Volunteer tourism: should we stop fooling ourselves?

When I talk about sustainable tourism, I often get questions about my opinion on volunteer tourism. The concept seems to combine everything I love – slow travel, getting to know a country, interaction with locals and the opportunity to help people that need it. However, there’s a whole industry built around volunteering that I don’t fully agree with. In this article, I’ll tell you why, and what I believe is needed to turn volunteer tourism into a good thing for everyone involved.

Volunteer tourism: should we stop fooling ourselves?

What exactly is volunteer tourism?

Volunteer tourism is a form of tourism where tourists volunteer in local communities as part of their travels. This type of tourism has been growing in popularity and availability amongst tourists. Volunteer tourism has been transformed into a way of self-development, meaning that travellers broaden their mind, experience new, unknown parts of the world and its society, and then go home feeling more experienced and developed.

Volunteer tourism is positioned as a form of justice or goodwill tourism that produces mindful visitors and tourists. It has the potential to make positive change to host communities and the personal development of the volunteers themselves. Volunteer tourism comes in many forms, varying from teaching English to children in Africa, helping at a sea turtle rescue centre in the Pacific to supporting poor communities in Asia in their daily activities.

Waste of time and money?

The company I worked for during my bachelor internship was involved in community-based ecotourism and volunteer tourism. The owner was very positive about the concept, but only if it met her standards as she was very strict in her sustainable principles. For example, if a volunteer wanted to travel to Africa to teach at a local school, they needed to commit themselves for at least six months, have a teachers’ degree, and the right motivation before they were even considered.

“When a volunteer is not committed to make positive change or to actually benefit the host community, volunteer tourism is a waste of time and money for all parties involved”

In the beginning, this seemed a bit exaggerated to me, until the owner pointed out the number of volunteers that went abroad just to experience a different culture without truly contributing to the host community. When a volunteer is not committed to make positive change or to actually benefit the host community, volunteer tourism is a waste of time and money for all parties involved.

Volunteer tourism: should we stop fooling ourselves?

Good intentions are not enough

From that moment, I started to look at volunteer tourism from a different perspective. It can be a very beneficial form of tourism for both the volunteer and the host community, but the volunteers should focus on making a change rather than wanting to change themselves. This requires motivation, dedication and persuasion. Unfortunately, there are still so many organisations that send off volunteers for them to experience life abroad without making an actual change, but just to learn about themselves and to get that doing good feeling.

In short

Volunteers in tourism can be extremely valuable, but only when their work contributes to the welfare of the people and countries they visit. In this context, good intentions are not enough. I believe that volunteer tourism should be about wanting to contribute, to help, and to learn from other cultures, but volunteers also need to make sure that the host community truly benefits from their involvement.

To me, sustainable tourism is minimising the negative impact of tourism and maximising the benefits local communities experience from your visit. When volunteers only volunteer for a few weeks with only limited knowledge, it will do more harm than good.

What are your experiences with volunteer tourism? Let me know by leaving a comment on Facebook!

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