Is Voluntourism Simply Affluent Tourism?

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A recent New York Times article on volunteerism raised the question whether voluntourism – travel and do good abroad –  is “simply an act of of affluent tourism masquerading as community service?”

This skepticism is not new. Variations have been circulated by critics and cynics of voluntourism who say if you truly have the desire to help, why not just volunteer at home, in your local communities. It’s more affordable, and the experience more worthwhile because it can be done over a period a time. So why spend to volunteer abroad unless there are “selfish” reasons such as resume building or to get a feel good experience?

We agree that volunteering at home is worthwhile and believe many who volunteer abroad typically volunteer at home. But, is the desire to help out while traveling so unacceptable and do all charitable travelers have ulterior motives? In our world today, people desire to live holistically, are globally minded, are more interconnected, see the overwhelming needs in other parts of the world and have increased mobility — it makes sense for travel and volunteering to co-exist.

Mark Segal, director of Westcoast Connection/360° Student Travel, understands why some people might be cynical about spending money to volunteer abroad. But, he said, spending time overseas immersed in a project “is a life-changing experience. You’re opening the doors for relationships and learning in a way that’s very different than being a traveler.”

We would venture to say that an ideal combination is to volunteer and tour. We wrote an article on how travel and volunteering are not only compatible, but can enhance your travel experience.  While it’s true you shouldn’t volunteer purely out of a desire to travel or to fulfill any other personal wish, there are benefits to having an “exploration/touring” component during a voluntourism trip. Learning about the history and culture of the country is vital for volunteer travelers. Getting to know the host country and its heritage helps you appreciate the people, their uniqueness, their diversity and even their plight. This understanding can strengthen the bond of the volunteer traveler to the host country and its people. Touring also helps the host country economically. Travelers spend more when they tour, and their money is spread more widely. Tourism is a central industry in many countries popular with volunteers, and their support can make a positive impact. You’ll need to make sure the tour operators you use are committed to responsible travel — giving back to their communities and to adhering to socially and environmentally responsible standards.

photo credit: edv

1 Comment

  1. Volunteering outside of your home area allows one to understand how others may deal with similar issues. As you point out, those who volunteer abroad also volunteer at home, allowing one to import new ideas and understandings to complex issues in their own community. It also allows one to meaningfully interact with locals – both in the people to whom one is of service and those with whom one serves. Travelers often look for more authentic experiences and to live like a local as best as a tourist can. Volunteering is one great way to have such an experience while traveling.

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