Volunteer Tourism

Does ‘voluntourism’ signify a shift from informal to formal volunteering?

Globally, as travelers of all ages search for unique personal, exciting opportunities and experiences, there is also an increasing demand for volunteer experiences. There is no doubt that traveling and volunteering will continue to grow. For instance, between 1990 and 2007 alone, the overall market of voluntourists grew to a total of 1.6 million a year, with a value of between £832m and £1.3bn ($1.7bn – $2.6bn)[1]. The growing demand for volunteering is paralleled by the emergence and growth of volunteer service organisations (sending and/or host and profit and non-profit making organisations). The fact that majority of the sending organisations have their headquarters located in the developed world raises eyebrows.

I use the term ‘voluntourism’ loosely to refer to volunteer tourism. But what do we know about the voluntary sector in the first place? The existence of various preconceptions and stereotypes of volunteerism has made it a complex subject to conceptualise and is beset by a thorny definitional problem. Volunteering may be understood as a helping action aimed at a valued individual(s) without any (in) direct material gain or mandate or coercion. In addition, I also traced the origin of the concept of volunteerism in Britain to its preindustrial society in which I found two important views– volunteerism was viewed either as a responsibility undertaken by privileged individuals with superfluous leisure time ‘to support worthy causes’ or as a pursuit to further enhance privilege and social status. Also, the actions which volunteers undertake range from their ‘gifts’ of time, skills and financial resources. The emerging sets of literature on volunteerism also attest to ‘wholesome’ or benevolent volunteering as one of the most documented and longest-surviving volunteer traditions.

However, drawing your attention to today’s presentation by Dr Anna Mdee on Volunteer Tourism, the growth in the volunteer sector is in itself problematic. The paper notes that voluntourism can be transformational; it can shape global citizens who are against global inequalities and also has potentials of benefitting communities and organisations that engage with them. However, the utility derived from volunteerism (socially and economically), their sustainability and impact are questionable. On the flip side and besides tourism, whatever volunteers gain from short-term placement overseas is under-documented. Perhaps a glorified holiday to be added to the volunteer’s CV, delivering development to the people who want to be saved, the existence of people who need pity or a volunteer is the only personally who can change the world?

With the above questions in mind, Anna challenges the rationale of the current unidirectional dichotomised transmission of north-south, developed-developing ‘voluntourism’ which appear to: perpetuate ‘development tourism’; manifest neo-colonial attributes; embed individual centred and ‘consumer’ oriented attitudes; and reinforce uneven and unregulated modes of operations. Volunteer destinations being Latin America, Asia and Africa is no secret. Anna’s paper further notes that economic and political freedoms to travel are the salient determinants of the patterns of voluntourism. However, the paper warns that voluntourism in some cases results into inappropriate and ineffective projects, cultural misunderstandings and patronage. In light of the above, Anna provides a checklist for effective voluntourism – having positive personal attitudes; providing long-term pro-tourism routes which support the local economy; and willingness and readiness of the volunteers to serve other than be served, among others. All these can be possible when voluntourism is situated within the long-term goal of a host organisation’s activities.

To advance further the conversations initiated by Anna, I find solace in using Stebbins’ (2001) marginal versus mainstream volunteering debate to explain why the one-dimensional pattern of voluntourism seems to persist. To Stebbins, mainstream volunteering should be a motivation-driven or ‘freely chosen’ activity that is a ‘satisfying and enjoyable’ leisure experience. On the other hand, marginal volunteering is causal and the obligation of the volunteer is not morally coercive. Whether Stebbins suggests that the motives of mainstream ‘voluntourists’ are informal or volunteers should not be controlled in the same way as full-time or paid staff is not new to controversy. Perhaps this question generates perceived stereotypical images of volunteers and ideological assumptions which have been reproduced and continue to paint perceptions about them and consequently prohibiting them from being fully understood. Or, are we just witnessing a growing tension between formal and informal volunteering?

I contend that the moral panic within the spheres of the voluntary sector suggests that the future of voluntourism is doomed. The fate of future voluntourism will be determined by lack of interest among younger generation, volunteer fatigue or excessive inflexible work obligations in the formal voluntourism sector. However, there is a window of opportunity to reverse the perils. Any progress in the voluntourism must not lose sight of the history of volunteering, the significant contributions it has made in the past, the challenges associated with it and the realities it encounters.


[1] ATLAS (2008) Volunteer tourism: A global analysis. Tourism Research and Marketing.

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