On Tuesday afternoon I gave a webinar presentation on voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, and though it is now available on the SISGI Group Institute for Social Change website, I thought I would give a quick summary of it for those of you who couldn’t attend (or didn’t know about it). Voluntourism is the combination of traditional tourism and volunteer service, and though it is a relatively new industry, it has grown substantially in recent years. Voluntourism can be very beneficial for everyone involved—volunteers, members of the destination community, the US as a whole—if it is done properly, but unfortunately many voluntourism programs are not properly managed and so do not leave sustainable impacts.
Voluntourism ideally benefits the destination community in several ways. First of all, the aid projects volunteers contribute to—building schools and homes, digging wells, reading to children, etc—are ideally useful, necessary projects that will improve life in the destination community. Hosting foreign volunteers contributes to cross-cultural understanding and reduces cultural prejudices as the volunteers and the locals interact and live together, even though the trips are usually only for a week or two. But the economic impacts of voluntourism are perhaps the most important to the destination communities. The destination community benefits from hosting the volunteers in locally owned hotels or homestays, from coordinating activities and transportation, and from the volunteers buying food and souvenirs. Also, people who volunteer abroad are more likely to later donate money to their destination community, and so the destination communities continue to benefit economically even after the volunteers leave.
Unfortunately, when voluntourism companies are poorly managed, those benefits do not reach the destination communities. Voluntourism is an industry, after all, and so many companies are focused more on their own bottom line than on the impact they have (or don’t have) on the community. Take, for example, the fact that many companies focus on sending people to popular destinations rather than destinations that actually need volunteers. It makes sense from a business perspective: if people want to go to, say, Malaysia, and are willing to pay to go there and volunteer, then of course voluntourism companies are going to come up with packages that take people to Malaysia and let them build something, even if it isn’t needed—or even wanted. The problem with that logic is that you can’t simply pick a place on a map and assume that the people there will welcome volunteers—especially foreign volunteers. Imagine if someone from Costa Rica visited New York and was shocked by the number of homeless people on the streets and decided to bring in more volunteers from Costa Rica to build and staff homeless shelters in the city. New Yorkers would not be pleased. A donation to existing homeless shelters would probably be more appreciated, and the same is true for many of the destination communities. They would prefer a donation to volunteers. So, if you’re planning a voluntourism trip—or just thinking about one—make sure that your destination actually needs and welcomes volunteer aid and that the project you will be working on will leave an impact.
Also, many voluntourism companies are based in the US (or other western countries) and so the money people pay to go on these trips does not stay in the destination. Since the economic benefits from voluntourism are often more important than the aid projects the volunteers do, this is a very serious flaw. Also, some voluntourism trips, especially luxury voluntourism trips, are organized by hotel or resort chains, which means the accommodations the volunteers stay in are not locally owned and, again, the money does not stay in the community. This problem can be solved by choosing voluntourism organizations based locally in the destination community you would like to visit and by making sure you will be staying in a locally owned hotel. That way you know the destination community will benefit from your presence, not just because the money will stay in the community, but because locally owned organizations know what projects are needed within the community.
So that was just a small overview of my presentation and if you’re interested you can find the slides and the recorded version of the presentation here.
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