In 2006, when David Clemmons added a 150-word blurb on voluntourism to Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, it was a concept that had yet to take off, even in sustainability circles. We couldn’t have guessed that a few years later, voluntourism — planning a vacation to include short-term charitable work — would be featured in luxury travel magazines, or have a buzz worthy of its own backlash. Now lawyers on furlough head out into the world with a stack of Lonely Planet guides and a vague mandate to do pro bono work to keep up their resumes. The biggest question is no longer, "Will anyone do this type of trip?" Rather, it's, "Is all this voluntourism actually doing any good?"
Voluntourism is like a festive paper umbrella, stuck in the swirling cocktail of the “small steps” debate. Will switching your light bulbs substitute wide-scale energy policy changes? No. Will playing with a child for a half-day change the fact that there are more than 500,000 orphans in Cambodia? No. Are both actions still better than nothing? Well, that depends on whom you ask. The “does voluntourism make a difference?” debate will go on in perpetuity — until the last ice cube melts, anyway.
Personally, what makes me uneasy about voluntourism is that as it hits the mainstream, the motivations behind such trips multiply: the earnest but unfocused desire to “give back” is further complicated by the need to reconcile wanderlust with environmental concerns — or worse, the promise of securing bragging rights as the most sensitive “traveler” in your circle (ego-tourism?). Certainly the range of emotions that prompt people to join more traditional long-term volunteer projects like the Peace Corps is no less complex; however, voluntourists are creating a new industry (pushed now by the dollars of retired Baby Boomers) that, when done wrong, turns NGOs into vendors. What’s more, because of this economic component, voluntourists’ predilections — kids and animals get a lot of attention — can drive the market for certain types of programs to succeed at the expense of others, leaving the “sustainable” development of a region lopsided, and completely dependent on a steady wave of foreigners. And that set-up sounds a lot like regular tourism.
That said, I don’t think voluntourism is bogus. If micropatronage can decentralize commerce, it stands to reason that voluntourism — microvolunteering — can better disseminate aid (the basic idea behind domestic endeavors like The Extraordinaries). And as I sifted through various codes of ethics on responsible voluntourism, one expert made a compelling case for supporting the concept over traditional volunteer programs (in which volunteers don’t pay to participate). Daniela Papi, co-founder of PEPY Tours, a Cambodia-based company that is a model for responsible voluntourism and a finalist for Ashoka Changemakers' 2009 Geotourism Challenge, recently wrote a lengthy post on designing the best program for volunteer-driven development. (The forums that sparked her response are here and here.) Papi admits up front that her opinion is based on her experience in Cambodia and that PEPY Tours is still figuring out what works best, but her observation that voluntourists are first and foremost tourists is the kind of simple reality check that could help tour operators and travelers figure out the best path forward.
Papi suggests that the most successful programs — "successful" meaning "of the greatest value to the communities they claim to serve" — are the ones in which the volunteer understands, and is not offended by, his or her role as a tourist. A voluntourist is not there to save the world in three days; he or she is merely a witness with an able pair of hands who is, most of the time, most useful to the community when purchasing touristic amenities (accommodations, tours, access to programs, etc.) and making donations to fund long-term programs created by NGOs and sustained by locals. In other words, the voluntourist is peripheral to the aid program.
Because in the definition of vountourism, you are saying you are here to see things, you are a tourist, you are not just here to “give” when you don’t know anything about the best ways to do that. In being defined as a tourist to begin with...there is implicit in that the notion that you are new, and you don’t know everything…[PEPY tours’] goal is that [tourists] walk away knowing that their funding [emphasis is mine] helped sustain things which will last far longer than their short stay in Cambodia, and their new knowledge will help them be advocates for the causes they came in contact with, and will hopefully alter how they travel and give in the future.
Although it seems pretty straightforward, this perspective is counterintuitive to the way voluntourism is currently being marketed. Travelers now see “voluntourism” as shorthand for “cultural immersion” or “personal growth,” which puts them at greater risk of transposing their desires and expectations to a trip. The idea of immersion (especially on very short trips) although admirable, is not practical; and personal growth, though an important part of voluntourism, should not come at the expense of community development. For example, a tourist focused on his or her needs may shun a polished tour company with a proven track record for a more “authentic” nonprofit that offers little in the way of recognizable tourism but promises a lot of “interaction.” Or vice versa, the tourist may choose a tour company that doesn’t have close ties to the community because it seems to offer a more immersive or dynamic experience than a local NGO that — for good reason — limits the activities it makes available to unskilled voluntourists.
By bringing the tourism aspect of voluntourism back into focus, not only is everyone operating on more honest assumptions, voluntourism companies are free to compartmentalize. PEPY Tours' pricing system is transparent: participants pay for the tour and also commit to a fundraising goal — the former pays the tour operator and sends money into the local economy, the latter all goes directly to the NGO. In this model, volunteer coordinators go back to primarily selling sustainable tourism — for example, a bike trip through Cambodia in which participants get a full picture of the country’s socioeconomic challenges — and the volunteer part is left open-ended to meet the needs of the community, not the needs of the tourist.
This approach may take the pressure off companies to provide task-specific programs, which is generally where the efficacy of voluntourism comes into question. Naturally, many travelers are more intrigued by programs that yield “tangible” results, i.e. something that can be photographed and easily explained upon returning home, like building a fence or painting a mural. But with the exception of wildlife conservation activities that are by their very nature task-specific and recurring (guarding nesting turtles from poachers, participating in bird counts), promising such events is a poor model for voluntourism. Papi explains how PEPY Tours avoids this trap:
We do not tell our guests months in advance that they will be painting x classroom…Instead we let them know that the interaction they will have with our programs will be facilitated by our staff based on the needs at the time…Yes, there might be murals painted if a new school has been built and that is what the teachers are looking to do at that time…but we aren’t doing things like ‘you will build a fence on your trip next December,’ and asking the community and programs to sit around and wait until the foreigners, with no fence-building experience, get there to ‘help.’
I feel it’s a good policy to ask voluntourists to put front and center the destination they’re most interested in learning about, not the plight they feel is most pitiable. This is the opposite of marketing causes, in which case, a common refrain “I want to work with orphans” spurs the creation not of programs that comprehensively boost local economies, but of programs in the business of successfully showcasing orphans to keep donations pouring in. As Papi notes, “Some [NGOs], in the worst cases, keep their children looking as poor as possible as they know that uneducated [volun]–teers and [volun]–tourists will give more [money] because the kids ‘look so poor.’”
Some people argue that focusing on destinations makes aid programs more vulnerable to travel trends — if the destination goes out of fashion, then its programs will fail. This is a good point, but in my opinion it’s further evidence that voluntourism has to be driven by tourism. If there are too many variables for a country to be considered a safe tourism destination then maybe voluntourism is not the best approach for those communities. Why set up a program that at the start can’t be sustained? In these cases, traditional NGO intervention may be a better strategy than hoping tourists will return year after year. Remember, voluntourism is different than crisis intervention: volunteers who arrived in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina hit were not on vacation; however, now that the city has stabilized enough to accommodate all types of visitors, voluntourism that involves, say, rebuilding homes is possible.
Ultimately, good programs have the following characteristics:
Groups who put the wants/needs of the partner communities/groups first, who are driven to offer services that support sustainable projects from groups they believe in, who turn down projects travelers are demanding if they are not designed to have a positive impact in the programs they support, [and] who put travelers in positions where there is already a need and a way for the traveler to support on-going work rather than creating something new for traveler.
PEPY Tours is documenting its successes and failures on its Lessons I Learned blog, as well as creating a new site, Voluntourism101.com, as a monitoring tool for the industry (in this endeavor, they’re partnering with another noteworthy organization, Wild Asia).
This article is part of a weeklong guest author series on sustainability issues in travel and tourism. Read more:
Vacation Matters: North American Summit Looks at Time Poverty and Vacation Law
Travel Matters: Paid Vacation Law & Sustainable Tourism
Vacation Matters: Resources for Further Reading
Carissa Bluestone is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She helped create Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and continues to consult on Worldchanging’s book ventures. A former editor at Fodor’s Travel Publications, she has spent 10 years in the travel publishing world, editing and contributing to guidebooks and online publications.
Image flickr/tajai, Creative Commons license.
I don't think something like 'voluntourism' or any of the other small steps are useless. It's just that, by being small, they seem inconsequential ie not really worthy of much focussed attention.
Thanks for this thoughtful essay Carissa. Ultimately, I think the most responsible tourism is -- must be -- less tourism. The factors that allow for the large amount of tourism to occur in the first place -- continuous economic growth, infrastructure development, gross global inequalities in wealth -- are simply unsustainable. And despite arguments to the contrary, there's very little evidence that tourism actually influences the way globetrotting travellers behave at home. Global sustainability will only be achieved when we spread our incredible wealth around and learn to live meaningful lives where we choose to live.
Thank you for writing this, Carissa. I get Google Alerts for the word PEPY which is how I came to see this.
Jeff, I agree with you. Tourism itself is causing a lot of the problems I see growing in Cambodia. Unfortunately putting the complete breaks on tourism would probably be similar to trying to stop a run away train (though the economy is surely grinding its wheels a bit). I do agree with you, and I get asked why, if I don't think tourism is doing great things for Cambodia and I'm very critical of voluntourism I am then working in the industry itself. Good question. My answer: because it isn't going to stop if I go home. Voluntourism is such a popular concept now, that poor attempts at traveler's philanthropy programs are popping up everywhere. I would rather stay here and try to do it better, as I believe it can be done, than not provide a more responsible (in my opinion) option than what is currently being advertised in Cambodia.
We have done some post-tour surveys (a year+ after our tours) to see what effects our trips have had on everyday behaviors, and although the effects are not always huge and not everyone admits big changes in their lives, we have seen that our tours do indeed impact the ways people travel and live once they leave. I think that is indeed possible to change behaviors if tours are designed to do that, if the concept of taking these attitude shifts home is discussed thoroughly on the trip itself, if there is a community which the travelers can still be a part of once they return, and if there is follow up initiated by both the travel operator and the guests. No, it's not better than not having camera-yielding paparazzi-like groups trek through rural villages in the first place, but if you don't allow the cameras and you weave education into the framework of the trip, it is better than many alternatives, in my opinion.
Some ideas on our newest concept: Voluntourists being employed to do what they do best.... be tourists! http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/08/what-are-all-voluntourists-good-at/
Would love to hear your thoughts.
To me, the best example of voluntourism is something akin going somewhere as a tourist, witnessing a very real social economic or financial or other kind of need, and giving directly to that need in anyway you can that alleviates that need, and empowers that community or person to stand on their own two feet without you. I do not believe in the "boutique" NGO, nonprofit, or any other organization that provides a pretty do-gooder facade when it would be more effective to help something or someone or a community DIRECTLY.
Indeed there is a large amount of interest in volunteering, but the question is ... does it help? It would be helpful to see more transparent audits of volunteer organizations.
For those interested, Planeta held a conversation -- http://forum.planeta.com/viewtopic.php?t=728 -- a few years ago on the challenges of tourism and volunteering. We'll explore this more at the October conference on responsible tourism.
A group of volunteers at PEPY (www.pepytours.com) led by Karina Kloos researched and developed this list of Voluntourism Effective Practices http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/voluntourism101/
We would love additional thoughts from operators or volunteers as to what other questions should be asked when designing or choosing volunteer projects.
I agree with you. Tourism itself is causing a lot of the problems I see growing in Cambodia. Unfortunately putting the complete breaks on tourism would probably be similar to trying to stop a run away train (though the economy is surely grinding its wheels a bit). I do agree with you, and I get asked why, if I don't think tourism is doing great things for Cambodia and I'm very critical of voluntourism I am then working in the industry itself. Good question. My answer: because it isn't going to stop if I go home. Voluntourism is such a popular concept now, that poor attempts at traveler's philanthropy programs are popping up everywhere. I would rather stay here and try to do it better, as I believe it can be done, than not provide a more responsible (in my opinion) option than what is currently being advertised in Cambodia.thank
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This Worldchanging Essay: Creating Responsible Voluntourism
Carissa Bluestone, 19 Aug 09 is really a great source of data.
I sifted TPM Implementation through various codes of ethics on responsible voluntourism, one expert made a compelling case for supporting the concept over traditional volunteer programs (in which volunteers don’t pay to participate).
Thanks a lot for sharing this..
I believe we all should put a one hand to save our earth and keep it green.