Introduction to Volunteer Tourism
“Not all journeys are equally meaningful” - Hyde and Harman (2011)
What springs to mind when we hear ‘volunteer tourism’ or even ‘volontourism’? How do we come to understand these terms, used as much by independent charities as by commercial tour operators? Is there a clear way to define what ‘volunteer tourism’ really entails?
Unquestionably, tourism is one of the main social and economic phenomena of our times (Sharpley and Telfer, 2002). It accounts for “the single largest peaceful movement of people across cultural boundaries in the history of the world” (Lett, 1989: 277), allowing the ever-increasing number of people to immerse themselves in a myriad of travel experiences. As Sharpley and Telfer (2002) duly note, thanks to its rapid and continuous growth, tourism is widely perceived as a viable and effective means of achieving international development; it aids with the implementation of techniques aimed at bringing progress to Africa, Latin America and Asia, as well as other parts of the world (Lewis, 2005). Although Smith and Duffy (2003) argue that tourism development is ambiguous at best, due to such unwanted outcomes as the erosion of traditional cultures or social fragmentation, it would be unjust to concentrate solely on its negatives. Despite the fact that mass tourism continues to dominate the global tourism industry, some positive and alternative forms of tourism, such as ‘volontourism’, have been recognised, which attempt to assist with sustainable development.
In the simplest terms, as presented by Rando (2004:7), volunteer tourism involves travel “not only for the purpose of travel experience but also to make a valuable contribution to the host region in the form of volunteering”. Such a combined experience is undertaken by tourists who, for various reasons, wish to alleviate poverty, conduct research on certain aspects of environment or society, or restore certain environments (Wearing, 2001). The past twenty years have noted a visible rise in the number of people dedicating their time and resources to volunteering abroad. Volunteer projects range in length and purpose, destination and experience required, yet they all seem to have one thing in common: the desire to be of benefit to others. Nonetheless, the idea of combining volunteering with travel is by no means new: think only of missionaries, sailors, medical practitioners or nuns. The volunteer sector relies on donations, legacies or revenue raised by various commercial operations (Lomine and Edmunds, 2007).
Within the modern society potential travellers are continuously exposed to advertisements about various volunteer programmes, both short-term such as bike rides across Cambodia or treks in the Himalayas, or teaching assignments in Latin America or Asia. As a norm, all the proceeds going to a specific, but usually Western, charity (Smith and Duffy, 2003). Such travel experiences appeal directly to this who desire a fulfilling experience; a chance to contribute to something meaningful, but also to participate in something that is ‘character forming’ (MacCanell, 1999). Contemporary travel is frequently perceived as ‘the modern quest for self-understanding’ (Betz, 1992) or as an ‘act of personal transition’ (Nash, 1996). Oftentimes, volunteers perceive their placements as an opportunity to explore themselves, as well as assist a developing community.
Maasai woman coming back to her village. Photo by: Paula Adamek.
This aspect of volunteer tourism has sparked a controversial debate on whether ‘volontourism’ can do more harm than good to host communities. As MacCannell (1999) argues, modern tourists are motivated by a search of an authentic experience; yet it is often difficult to determine which experiences are truly authentic, as the hosting organisations can be wholly managed by sending organisations, thus limiting the benefits for the local communities. Moreover, it is argued that volunteer tourism can contribute to ‘neo-colonialism’, reflecting the former power relations, as Western tourists are often perceived as experts on programmes in developing countries, despite the lack of relevant qualifications (Zahra and McIntosh, 2007). As it has been stated by Simpson (2003), Western organisations appealing to the ‘Gap Year’ travellers tend to paint a highly simplified picture of development, thus raising concerns about the real impact of ‘volontourism’ on the local people.
Evidently, the concept of volunteer tourism is a complicate and intricate one. It needs to be remembered that tourism is not only a social phenomenon - it is also a major business (Sharpley and Teller, 2002), in which ‘volontourism’ plays an increasingly influential role. Despite the fact that Zahra and McIntosh (2007) concluded that volunteer tourism provides an ‘alternative’ experience to the ‘conventional’ tourism, where tourists not only aid in the development of different cultures, but also learn new skills, both the positives and the negatives of the idea need to be carefully considered.
By Paula Adamek