Voluntourism: the act or practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where one is vacationing.
Volunteering can be a great way to get out of the house, support your community, and discover your passions! In recent years, volunteering has creeped its way into travel as more people are caring about giving back to the communities they visit and having more meaningful adventures. This is great! And something we try to do in sustainable tourism by caring about the people, planet, and prosperity of where we travel to.
However, there are a few points we need to bring up to make sure we are participating in voluntourism correctly! Sometimes good intentions can lead to more stress and exploitation of a destination. So let's get informed on everything you need to know about voluntourism!
The Bad and Ugly
Check out these critiques from World Vision:
Local resources are drained: Communities receiving volunteers want to be great hosts, so they pour their own resources into ensuring food and accommodations are sufficient. These resources could be better used to improve their own lives. While volunteers may consider themselves a helpful source of manpower doing good work, they are actually just another mouth to feed.
Volunteers are inexperienced: One of the biggest arguments against voluntourism is the lack of related experience volunteers have for the work they’re expected to do in the field. Take for example a volunteer who is helping build houses: if this person doesn’t have the right skillset, their work may be of poor quality – perhaps even unstable. In the end, this costs the community more time, money and energy than the volunteer has expended.
Not enough time: Volunteer vacations usually only last between a few days to a couple weeks. Since most of that time is spent working, volunteers miss out on opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the culture of the country they’re visiting.
Local economy is disrupted: When volunteers show up to do work, they’re often putting local labourers out of work. In the case of the housing volunteer, local masons, construction workers, and carpenters lose jobs because of inexperienced foreign labourers.
Poor supervision: Local communities are more prone to exploitation when voluntourists have inadequate supervision. Voluntourists may not mean any harm, but working with vulnerable people requires a stricter set of standards.
Alright, so we got that over with. Now let's move on to the good, which there are many pros!
Stimulates Local Economies: Unfortunately, a lot of tourism is subject to economic leakage, meaning that the money coming into travel destinations goes right back out. With voluntourism, often times opportunities take place in developing countries that are limited of corporate tourism. This is beneficial for sustainable development from local and stakeholder participation.
Learn Local Culture: The reason so many people travel is to know other cultures. What better way than to be completely immersed and learning from the locals than working side by side. There's no better way to experience authentic travel!
Contribute Passions, Physical Skills, & Knowledge: For those volunteers who actually are experienced in what they are helping in, YOU ARE VALUABLE. For those who aren't as experienced, YOU ARE VALUABLE TOO! This just means it's very important to ask yourself the question of what are my passions, physical skills, and knowledge that I can contribute.
Can Minimize Tourist Impacts: One of the great things about voluntourism is that it more often than not takes you off the typical tourist path. Meaning, you may be off the crowded beaches and tourist sites. This is a good thing! You are helping minimize mass tourism while participating for a cause in a needed area.
Know Before You go
So now that we covered the basics let's summarize how to be the best voluntourist out there:
Choose something you're passionate about!
Reflect on why you're doing this. For your resume? To look better? Is this something you really care about? Or do you have genuine intentions of helping a cause.
Research the destination, culture, and program/charity. Make sure however you're helping that it includes local participation!
Know your strengths and how you can contribute meaningfully.