Volunteer taking a photograph

Tour operators offering voluntourism experiences should rethink how those experiences truly benefit local communities. | Photo by ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

December 2, 2020

As we near the end of 2020, people will be looking to 2021 as the year they can hopefully travel freely again.

Those working in the tourism industry continue to strategize about what it looks like to create a more equitable and sustainable tourism model. But, what does this look like from the traveler’s perspective?

An increasing number of travelers are aware of their environmental footprint and want to actively “give back” when they travel. One way this takes shape is through volunteer work.

The intersection of volunteer work and travel — also known as volutourism — has always been a contentious issue in the tourism space. Executed well, it can empower local people and give agency to communities while also fulfilling travelers’ desires to “do good.”

But, volutourism can also go very, very wrong, resulting in dangerous child welfare practices, white saviorism, learned helplessness, uncompleted projects, and lack of follow through by volunteers and donors. Voluntourism can undermine locals who are skilled and discourage local people from speaking up and pursuing their own professional skill sets as well.

Dreaming big about what tourism’s future could look like, I posed the question on my social media channels about what role voluntourism could play. Because, it is true that people helping other people can be a very good thing. The vast majority of people interested in volunteering want to do it for the right reasons.

I received some very insightful thoughts and ideas from within the tourism industry for the tourism industry, which I’d like to share here. If your company is thinking about implementing a voluntourism component to its offerings, read on for ideas on how to structure those opportunities in a safe and meaningful way that actually benefits local communities.

(Travelers: If you’re interested in volunteering on the road, check out this comprehensive guide by Uncornered Market for important information on ethical voluntourism.)

Refocus the Experience

This point made by Audrey and Dan at Uncornered Market is key to this discussion, so let’s start here: “In many cases, the volunteer placement is not specifically connected to the voluntourist’s specific skills and involves a limited time commitment. In other words, the placement is often designed more with the intent of providing an experience to the tourist rather than fulfilling a specific need within the host community.”

In rethinking the voluntourism experience of the future, we need to refocus on what this experience should actually prioritize: Local people and their needs and desires above all else.

Let the Community Lead

Voluntourism begins with a relationship born out of trust driven by community needs. This requires a bottom-up approach where a community dictates the need for any sort of volunteer work. A travel company should never be in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing voluntourism offerings. 

Additionally, don’t outsource this relationship-building to a third party. If you are serious about offering manual labor to a community, then you should be serious enough about developing a relationship that ensures it is implemented right.

Take the time to learn from and understand a community. Let locals guide the conversation about having volunteers involved with their work and projects. Don’t ever assume you know what they want or need. This is a partnership, not a business transaction.

Emphasize Skills

One of the most offensive things that has come out of typical voluntourism experiences is the inexperienced backpacker persona, who wants to “give back” during his travels. When volunteers are inexperienced, they not only undermine local people who are skilled but they’re also a drain on local people’s resources, time, and mental energy.

The new ethos of voluntourism should place an emphasis on matching travelers with a deep knowledge of a particular skill with people who want to learn that skill. This means that your company should reject people who do not have the skills necessary for the volunteer role. 

Skill-based experience should be accompanied with the ability to empower locals so they can then carry on with these skills and teach others long after travelers have left. Volunteer work should not replace local jobs.

Educate and Be Clear About Traveler Expectations

A lot of people may not understand how their good intentions can go awry in the voluntourism context. Have conversations about this with travelers, and don’t shy away from discussing the troubling aspects of voluntourism models of the (hopefully distant) past.

Travelers need to understand what is expected of them as volunteers and follow clear instructions to ensure their volunteer work does no harm. This means setting and following through on expectations about required skills, time and labor commitments, taking photography, and posting on social media.

Transparency is Essential

If you offer voluntourism opportunities, you have a responsibility to be 100% transparent about your finances and how local communities benefit from volunteer services. The stakes have always been high for offering ethical experiences that directly impact people’s lives, but the stakes are higher now that people are waking up to the negative impact that these kinds of experiences can have. 

Take responsibility for the work done. Your project should be completed and its impact measured. This information should be publicly shared. People have a right to demand transparency to ensure voluntourism is taking place under ethical conditions and that your work actually has the positive impact intended.

Look Long-Term

You likely know this famous saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Take this saying to heart and focus on opportunities that allow for long-term skill-building and prosperity.

One of the worst things your company can do is drop in, start something, and move on. Don’t donate manual labor and materials for something that can’t be sustained beyond your time in the community. You need to take responsibility for the long-term consequences of the voluntourism opportunity you offer.

End Goal = No Need for Volunteers

Your goal shouldn’t be to offer voluntourism in a particular community indefinitely. The goal is to help local people achieve their goals so that they can carry on the work without you. There is never a reason to “keep the poor poor” to justify offering voluntourism experiences.

Voluntourism ≠ Positive Impact

Volunteer work is not the only way for travelers to leave a positive impact on the communities they visit and people they encounter. Communicate with travelers throughout their trip about ways they can support local projects and people — and be a model for this behavior.

For example, do not litter and actively pick up trash you encounter. Support social impact projects with work they’re already doing, such as collecting recyclables, participating in beach cleanups, and repairing trails. Buy from local business owners, and show support for communities in any way possible.


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