Volunteering and Tourism: A Good Combination?

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?

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5 Responses to Volunteering and Tourism: A Good Combination?

  1. I am very interested in getting more information how the volunteer tourism works. I would love to do something. I can teach English, teach hygene or other things. Take care of children. Bible study.

    Ramona Brigmond

  2. elizabath says:

    why tourism is good?

  3. Personally, as president of a non profit international volunteer organization, i am stricly against these profit organizations solding with “the best price”, the best “adventure” where you live “real” time with “real” people.
    Look there web site….
    Usually a lot of them a just travel agencies who contacted local volunteer organizations :”can we send some of our volunteers ? They are really interested in your activities” “OK, but can they pay fees to support their food, accommodation and a part of the project budget ? ” “well, …. 50 $ / week, is it ok ? ”

    In Sj vietnam (www.sjvietnam.org) , we had this adventure with Real Gap – Green Lion, a british voluntourism company… They introduced themself like a “modern” way to attract volunteers….We accepted their CUSTOMERS, more or less for free on our projects… because they were supposed
    to be volunteer, not “customers” bringing money to their travel agency: people who really want to GIVE something , not to RECEIVE something from our projects.

    When we got these people, we realized that these people wanted not to be “volunteer” but to have alternative holidays, something cool and unusual to say to their friends about their 2 weeks holidays.
    In Hanoi, We work with very poor street children and ill children in hospital: it is not always “fun”, our volunteer needs to work hard to prepare adapted lessons to these kids (no disco in the evening: only lesson preparation)… Very far from alternative holidays.
    They were expecting something else… Just one or two day, in the school, to say “hello, what is your name ?”, to give some candies and to takes pictures …. Some complained that in the pediatric hospital, there was not enought dieing children (they imagined to play at “mother theresa” during few days, helping ill children to die…)
    They wanted to see the real local way of live, but not too closely: it is nice too see but when you have to live in a house without air conditioning, they don’t like it….
    And i understand them, they used to pay for their trip up to 1000 $/ week when we got 50 $ / week to take care of them.

    There is also a conflict: development organization do project to give independence to the people they work with, not to keep a dependency. But how can you plan such commercial suicide when you are managing a profit company: you want long term project where you can put your customers.
    For ex, in our school, we try fast as possible to send the children to public school to get diploma. One day, we hope all these kids will be in a public school and we will close our school…. How could we have such plan if our incomes come from this “attraction” ?
    There is a risk to transform volunteer project in tourist attraction. a real risk. I saw in Thailand for example, a voluntourism org paying public school to send their kind to such project: “teach english to thai kids”. Tourist come, without any preparation, any qualification and each week, the children have the same funny lessons “hello, what is your name ?”

    Moreover, it is important to explain who are behind these voluntourist company: profit organization, making money on the back of charity projects and poor people.

    For me, it is unacceptable to make money with the poverty: “no, the poor countries are not a zoo for tourist, they are not a new attraction”

    if you want to be volunteer, join a volunteer organization where you will have more or less no fees to pay (check for ex: http://www.unesco.org/ccivs or http://www.yap.org )
    if you want to make a good travel, join a serious travel organization, not a voluntourism company where you will pay high fees to sleep in dormitory because it is more “real”. You will pay the right price, you will use the local tourism infrastructure, create jobs in restaurant & hotel, and not destroying it by creating an alternative cheap way to do tourismm (and also often to avoid to pay taxes)

    Pierre De Hanscutter
    President of SJ Vietnam
    +32 495 680 934

  4. Jesse Osmun says:

    The questions raised by Voluntourism are valid. Is the focus on service or leisure? What skills do these volunteers have? What impact can 2 week projects really have on community development.Pierre also brings up some key points in his comments above.

    I echo some of Tourism Concerns points in my own posting on the subject:


  5. I shared the concerns voiced above before I went to Nepal on a recent voluntour trip. It was commercial, but I think we did help a little, and most of all, it was fun for us and for the local people too. We did learn a bit more about each other, certainly more than if they’d just been our waiters, drivers and porters.


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