Voluntourism: one answer to local resource shortages

Sensemaking / Voluntourism: one answer to local resource shortages

Tourists can bring practical support to their holiday destinations, but it's important that the projects they take part in are well-managed.

31 Jan 2013

Tourists can bring practical support to their holiday destinations, but it’s important that the projects they take part in are well-managed.

Seeing the sights is old hat for today’s tourists:  they want to leave their mark, far beyond scratching ‘i woz ere’ into the walls. Ever since the gap year boom of the 1990s, voluntourism – trips through which individuals offer time and energy to charitable causes – has been a rising trend. An estimated ten million well-meaning travelers now flock annually to destinations such as South Africa, India and Thailand to work in diverse fields: education, community development, construction, conservation and public health.

The motivations vary from one tourist to the next, but the rewards are clear. Volunteering can provide an incomparable insight into the lives and cultures of foreign communities, a way to ‘get under the skin’ of a destination that takes travellers out of their comfort zone.

Of course, the more fundamental question is what the host destination gets out of it. The potential of practical support to drive positive change is great – and there’s no shortage of need, as Western governments, once profligate with aid money, enter periods of fiscal restraint.

But, says Matt Fenton, Product Manager at Real Gap Experience, it takes good management to ensure that tour operators make the right sort of difference and that the objectives and outcomes of the project are realised.

“Before we embark on a partnership with a host organisation, we discuss with them what tangible, long-term outcomes they’re looking to achieve to ensure a positive benefit for all”, Fenton explains. “We’re constantly getting feedback from communities about what’s happening on the ground, and we work closely with our in-country partners to ensure a positive experience for volunteers and communities alike.”

This feedback is key – because, for all its good intentions, voluntourism has its share of ethical hazards. Unskilled volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic, can lack requisite training and may abandon projects before they’re complete. Whereas some projects help to create long-term jobs, criticisms have been levelled at others that make use of free labour from abroad rather than provide opportunities for local workers in need of an income. In the worst cases, the need for aid is exaggerated to attract visitors and their money: orphanages in Cambodia have been accused of renting children from their parents to keep the tourists coming. Fortunately, travel companies are increasingly aware of these pitfalls, and working to overcome them.

Real Gap and i-to-i are among a number of operators developing new guidelines for sustainable voluntourism with the travel association ABTA. It’s still early days, but the working group is speaking to the likes of Tourism Concern and academics to get a better understanding of the issues. 

“Volunteering holidays are growing in popularity, and so we want to encourage their growth, but it’s vital that they have a long-term positive effect on the local communities”, says Simon Pickup, Sustainable Tourism Manager at ABTA.

One concern for Fenton is that the efforts of volunteers aren’t spread too thinly: “With the current economic climate, we’re keen to make sure the organisations we’re supporting get the right levels of support.”

What some communities need is not only manpower but financial support

Of course, what some communities need is not only manpower but financial support to help ensure the sustainability of the projects. To that end, i-to-i Volunteering administers a campaign called Big Giving, through which volunteers can purchase basic amenities, like mosquito nets and bags of cement, for development projects.

Through this campaign, i-to-i Volunteering’s South Africa Literacy project, which offers children help with reading in one of Capetown’s poorest neighborhoods, received a $3,000 grant to purchase supplies and convert an old shipping container into a classroom. The container was put in place by a South African contractor, and then renovated by local people and volunteers in cooperation. The gift has helped to ensure the future of the literacy project, which, says Will Jones, Marketing Manager at i-to-i and Real Gap, is the ultimate goal of any voluntourism project. – Ben Goldfarb

Real Gap Experience and i-to-i Volunteering are part of TUI Travel PLC, a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Ali Bell-Leask / i to i

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