• Emma Wooldridge

10 years later: reflections on voluntourism

When I first sat down to write about my experiences of voluntourism, I wanted to share the sensory memories. I thought back to my first experience in my early 20’s and how it felt to fly in an 8-seater plane, arriving to a dusty red island in the middle of a low category cyclone. The sounds of kids laughter and language and hip hop music blaring late into the night as my co-volunteer and I sat up late, sipping tea and reflecting on our day. The Camp-dogs, heavy monsoon clouds and brightly painted houses. I wanted to write about the thrill of being driven to waterholes and sites of cultural significance, with storytelling by the children on the way. Of being covered in silky khaki clay, sweat and the smells of activity. I wanted to give you a glimpse, into the stories and deep spirit of learning this experience awakened me in me. It had such an impact on me that several months after returning home I packed my bags and returned – moving 4000km from my home.

But the more I wrote, the more uncomfortable I felt. I had so many questions of myself; acknowledging my privilege and the social, economic and cultural history of the place where I was volunteering. So I’m attempting to reflect on these experiences, drawing on all my learning over the past 10 years and how I might make different decisions today.

Photo by Emma Wooldridge

What is voluntourism?

Voluntourism can be defined as: intersection between volunteering and tourism. Over the past decade, a wave of emerging, socially conscious young people combined with the age of social media and access to cheap international travel has seen International volunteer tourism emerge. This has resulted in an explosion of companies, countries and communities bringing this industry to life – volunteering in places people would not normally have access to visit, for the purpose of helping or “doing good”.

Some programs are government sponsored (where a volunteer is not paid or receives an allowance); there is a booming private sector (where the volunteer pays for the experience) and people self-fund through personal contacts or organized groups like churches. Recently there has been a backlash against the trend of paying to ‘volunteer’ and questions about where that money goes – does it reach hands in the community? Concerning situations have emerged around the ethics of sending students or un-skilled volunteers into environments with highly vulnerable populations such as orphanages see article: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-12/world-challenge-to-end-student-volunteer-trips-to-orphanages/8892142

Photo by Emma Wooldridge

My voluntourism experience found me at a point in time where I wanted to actively learn more about the Indigenous history and cultures of the country where I was born. I was also studying my Bachelor of Social Work at the time and just starting to un-ravel the Australian ‘history’ I had been taught in school. The ongoing narrative in Australian history has been that it was “Terra Nullius” – which translates to “Land belonging to no one”. But this was not true. There was over 300 language groups living in Australia at that time and recent evidence shows their existence dating back 150,000 years. The program was run through a non-government agency and my meals, accommodation and some travel was provided. I wasn't paid to volunteer and I didn't pay to volunteer; I paid for my own flights.

I remember a really uncomfortable moment during my experience. It was towards the end of our 2-week stay and we were driving around the community – I think we were looking for someone. One of the volunteers shouted, “stop the car” as she grabbed her camera and leaned out the window – directing her camera to the scene of an infant playing under a hose in their front yard. Luckily the volunteer manager who was driving had seen what was happening and kept driving – while asking her to get back in the car and think about why this was not OK. She lacked the insight to see how inappropriate this was - in her view; she just wanted a cute photo. It's a simplistic example but it is etched in my mind for all the wrong reasons. There are so many risks in voluntourism – who makes the volunteer accountable for their actions? Especially when things go wrong; what are the shared expectations between volunteer, community and organisation? Are some people volunteering just to get the photo? There are plenty of examples on social media of this.

The best environment for inter-cultural learning happens through shared experience. Some of my most memorable moments in life have happened when I have been in the company new friends and we share things with each other - an activity, a story, a moment - its reciprocal learning. I’ve danced on faraway beaches, hosted international friends, climbed mountains, witnessed ancient customs through invitation and eaten freshly caught seafood prepared on a sandy campfire – with deep willingness to learn just as much about myself throughout the process. This process of self-reflection and a curiosity for learning is essential for respectful and culturally aware exchange. And with that comes the ability to sit with the uncertainty or the discomfort of not knowing or making mistakes. There is no guidebook on this, though there are lots of incredible resources and people who are raising the profile of responsible volunteering & tourism!

Photo by Emma Wooldridge

It’s been 10 years since that experience and I’m still living in the region where I moved all those years ago. Right now I'm sitting on my verandah in the September morning, catching occasional wafts of a cool breeze as the ceiling fans spin. I can hear the geckos clicking, the neighbours walking their dogs and the distant honk of an incoming magpie geese; a signal of the changing of the seasons. My seasons are changing too and I recognise the choices I made around volunteering 10 years ago, would look differently today. As a starting point, I’ve created a few reflective questions you might like to ask yourself if you are thinking about it.

  1. Why I am considering this community/ country/ cause? Have I been invited because of an identified need or for my own purposes?

  2. Talk with someone from the community – what are their thoughts on the volunteer program, especially if it’s through an organisation.

  3. How are you contributing to the local economy? Consider buying everything local – food, supplies, even gifts from local art centres.

  4. Are you aware of your own wellbeing and mental health? Be mindful of your emotional needs and capacity. Self-reflection exercises and journaling during your experience could be helpful to understand situations and your responses.

  5. Still curious? I’ve learned a lot from the following resources: @Sharkgirlmadison @hownottotravellikeabasicbitch @nowhitesaviours @laylafsaad - #meandwhitesupremacy

I also attended a workshop that on Anti-Oppressive Practice by Dr Christine Fejo-King and Pamela Trotman; I draw upon much of the learning from this workshop in this reflection.

Check out other Volunteering experiences by our collaborators!

#Volunteer #voluntourism #emotions #Collaborations

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I'm passionate about sharing and connecting with adventures, stories, tourism experiences that allow us to reflect on our place in the world and the way we travel.


I want to expand this platform, don't hesitate to email me. I love to hear from other wanderers!


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Where Anthropology meets Tourism

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