“Be the change” – Voluntourism’s role in development


“Be the change you wish to see in the world”

Mahatma Ghandi’s “famous” quote inspires many tourists (and adorns many a marketing campaign) in the volunteer tourism industry.

Volunteer Tourism, or “Voluntourism”, is the act of combining a short period of volunteering alongside a holiday. Mostly abroad, the aim of undertaking such a venture often comes from a search for meaningful local encounters and experiences.

And this small sector of the global tourism market is booming, with the industry estimated to be worth $2.6 billion worldwide with 1.6 million people engaging on volunteer placements.

So who are the key players in this market, who do they target, what exactly are they offering – and how? And more importantly, does this form of volunteering actually bring improved outcomes to the communities in which they work?

The players

Voluntourism originated, unsurprisingly, from the global movement of volunteerism. The UN State of the Worlds Volunteerism report highlights that the increase of voluntourism has largely been the result of for profit corporations, NGO’s, universities and faith-based organisations facilitating overseas, short term volunteer placements in order meet the increasingly complex demands of tourists.

The target market

Voluntourists come from multiple walks of life, however are commonly linked by motivations. Zahra and McIntosh recognise the need for cathartic experiences which “facilitate positive changes and make a positive difference to an individuals relationship and purpose in life”. Other factors include immersion into another culture, a desire to give back, sensation seeking, and improving CV’s to attract job opportunities. Studies show females make up a high proportion of volunteers, and most fall into the ages of 20-25 years old.

Options galore

A large array of voluntourism options are now available, aligned to the preferences and motivations of the tourists. Projects operate in fields as varied as agriculture, construction, conservation, environmental protection, education and medicine. Opportunities can be a simple day trip  to 2 weeks, 3 months or more. Africa, Latin America and South East Asia contain the most popular destinations while an increase in willing voluntourists has been seen in the wake of natural disasters.

The law of attraction

There is no denying that the voluntourism operators have succeeded in tapping into the core desires of the individual in this niche market. Highlighting the cultural experiences and ability to travel, heightening the impact of work and stressing the benefits to the individual are common, as is ensuring the volunteer is  portrayed as the “hero” of compassion and empathy for the plight of the disadvantaged.

The problems

Concerns with the potentially damaging impact of voluntourism to global development efforts ensure consistent discussion of this niche tourism market. While parody videos like the one below have used humour to highlight the absurdity of stereotyping complex developmental issues into problems which can be solved by unskilled western volunteers, there is a much darker side.

Academics and NGO professionals continually argue that the attention to meeting the needs of the tourist result in a lack of consideration for the impact on host communities. Lack of long term planning for sustainable development through a virtual “merry go round” of short-term volunteers decreases the ability for lasting positive change, either by an individual or the collective group. In addition, the risks to the local communities exposed to increasing numbers of poorly screened workers can have disastrous consequences.

Finally, the motivations of the receiving organisations are also in question. Save the Children recently launched a new awareness campaign on “Orphanage Tourism”, which brings to light instances of where children are being removed (or given willingly) from families into order to populate institutions which benefit from international donations and volunteer time.

Attracting the market for voluntourists thus seems simple – tap into the motivations that are apparent in the target audience, offer an enjoyable cultural experience, leisure and a side dose of “doing good” and enjoy a section of this bourgeoning market. Actually ensuring long term, sustainable, responsible development comes as a result of the commitment for the time and funds is the real challenge.

Blog by Kristy McLean, Student ID: 500155585

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