Responsible tourism, voluntourism

What is Voluntourism & Is it as Good as it Seems?

Voluntourism is one of the fastest-growing trends in the tourism industry — but it might not be as helpful as previously thought. In 2015, 10 million people spent $2 billion on short-term volunteer trips. However, it has its skeptics — and for good reason. Although people should continue traveling the world to share their skills freely with others, there are a few things to be cautious about before booking a voluntourism trip.

What is Voluntourism?

Voluntourism is a portmanteau of “volulteer tourism” in which travelers do volunteer work in the community where they’re vacationing. The volunteer work can be anything from painting a school, to building a house, to teaching English to students. Although these experiences are meaningful when done with proper preparation and supervision, they can somtimes take a negative turn if done haphazardly — especially when vulnerable populations like children, survivors of abuse, or the impoverished are involved. 

Voluntourism can be more destrimental than beneficial to the local community.

Voluntourism: What to Watch Out For

Certainly, there are ways to volunteer in which those being served will benefit fully. However, not all voluntourism opportunities are the same. Here are some red flags to look out for.

1. Draining of Local Resources

Oftentimes, the local community receiving volunteers will drain their own resources in order to be good hosts. This means that food, money, accommodations, etc. that can be used to boost the lives of people in need, go to volunteers instead. Volunteers think they are helping by being an available source of manpower, but actually they become another mouth to feed — taking resources away from someone who needs it more.

2. Inexperienced Volunteers

The inexperience of voluntourists is one of the most-cited controversies surrounding voluntourism today. One common example you read about online discusses programs where volunteers build houses. While these projects may be well-intentioned, volunteers without the proper skillset for the job often run the risk of building unstable structures. Ultimately costing the community more time, energy, and money than the volunteer has put in.

3. Disruption of the Local Economy

Voluntourism can also disrupt the local economy. In the example of short-term building projects, the volunteers who believe they are providing additional shelter for a community, are actually putting local laborers out of work. IN terms of positively impacting the local community, it would have been more useful for the volunteers to stay home and use the money spent on their trip to pay for the wages of local laborers.

4. Poor Supervision

When voluntourists have loose to no supervision, the local community can get exploited. It’s not that the short-term volunteers have malicious intent, but that working with vulnerable populations requires a stricter set of standards. For instance, it is against many countries’ child protection policies to take pictures of children in orphanages, and then post them online. However, short-term volunteers may not know this. As a result, the child is unintentionally exploited. But with limited resources, host organizations often cannot train or keep track of every single short-term volunteer.

5. Limited Time

Many volunteer vacations trips are a few days to a couple of weeks long. As a result, volunteers scramble to get as much work done in order to make the greatest impact in a short amount of time. This is detrimental to the volunteer they will be so busy working that they miss the opportunity to gain a deep cultural understanding of the local community. But it is also detrimental to the community, because being served by someone ill-equipped will lessen the chance of significant impact.

Travel with an impact by allowing locals to serve you — and then paying for those services.

Travel with an impact — without voluntourism

Changing the world through travel is possible without voluntourism. There are steps that individuals — who have limited time and skills, but still want to make an impact — can take to ensure that a traveling with a cause can be actually beneficial. Here’s how:

Step 1: Change your mindset

Traveling with an impact starts with a mindset of mutuality. When anyone goes into a community thinking that they know how to fix everything, or that they will be the saviors of the people in need — a failure has already occurred.

To truly make an impact, a traveler must know they are a visitor who will take part in an exchange. To make sure the exchange is beneficial to both the hosts and the visitors, travelers must be willing to let themselves be served by the community — through tours, hands-on learning, fun activities, etc. — and also, to pay for those services, in order to sustain local livelihoods. This is called social impact travel.

Step 2: Look for legitimate social impact travel companies

Before booking a travel experience with a cause, read up on the organization hosting it, and its mission. If available, try to find a tour itinerary to get an idea of what you’ll be doing. Some great places to begin your research include Visit.org and The Wandering Scholar.

All of Visit.org’s travel experiences — which range from half-day to multi-day tours and activities — are vetted to be beneficial to the local culture, economy, and environment in which it is offered. Additionally, 100% of host revenue gets reinvested into the local community.

It’s important to thoroughly do your research before considering a voluntourism trip

Step 3: Have a great time!

Traveling with a cause doesn’t mean you have to get your hands dirty or be uncomfortable in any way. In fact, you can participate in indulgent activities like wine tasting, scuba diving, or even meditating — and still contribute to awesome causes ranging from protecting the environment, to supporting women’s empowerment, and more.

Making an impact starts with having an meaningful and memorable connection with the people and place you’re visiting — and there’s tons of incredibly fun ways to do that, which don’t involve voluntourism.

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So many incredible organizations making a positive impact already exist worldwide. And travelers can contribute to their cause through tourism — but without the baggage that comes with short-term volunteer trips. In fact, you can book social impact travel experience today — with a company like Visit.org, you have thousands of options in over 80 countries — all of which are guaranteed to benefit locals.