Voluntourism: Just a Fad or Here to Stay?

Featured, Volunteering & Giving Back, Websites and Blogs, Working Abroad — By on February 17, 2010 at 2:21 pm

By Shadia Garrison
Philanthropy Editor

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Hardly a day goes by without another web article on “voluntourism” crossing my desk.  Since the 1990s, when the word was first introduced, the phenomenon has grown substantially.  At this writing, a Google search on the term gets me 168,000 articles.  (Okay, yes, Lady GaGa gets 83,300,000 hits and chocolately hazelnut goodness Nutella gets 7,510,000 but for a do-goody, English-only, fabricated word, 168,000 seems like a lot!)

So, what is voluntourism?  Most agree it is a combination of travel for pleasure, either domestic or abroad, and service.  So your trip includes both regular tourist activities – museums, restaurants, beaches – but adds a twist that is volunteering part of your time to address needs in the community.  The volunteer possibilities are endless: feeding the hungry, teaching English, digging for a well, creating a community garden, and the list goes on.

According to Voluntourism.org, there are more than 10,000 voluntourism opportunities for travelers.  These range from high-end, luxury tours with just a few hours of volunteering to homestays with weeks of volunteering in remote areas that don’t seem very “vacation-like,”  and everything in between.  It’s up to the traveler to decide how much of your vacation time you want to spend volunteering, what type of service you’re interested in, and how much money you want to fork over for this experience.  While there is no body that keeps track of how many people are taking advantage of voluntourism opportunities, it seems reasonable to estimate that the number could be in the tens of thousands.

All in all, it seems that this is a trend that is not going away.

 However, as with many service experiences, volunteers, not the target community, end up getting the most out of the experience.  Let’s not kid ourselves: my one-week stint teaching English in Laos, while a nice gesture, is probably not going to leave a unique or lasting impression on the community.  And two hours of picking up trash while on a cruise ship port call?  Even less so.  On the other hand, in the first example especially, I would likely come away from the experience with a richer understanding of culture and the two cultures’ similarities.  And that’s okay.  As long as the volunteer goes into the experience with realistic expectations, all will be fine.  You won’t be saving the world in between your mojitos on the beach and authentic mole-making cooking class.  But you will be enriching your vacation a bit and contributing to a just cause and a better understanding between two cultures.  And with more and more travelers becoming aware of voluntourism, I would wager that best practices will be developed and implemented so that both travelers and target communities will be positively affected.

Voluntourism has been a sort of “if you build it, they will come” phenomenon.  Were tourists clamoring to pay more to incorporate volunteer activities into their vacations?  We think not.  But, with the travel industry growing 32% from 2000 to 2008 for U.S. travelers alone, any new product that is packaged well will have an audience (see: “staycation”).  As with all emerging fields, there are pros and cons, ways to improve and advance.   But no, voluntourism is not a fad; it will be around for more than a hot minute and while its many iterations may change, the traveler’s desire to help, feel good, and reach out will help the growing voluntourism industry to mature in ways that will benefit all involved.

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    4 Comments

  • Emma says:

    I think voluntourism is definitely here to stay. Especially in these economic times, being able to get more than just a tan out of your vacation is a great incentive to go ahead and take that trip. The examples you give (teaching english for a week, etc) make an interesting point; I think it’s important to choose a type of volunteering where both you and the community will feel satisfied.

  • Miss Journey says:

    You bring up an interesting point. Short term efforts are not what change the world and solve problems, but thankfully it is a step in the right direction. What we can hope is that voluntourism is not only here to stay but that it is only in the beginning stages of its growth. It is SUCH a great idea and can have such great effects worldwide. I’ve heard of great stories where the community did benefit: schools and homes built. One of the best approaches seems to be when there is a specific project done. Those who really want to make an impact will make the effort to do so. Hopefully, we can convince others to do so as well. That is one of the accomplishments of voluntourism thus far: showing others that you can have the best of both worlds: a little do gooding alongside pleasure. 🙂

  • Shadia G says:

    Hey Miss Journey – thanks for your comment – it’s nice to see you have so much passion for doing good!

  • Shadia G says:

    Emma – I totally agree about finding something that each individual (and community) will appreciate. Thanks for your comment!