By Sarah Bourassa, Communications Assistant
Vacationing in an exotic place while volunteering for a good cause. What could possibly be better? But is it really as good as it sounds?
Voluntourism has become a popular travel trend, especially over the past few years. The idea of traveling for a good cause has existed for a long time, from missionaries to the Peace Corps. But in 2000, Catalyst Marketing, Inc. was the first company to officially merge the travel industry with the nonprofit world, according to VolunTourism.org.
Now, even popular travel sites such as Travelocity and Expedia, are promoting voluntourism. Forbes Traveler displays a slide show of 10 voluntourism trips, including snorkeling in Aruba to help restore the island’s environment and staying in the luxurious Fairmont Hotel in Winnipeg, Canada, while building homes for local families with Habitat for Humanity.
Voluntourism quickly has become its own market, and more programs continue to combine travel with various forms of volunteering.
For those travelers wanting to save the environment, they can sign up with the Earthwatch Institute and research and collect data on rainforests, wildlife, archaeology and more at locations throughout the world. PEPY Tours offers a bike trek adventure through Cambodia while helping out rural communities. Or for those who prefer a tropical journey in Costa Rica, travelers can teach children or care for the elderly and visit the beautiful beaches and rainforests with a Cross-Cultural Solutions program.
High school and college students have particularly taken an interest in this trend. Lauren Tatarsky, a student at American University in Washington, D.C., spent time volunteering in Ethiopia, where she helped at a hospital, school and orphanage, and in Thailand, where she and other members of the Student Campaign for Burma met with human rights organizations.
“With enough research, commitment and funding, voluntourism can be a very positive experience,” she said.
But how many voluntourism programs really are beneficial? A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, ” ‘Voluntourism’ 2.0,” brings up questions from organizations, such as Tourism Concern, about the true effectiveness of voluntourism.
These groups argue that volunteers often have little or no experience in the project and volunteer for such a short time, which can lead to projects having little impact or causing more damage than good. And some volunteer projects, such as building houses, teaching and taking care of children, may just be taking jobs away from the locals. Voluntourism also encourages people to venture to other countries instead of helping out those in need closer to their homes.
The article goes on to say that many voluntourism groups are coming back to the idea that “tourists should just be tourists.” They are now aiming to appeal to the tourists’ wants first and then adding on the volunteering aspects.
But does this defeat the purpose of volunteering and make it too self-serving? Or is it really benefiting those in need across the world?
Have you had a voluntourism experience? Do you think combining volunteering and tourism is a good idea?