Is this the end of volunteer tourism as we know it?

The answer is, I hope so……

Recently Orphanage Volunteering took a beating (and rightly so) as volunteers unwittingly found themselves fueling child exploitation when they intended to do the complete opposite. But will this have impact on the rest of the tourism volunteering industry, will it also have to step into the ring to defend itself?

Last year I predicted that 2015 would be the year that will really test Voluntourism and its place alongside other responsible responsible tourism programs. The press has already started to weigh up voluntourism, questioning whether it is a benefit or a burden? Previous articles, as seen in the Guardian and the Telegraph, were evaluative and informative on choosing the most responsible volunteer project and evaluation can only be good for voluntourism. The more people that become aware of the potential issues the more responsible the volunteer companies will need to become. However, I believe the scales will start to tilt and the media will come down on voluntourism hard. From experience, I have found that newspapers scales will unsurprisingly lean towards ‘burden’ as seen here, when did you last read a happy positive story in the papers? The knock on effects could be disastrous and all voluntourism will more than likely be thrown in to the same bin and once its tarnished who will want to be associated with it? But, I argue that voluntourism does have a place alongside responsible tourism and here’s 2 big reasons why…

1, Voluntourism has been a favorite amongst graduates and students. However, when university fees were increased in the UK things shifted and students could no longer afford these breaks. Voluntourism was left to the people with some spare time and cash that Travelers Worldwide subtly called the ‘Grown Up Gappers‘. This shift has seen a positive change in volunteer typologies, people with specialist skills and experiences are now taking up positions rather than people with not a clue. This ever increasing pool of talent, as more and more people hit retirement age, can be used in greater and more powerful ways than simply painting schools or teaching unstructured English. A fantastic example of this is exemplified by Development Squared who takes leaders from the UK to mentor programs in Swaziland. The business partnerships are carefully matched so that specific skills can be developed supporting and developing local skills.

2, The knock on effects should not be undervalued. There are arguments that suggest problems taken on by voluntourists could be improved faster and more efficiently if the tourist stayed at home and simply handed the money over. However, the most fantastic thing about travel is that you get to experience issues first hand. To many stories are masquerading as truths when actually its doctored material or the editors preferred story purely designed to gain the largest audience. Volunteers do not join a voluntourism trips because they feel like it, they are not holidays, they enroll because they have a passion. If the trip is successful and planned correctly the meeting between volunteer and host community becomes a symbiotic relationship and the host and the volunteer learn from each other. A positive experience for voluntourists can then lead to army’s of ambassadors each fighting for a similar cause. Many spread the word when they get home, raise money or even work, dedicating their lives to the issue. This amazing article is proof that voluntourism does and will work due to the creation of ambassadors.

These are just two of the many reasons why all voluntourism should not be placed under the same banner, not all are exploitative projects set up for commercial reasons. But I do understand that these 2 points  can only be achieved through good management and thus we need to welcome evaluative material. But let us not dwell on the negative projects that are more than likely to come to the surface and grab the headlines, lets learn from them and improve an incredibly useful tool for social and ecological development.

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One thought on “Is this the end of volunteer tourism as we know it?

  1. Pingback: Has Carnival Cruises Become The Mother Ship Of Responsible Travel? | Conservetourism

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