Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is no stranger to criticism. Media reports regularly support claims that profits and visitor experience are trumping the needs of host communities.
Volunteer tourism is the intersection between tourism and volunteering. It involves travellers participating in organised short-term voluntary work to help communities, the environment and/or research in the places they visit.
With summer approaching, we are near prime “voluntourism” season. The approximately $2 billion dollar industry sends more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists around the globe each year, according to NPR. To the students gearing up to travel to developing countries and refurbish a school, build a well or assist in some kind of humanitarian venture that can be finished in two weeks – consider this: Volunteer work is not a photo opportunity.
STUDENTS BEGIN THEIR 21-day trip by traveling to a ranch in the Guanacaste province. As volunteers, they will work with students from local schools and teach them about modern environmental issues. The teens also learn about Costa Rica’s development issues and speak with natives about recent environmental changes within the region. Trip participants will also experience popular tourist attractions like whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and ziplining.
If you are thinking about volunteering abroad, we need to talk. I never expected that my volunteering experiences in Cambodia would lead me to have so many contentious discussions about responsible tourism, sustainable development, commercial ethics and modern slavery. It is never easy explaining to well-meaning, generous people that their desire to help others may inadvertently cause more harm than good.
While scrolling through my Facebook feed as a welcome distraction from the midweek workload, I stumbled upon pictures from my friend’s service trip to Guatemala over Easter Break. The photos from her five-day trip featured members of her group holding babies, smiling while young girls braided their hair, and taking selfies with kids from the local village. In every picture, both the volunteers and the children had big smiles on their faces, yet I couldn’t help but feel a mixed reaction to the message the album implied.
When I was 15, I flew to Nepal. Hiking through the Himalayas, while teaching school children English and helping out at an orphanage? Could I have been a more selfless teenager? I was off to save the world.
There are few things more cringe-worthy than watching 20 British schoolgirls trying to build a well under the scalding Nepalese heat. This is what I imagine a group of local men were thinking as they politely stood back while we puzzled our way through this contraption.
There is mounting concern about orphanages and tourism around the world, but the response has been patchy. Our world is a diverse place and our understanding of orphanages varies between different source markets and destinations. Read more about it here.
Check out this insightful and beautifully shot video by Lindsay Larsen as she discusses the cycle of orphanage tourism. Lindsay talks about her experiences and how voluntourism can have devastating affects on families.