Voluntourism in Rural Laos

Since this is a holiday weekend, I thought I would post something a bit more lighthearted: a Youtube video about voluntourism and sustainable travel in Laos.  Voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as tourists search for ways to have a unique vacation experience and give back to the local community.  Dozens of voluntourism programs have popped up around the world, and this particular one, Buffalo Tours, takes volunteers to areas of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.  They are a locally owned and operated tour company based in Indochina and Thailand, and they offer a wide variety of travel options, from luxury tours to adventure tours to home stays.  This video in particular is about a voluntourism project in an area of rural Laos that previously did not have any sort of tourism.  The volunteers in this particular program, mainly students, spent their vacation building a bridge that would connect the area to their fields and make access much easier—though I’ll let you watch the video to find out more about the project and to hear the student’s reactions to the experience.

It is important to remember, however, that voluntourism is a delicately balanced business and does have downsides.  Building bridges and contributing to other projects to improve the local communities is a worthwhile activity, but often tourist dollars go further than any project can.  Many voluntourism companies are owned and operated by U.S. citizens, and in those cases most of the money tourists give to the voluntourism organizations does not go to the local community, but back to the States.  Voluntourism companies that operate in this way are not sustainable, since they provide little for the local community besides the small time investment of the volunteers.  So, often, your time (and money) as a tourist can be better spent taking local tours and buying souvenirs, as that way the money you spend stays in the community and helps the local economy grow and develop.  When considering a voluntourism vacation, be sure to look closely at the area and program and weigh the pros and cons of traveling there as a volunteer versus traveling there as a tourist.  But for now, just enjoy this video about voluntourism in Laos!  And as you do, ask yourself a serious question: is this project about helping the community, or about helping the volunteers feel they have had a “unique experience?”

Michelle Bovée is a SISGI Group Program and Research Intern focused on international affairs, economic development, and responsible tourism. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org



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