate training or qualifications – this is not only dangerous but can lead to more harm than good. There have also been reports of people working in industries that they would not be allowed to work in in Western nations, such as paedophiles who work as teachers.
Evidence of colonialism
The idealisation of struggling communities begging westerners to come and lift them out of poverty imitates the old myth of the ‘white man’s burden’ and creates a divide between powers and ownership.The gap between the rich and the poor can lead to the creation of neo-colonial impacts, and there is a wide debate on volunteer tourism and its influence towards neo-colonial relationships.
Vrasti’s text on volunteer tourism in the global south is a helpful research if you are interested in reading more on this topic.
Aid not going to those most in need
As a result of the commercial nature of many volunteer tourism organisations, unfortunately the desired outcomes of volunteer tourism do not always reach the desired recipients.
As mentioned in #11, orphanage exploitation reflects the issues of aid not going to those most in need. Children are exploited to attract volunteers and their money, when in fact these children are not orphanages and do not require the support they are given. When issues like this arise, it drives potential aid away from those in actual need.
Inadequate volunteer training/inductions
One of the key issues to arise in literature discussion is the scarce of skills required by volunteers.
Although there are occasions when volunteers require relevant skills, i.e. to practice medical or psychology work, this does not appear to be a commonplace.
Several volunteer tourism projects you will come across will have minimal or no requirements required at all to participate. However, lack of skills can impact the quality of work undertaken, as I have discussed throughout this post.
Hosts devastated when newly established bonds with volunteers are broken upon the end of their placement
There are several studies demonstrating the negative impacts of shortly lived volunteer tourism projects.
Richter and Norman’s study identified the negative impacts brought to the surface when volunteering with children is involved. Their study discovered that the intense bond built between the tourist and the child during the program can have a negative impact, and that children face emotions of devastation when the tourist leaves.
Undesirable power relations created between host and volunteer
The final negative impact of volunteer tourism to note revolves around the concept of power relations.
Volunteer tourism projects bring together the divided world, and by divided I simply refer to communities from developed worlds and communities from undeveloped/developing worlds.
But volunteer tourism programmes can lead to the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, which also creates undesirable power relations between the host and the volunteer tourist. A professor of Anthropology highlights the perplexity of volunteer tourism and how it creates a system of inequality.
10 things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip
The world isn’t short of available volunteer tourism projects; however most recently, there seems to be a pitfall of criticism on the harms these projects are doing to the volunteer tourism industry. In this post I will reflect on the things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip in order to make your experience worthwhile, both for yourself and for the community you seek to help.
Volunteer tourism provides a plethora of positive opportunities for the host communities; however, we cannot ignore the negative impacts that also come alongside them. Researchers are becoming more aware of the negative impacts volunteer tourism programs can create and it is just as important that the volunteer tourist is just as aware too.
To finish this post, I have put these principles into practice by giving you the top 10 things that you should consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip.
#1 Develop skills to aid career development
Volunteer tourism is an important means for career development. The ability to immerse yourself in a different culture and community whilst supporting them provides a fertile ground for acquiring relevant skills, experience and qualifications.
This is demonstrated with reference to a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Teacher in Solderman and Snead’s (2008) study. Thee teacher claims that she would be unable to teach at home in the UK without formal teaching qualifications and experience, but that volunteer tourism provided her with this opportunity.
Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to practice skills valued in the workplace, such as task management, teamwork, communication, problem solving and time management.In fact, Time Bank UK surveyed business leaders, finding that of those interviewed, 73% said they would employ someone who has volunteered over those who haven’t.
#2 Cheap travel opportunities
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.
It is also worth noting that volunteer tourism projects often take place in developing economies; meaning living costs are low compared to developed economies.
This cost covers, housing, meals, projects, materials, administration and on-site staff support. So, you would not expect to pay any additional costs during your stay unless you are wanting to do a few tourist activities outside of volunteering, thus making the cost of the overall travel experience cheaper than it may otherwise be.
Having the opportunity to travel without large expenses is appealing to many prospective volunteer tourists and is one of the dominant benefits of volunteer tourism.
#3 To have a ‘grass roots’/cultural experience
Unlike other forms of tourism, volunteer tourism provides a unique travel experience and demonstrates the most cohesive practice of cultural immersion.
During volunteer tourism projects, you are working alongside and within host communities. This provides you with an authentic and cultural experience that is not commodified for the purpose of tourism.
Volunteer tourism, therefore, is beneficial to the tourist because it provides them with a cultural, ‘grass roots’ experience that they may otherwise not experience during their travels.
This is demonstrated through a number of academic studies examining the benefits of volunteer tourism including those undertaken by Coren and Gray (2012); Lo and Lee (2011); Grabowski (2013); McIntosh and Zahra (2008); Palacios (2010) and Wickens (2011).
#4 Exhibit philanthropic behaviour
Volunteer tourism is based on the notion of giving and supporting others. As a result, one of the benefits of volunteer tourism is that the ability to exhibit philanthropic behaviour.
Philanthropic activities and behaviours is something that is often sought after by employers. Therefore it looks great on your CV and can help to make you more employable; making this is another benefit of volunteer tourism!
Whilst this is an area that warrants further attention in the academic community, this benefit of volunteer tourism has been documented by Coren and Gray (2012) and Lo and Lee (2011) in their research. For further details on how tourism can be philanthropic, I recommend you visit the travel philanthropy website.
#5 Enhanced relationships/cross-cultural relationships
Volunteer tourism allows tourists to see and experience different cultures on a more personal level than other forms of tourism and to build relationships with members of the host community.
It is widely documented that volunteer tourism provides opportunities to broaden cultural understandings. This can help broaden a person’s mind and help them to gain a better understanding of the way that different people and communities work.Being empathetic and understanding different cultures can help make a person more employable, particularly given that the live in an ever-increasing globalised world.
In modern society, cultures are frequently being attacked for their differences in what can often be described as a heated political climate. But volunteer tourism provides opportunities to open our minds and enhancing relationships between cultures.
Relationship building is not only limited to the host community, but also to other volunteer tourists working alongside you and your project. You have the opportunity to meet a variety of volunteer tourists from a range of backgrounds.
#6 Becoming ambassadors of home country
As a volunteer tourist you can raise awareness of the work you do as a volunteer and encourage others to become a volunteer too. You can use your skills and experiences to encourage greater public awareness of the serious issues facing communities and environments.
Working as a volunteer tourist also provides the opportunity to become an ambassador of your home country. Whilst volunteering overseas can mean that a volunteer tourist learns a lot about the country within which they are based, they can also learn a lot about the countries that their volunteer tourist peers are based in through the friendships that they build.
#7 Realisation of the importance of material possessions
The volunteer tourism experience allows you to witness in real life, the minimal belongings that many host communities have. You realise the importance of food and shelter, as well as the importance of companionship with other people.
This often leads to reflections of your own personal circumstances and many volunteer tourists will realise that material possessions and ‘first world’ problems are in actual fact not as important as they once thought, as evidenced in Brown’s (2005) research. In fact, many volunteer tourists have reported changes in their world views and priorities in this regard upon completion of their volunteer tourism placement.
Education is one of the most notable benefits of volunteer tourism and is widely documented throughout the academic literature.
Volunteering allows you to learn local socioeconomic and political issues, new languages and even discover more about oneself.
Volunteer tourism can encompass formal education, such as a TEFL qualification or informal learning, such as learning from the travel experience itself.
#9 Personal growth and development
For many, volunteer tourism projects will be a step or two outside of their comfort zone. The challenges that arise with the projects will broaden a person’s skill set and allow them to discover a lot about themselves and the skills, strengths and capabilities they have.
You’ll likely come across many challenges when undertaking a volunteer tourism project ranging from public speaking to living in conditions that you are not used to. Despite the difficulties that this may encompass, it often brings about personal growth and development, which is seen as one of the major benefits of volunteer tourism.
Such experiences often encourage the development of confidence and particular feelings of self-determination and self-worth.This is a benefit of volunteer tourism that is widely evidenced in academic research, including the work of: Broad (2003); Brown (2005); Bailey and Russell (2010); Chen and Chen (2011); Lepp (2008); Lo and Lee (2011); Palacios, (2010) and Wickens (2011).
#10 Greater awareness of ‘self’
A number of academics have recognised that the most beneficial aspect of the volunteer tourism experience is the greater awareness of ‘self’.
Volunteer tourism is a unique form of tourism that allows tourists to push their physical and emotional limits and go beyond the superficial interactions that travel is often restricted too.
As a volunteer tourist you will likely discover a lot about yourself that you may not have known. This can contribute to the personal growth and development discussed above.
#11 Enhanced citizenship
Volunteer tourism connects groups of people together who necessary wouldn’t have been grouped together without the role of volunteering. The interaction between the volunteer and the tourist attempts to build social bridges and a role like this develops important citizen qualities in volunteers.
In an article, “Giving and volunteering as distinct forms of civic engagement”, Keely S. Jones expresses how voluntary projects induce people to frequently participate in public concerns and exposes them to a wider pool of shared problems, thus encouraging enhanced citizenship.
During voluntary work you begin to understand the needs of communities and the importance of community involvement, both qualities that mirror enhanced citizenship.
#12 Opportunity to do/see something fun and exotic
Another well documented benefit of volunteer tourism is to ‘have fun’.
Volunteer tourism frequently provides you with the opportunity to do or see something fun and exotic. Volunteering and travelling allows you to do something different out of your day-to-day routine and get involved in projects that excite you or spend time travelling and sightseeing.
When I worked as a volunteer tourist in Buenos Aires, for example, I explored the sights and sounds of the city alongside my volunteer work. I experienced the Argentinian nightlife, went to a football match and took a short break to Iguazu Falls. Whilst the opportunities for fun will vary substantially between volunteer tourism placements and locations, there will usually be something for the volunteer tourist to enjoy.
#13 Enhanced level of self-criticism
Self-criticism is how an individual evaluates themselves and their actions.
As documented in Sin’s (2009) research, during and after volunteering projects you may begin to consciously aspire to be the best you can be and always make sure your actions are rightly intended. You begin to analyse and measure your actions and the impacts of your actions.
For further information on the benefits of being more self-critical, I’d suggest reading Conquer your critical inner voice by Robert Firestone.
#14 Self-satisfaction and desire to change
Following on from point number 13, volunteering your time and skills to help those in need brings you all sorts of rewards. This can bring with it feelings of self-satisfaction.
Many people will also demonstrate a desire to change as a person. They may be more willing to give and support others than they were before they completed their volunteering project and become more philanthropic in nature.This is another one of the benefits of volunteer tourism.
#15 Enhanced spiritualism
Volunteering feeds your inner spirit. Volunteering promotes positive personality changes that enhances your positive outlook of life. When you begin to look at things from a more positive perspective you naturally are drawn towards spiritualism.
As demonstrated in Zahra’s (2006) work, volunteering also enhances your inner creativity, motivation and vision that continues to reflect in your personal and professional life.
For more on how activities, such as volunteer tourism, can lead to enhanced spiritualism, I recommend reading Waking up: Searching for spiritualism without religion by Sam Harris.
#16 Positive personality changes
To witness in first sight the struggles in which others live, heightens your awareness to be more grateful and appreciative of the life you live. You begin to develop a conscious mind in which you practice a positive outlook on life.
Volunteering allows you to connect with others and has proven to support loneliness and depression.
By doing something that makes you feel great, makes you feel better about yourself and it is more likely you are to have a positive outlook on life.
As well as volunteering creating positive personality changes, volunteering also helps tackle the effects of stress and anxiety.
Volunteer tourism can be fun and meaningful, and projects become relaxing and allows you to escape from your daily routine. According to a 2013 study from BMC health, the social interaction involved whilst helping and working with others through an act of kindness has proven to relieve stress. This is another one of the prominent benefits of volunteer tourism.
#18 To have a greater understanding of the host community
Volunteer tourism provides you with a greater understanding of the host country.
Unlike other forms of tourism, volunteer tourism allows you to fully immerse yourself in the culture and community of the host community.
The personal interaction between the volunteer tourist and the host community provides you with a completely different insight of the host country than you normally would.
#19 Increase desire to ‘give’
Volunteering is a charitable act of giving and allows you to understand the importance of helping others.
When you see how your efforts can have a positive impact to the host community and to your state of mind, your desire to ‘give’ increases.
In fact6, many people become more ‘giving’ in their nature after completing a volunteer tourism placement.
#20 Opportunity to achieve training and/or qualifications
For some, volunteering is a simple means to achieve training and/or qualifications.
You can now gain a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) whilst volunteering. NVQ’s are practical work-based qualifications that allow you to be assessed on your experience. You can gain a qualification in; Language teaching, First aid, Social care, Advice and guidance, Management of volunteers and Youth work.
You can now gain a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) whilst volunteering with Claire House.
Another popular qualification to gain whilst partaking in a volunteer tourism project is a TEFL qualification. These come in a range of sizes and approaches and can be classroom-based or online.
Volunteer tourism: Work with me
As you can see, I am fairly knowledgeable when it comes to the concept of volunteer tourism! If you are interested in working with me on a consultancy basis, please get in touch.