There is an emerging type of tourist who is looking for a the next new adventure in travel. Many of them are looking to give back to the communities that they visit, by way of volunteering their time and services to assist those who are lacking resources. Enter the voluntourist. With so many well intentioned people and organisations bringing these people and underdeveloped communities together, only good things can result. This is the theory, which seems sound on paper. Having been a voluntourist myself, and coming from a sustainable development/tourism view point, I doubt the validity of it always working out in favour of the local community/area. There are many types of volunteering as a tourist and likewise many groups and organisations that make these arrangements. It’s not that all forms do not benefit someone somehow, it’s whether the positive impacts outweigh the negative.
It’s a difficult situation to be able to judge or determine. Let’s take an example of an orphanage that I’ve encountered in my travels. They are open to foreigners to come stay at the orphanage and help on projects like building a playground for the children. By staying at the orphanage, the volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the children. In order to facilitate this, a fee is involved. The owners start seeking and pressuring for further donations from the foreigners during their stay to support the orphanage. They start to depend on foreigners for the survival of the orphanage. Sure, it’s great that someone can help out the orphanage to improve the facilities. But it also further propagates the view by locals to see foreigners as an open bank. It opens the eyes of the voluntarist and has immense benefits as a voluntourist to live and breathe the life of the local community. It is a unique experience. However, the experience and relationship between foreigner and local risks turning into a business transaction. What is the true benefit? What impact does this have on the children in the orphanage to see tourists coming in and out for a week at a time, more or less. The same with teaching English, in less developed areas where there is no continuity of foreigners to come teach English. Does having a foreign english teacher for a month once in a while better than not at all? In the case of conservation projects, without consistency of resources, how effective is the conservation? What are the environmental impacts of more people in the area that you’re trying to preserve makes for a difficult balancing act.
Then, you may consider the impacts of tourism itself. The more tourists that come through an area, the more work is involved in preserving its natural state or to ensure the location and community does survive in it’s own right and also remains available for future visitors. Consider places like Phuket in Thailand that has turned into somewhat of a large commercially driven tourist spot catering for all the flocks of tourists that come each year, that is mass tourism. The environmental and social impacts over the past 10-20 years are often seen as negative. Starting as a voluntourist, can be the start of the mass tourism cycle. What impact does our visit have on local area. Not just our services, but our extra presence there. We need to be fed, cleaned and we create rubbish.
While being a voluntarist sounds great in itself, there is much more to consider when selecting a project and choosing whether to do it at all. Consider what is the benefit? How do you measure this benefit? Only you as the voluntarist can decide if you think it’s worthwhile and whether your impact is better than having none at all. One of the main benefits of volunteering comes from educating the voluntarist by allowing that experience and insight into the local life which they can share with others. It’s not always necessarily assistance to the local community or conservation place, they will find ways to survive without the voluntourist.

There is an emerging type of tourist who is looking for a the next new adventure in travel. Many of them are looking to give back to the communities that they visit, by way of volunteering in local communities their time and services to assist those who are lacking resources. Enter the voluntourist.

With so many well intentioned people and organisations bringing these people and underdeveloped communities together, only good things can result. This is the theory, which seems sound on paper. Having been a voluntourist in a local community myself, and coming from a sustainable development/tourism view point, I doubt the validity of it always working out in favour of the local community/area. There are many types of volunteering as a tourist and likewise many groups and organisations that make these arrangements. It’s not that all forms do not benefit someone somehow, it’s whether the positive impacts outweigh the negative.

It’s a difficult situation to be able to judge or determine. Let’s take an example of an orphanage that I’ve encountered in my travels. They are open to foreigners to come stay at the orphanage and help on projects like building a playground for the children. By staying at the orphanage, the volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the children. In order to facilitate this, a fee is involved. The owners start seeking and pressuring for further donations from the foreigners during their stay to support the orphanage. They start to depend on foreigners for the survival of the orphanage. Sure, it’s great that someone can help out the orphanage to improve the facilities. But it also further propagates the view by locals to see foreigners as an open bank. It opens the eyes of the voluntarist and has immense benefits as a voluntourist to live and breathe the life of the local community. It is a unique experience. However, the experience and relationship between foreigner and local risks turning into a business transaction. What is the true benefit? What impact does this have on the children in the orphanage to see tourists coming in and out for a week at a time, more or less.

The same with teaching English, in less developed areas where there is no continuity of foreigners to come teach English. Does having a foreign english teacher for a month once in a while better than not at all? In the case of conservation projects, without consistency of resources, how effective is the conservation? What are the environmental impacts of more people in the area that you’re trying to preserve makes for a difficult balancing act.

Then, you may consider the impacts of tourism itself. The more tourists that come through an area, the more work is involved in preserving its natural state or to ensure the location and local community does survive in it’s own right and also remains available for future visitors. Consider places like Phuket in Thailand that has turned into somewhat of a large commercially driven tourist spot catering for all the flocks of tourists that come each year, that is mass tourism. The environmental and social impacts over the past 10-20 years are often seen as negative. Starting as a voluntourist in the local community, can be the start of the mass tourism cycle. What impact does our visit have on local area. Not just our services, but our extra presence there. We need to be fed, cleaned and we create rubbish.

While being a voluntarist sounds great in itself, there is much more to consider when selecting a project and choosing whether to do it at all. Consider what is the benefit? How do you measure this benefit? Only you as the voluntarist can decide if you think it’s worthwhile and whether your impact is better than having none at all. One of the main benefits of community volunteering comes from educating the voluntarist by allowing that experience and insight into the local life which they can share with others. It’s not always necessarily assistance to the local community or conservation place, they will find ways to survive without the voluntourist.

Travel Bunny, is an avid traveller who has trekked across the globe and worked in Australia, Ireland and UK in the past 10 years. In 2006, Travel Bunny travelled across Latin America over 8 months, touching all countries except for Venezuela, Suriname, French Guinea, Guyana, El Salvador and Belize.

In 2010-2011, Travel Bunny volunteered for local community and sustainable tourism operators in Thailand and Laos. Committed to helping the environment and economy of least developed countries and passionate about people, photography and salsa, you’ll find Travel Bunny dancing the night away in the places Travel Bunny visits. Travel Bunny’s latest passion is sustainable travel – the pathway for least developed countries to a sustainable future.

A really interesting debate, and one perhaps without a black and white answer. Leave your comments below!

You can, of course, check out volunteering holidays on Much Better Adventures!

All photos; author’s own.

  1. Kate Webb
    Jan 30, 2012

    Interesting view and great you have been there and done it yourself! Think there is no clean cut answer to this debate and lots of great models out there. Check out the news section on our site to find some examples from past skilled volunteers and events we have done with various communities here in Malawi http://www.responsiblesafaricompany.com/news.php and a new initiative we are working with- The Geotourism Foundation- http://www.geotourismfoundation.org/
    Thanks for the great article
    Kate

  2. Travel Bunny
    Feb 03, 2012

    Thanks for your comment Kate. The Geotourism Foundation looks like it has great principles! Also looks like there are some great initiatives happening in the Responsible Safari company. Agreed, there are some great models out there. I think it will always be difficult managing that balance of benefit and detriment to the local communities/areas and to the tourist. Thanks for reading and commenting on my article!

    Travel Bunny

  3. John Henderson Todd
    Mar 29, 2012

    Interesting article. A particular problem I have encountered in both West and Southern Africa is that many of the volunteers are American evangelists who tend to import their their religious views along with their good works and often pressurise locals to adopt them before being allowed to access the services they provide. This can have a deleterious effect on community cohesion by destroying local belief systems and undermining local leaders. A good example I came across in Liberia was a community which revered catfish as possessing the spirits of the ancestors and therefore taboo as food. The evangelicals encouraged their converts to catch and eat them which severely damed the ecosystem of the river which the villagers depended on, damaged water quality and created flash floods down stream as there was no longer a perceived reason for maintaining the riverbank vegetation. Another area which came under attack from Christian missionaries was the reverence for sacred groves in the rainforest which acted as safe havens for rare species. The cost of western medicines is also a problem if the traditional herbal medicines fall into disuse because of Christian opposition to the traditional healers who are often the tradition bearers.

  4. free internet radio
    May 18, 2012

    My opinion is that this project can produce considerable positive effect on the development of the countries which need help. I think that people who want to be useful should be always provided with such opportunity.

  5. Travel Bunny
    Jun 08, 2012

    Thanks for sharing John Henderson Todd. Really interesting stories, especially the one in Liberia. That’s exactly the sort of thing that worries and scares me about the whole voluntourism industry often more harm is done than good.

    To Free internet radio – agreed the opportunities should be made available, but at what cost? The point is more that the structure around these opportunities should be more carefully thought through and prepared to ensure the benefit to the local community/development of the countries that need help is indeed positive overall. Without too much detrimental effect.