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.