Travel Team | Feb 13, 2023
Let’s be honest. The 2020s didn’t start off too great. Now, what many of us are looking for is a chance to experience life beyond our own doorsteps. We want to travel, we want an authentic adventure that adds richness to our own lives as well as others’, and we want to have a positive impact on the world around us. The perfect way to accomplish all of this is through voluntourism.
Voluntourism is a relatively new phenomenon that combines tourism with global development. As opposed to volunteering, where completing a service project is your main objective, voluntouring’s primary goal is travel with a smaller service component. As a voluntourist, you are a short-term traveler who comes to do something to aid the people or the environment of a place. A voluntourist is by definition a tourist.
Since 1950, international tourism has grown thirtyfold due to the increased middle-class affluence in many countries. In other words, more people have the financial resources to travel and to contribute to other countries and causes. Improved ease of transportation also makes voluntourism more popular. It's now estimated that volunteer tourism is a $3 billion a year industry with the number of American adults who volunteered before the coronavirus pandemic exceeding 75 million annually.
Building projects — new schools, homes, or hospitals — are some of the most common types of voluntourism projects. They provide instant gratification, after all. When you get there … no house. When you leave … a new home! That’s not the only thing you can do, though. What are the other types of voluntourism?
On the surface, voluntourism sounds like a great deal for everyone. It’s come under scrutiny over the years, however, leaving many to ask if voluntourism is doing more harm than good.
Former Seven Corners blogger Luke Armstrong once wrote, “When I worked for a Guatemala-based charity that hosted 500 annual homebuilders, many of those international volunteers arrived with the same guilt-glazed question: ‘Instead of spending $1,000 to fly across the world to build a house, why not pay someone locally to build more than one house with the money saved from my group's airfare?’"
Other travelers are wondering if their short-term efforts aren’t too short. For example, you might help to build a school, but can the community afford to pay teachers after you leave? You might provide medical care for sick children, but if the community doesn’t have adequate sewage and sanitation systems, won’t people just keep getting sick?
These are disheartening questions that leave many wondering about voluntourism’s negative effects. Don’t be discouraged.
Said Luke: “When charity and volunteerism are done right — wow, friends! In one week, I saw a volunteer nurse a severely malnourished six-year-old with cerebral palsy back to life. In three days, I saw a family of four Americans build a house for a struggling Guatemalan family. If the Americans had stayed home and sent money, they could have built three more houses. But by thinking only in sheer numbers, they would have never built the friendship of understanding that blossomed over those three days of building. They would have never fallen into the mutually enlightening relationship that they did.”
Now that we know voluntourism has the potential to be a life-transforming experience for the visited and the visitor, the next question is how we make sure that experience is a positive one for everybody. Here are four ways to be a responsible voluntourist.
When picking an international service project, make sure to do plenty of research. Not only should you read up on the prominent social, economic, and cultural issues facing your destination, but you should try to find out how international relief efforts have alleviated — or contributed to — those challenges.
Next, learn which voluntourism organizations are providing aid to address these issues. Do these organizations offer volunteer opportunities that align well with your skill set? When you’ve found a few organizations that could be a good fit, find out their mission, values, and relevant financial information (more on this is a minute). Most nonprofits share those details on their website or provide them if you ask. If they can’t provide this information, look for a different organization with a reputation you can be confident about.
Here are a few questions to ask before committing to a voluntourism trip:
Most charities put out a convincing argument that they are worth your investment of time and resources. To really see what a charity thinks is important, though, find out where it spends its money. Be wary of organizations that charge large "program fees" as part of your volunteering with them as that can be a sign that they’re more concerned about getting your money than your help or labor. You can also look into how much the director earns and, if the organization is headquartered somewhere other than where the work is done, how much of the money goes into the local community.
For a charity, it's normal to put an easy system in place that invites a volunteer to reach out to their network to help them fundraise. We’ve probably all gotten a Facebook invite from a friend’s niece asking us to support a cause.
Because charities know volunteers will help with fundraising, some will mismanage those volunteers, using them to do busy work. If you ever spend your volunteer time abroad doing janitorial or housekeeping work, you are likely not with a very compelling organization. Avoiding this is part of doing your research ahead of time.
Again, part of this comes back to your research at the beginning. Hopefully you spent time learning about local customs of where you’ll be voluntouring.
Regardless of where you are in the world, though, remember that everyone you meet should be treated with courtesy, cultural sensitivity, and respect. In addition to learning a little more about your destination’s culture and social practices, ask the organization you’re traveling with about their guidelines for interacting with locals. Here are a few ways to ensure that your actions are as well-intentioned as your volunteer project:
You also need to think about how you can respectfully talk about your project, particularly when you return from your trip. While you’re volunteering, it’s natural to want to share updates with the folks back home. Before you post a photo or tweet, think carefully about what you’re communicating. Is your update an accurate, respectful representation of your host culture? Are you promoting harmful stereotypes about the country where you’re staying? Did the subjects of your photo or status agree to have their information shared?
The conversations about tourism's impacts are interesting, but the more productive questions are those that ask, "How can I be a better kind of traveler?" Voluntourism can be a better form of traveling.
Grace Lower, another blogger for Seven Corners, reflected on her own experience as a voluntourist.
“The recent controversy around voluntourism has challenged me to consider the impact of my own international service work. While I’m fortunate to have served alongside reputable organizations, I’ll admit that I didn’t put much thought into the ethics and sustainability of my trips. The debate on international service trips has highlighted the value of responsible travel. Good intentions are only part of the equation. The best volunteer trips establish a mutually beneficial relationship between volunteers and the communities they serve — and that’s a cause worth supporting.”
So use your savvy to make that voluntourism impact positive.
Voluntourism trips are often to remote locations. When your destination is difficult to reach or medical care is sparse, protecting your travel plans and your health becomes increasingly important. It's important to get travel insurance that meets your unique needs. Seven Corners has plans for almost any traveler, whether you’re looking for travel medical insurance when voluntouring abroad, trip protection, or travel insurance for a group. Contact us to get the right coverage for you.
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It's a common question and I've heard it asked 100 ways. How could one person with two weeks with annual paid vacation leave possibly think they could make a difference volunteering abroad?
Watch to see how Luke Maguire Armstrong demonstrates that short term volunteer trips make a positive change...