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Initial Industry-Led Voluntourism Conference Facilitates Collaboration and Open Debate

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By Nicole Petrak, Assistant Editor to AdventureTravelNews & ATTA Special Projects


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On June 28th, nearly 50 professionals – including non- and for-profit voluntourism operators, media, consultants and representative from the ecotourism community – gathered in Denver, CO to discuss the state of the voluntourism industry, its current challenges and opportunities, and to open dialogue around increased unification and cooperation as a specialized travel niche. Organizer Alexia Nestoria, Founder and Director of Lasso Communications and author of the blog, said that while there has been little industry organization in the active U.S. and U.K. voluntourism populations, these groups are beginning to seek increased collaboration.

Part of this shift is likely due to several challenges voluntourism is facing – namely, increased competition from other travel companies offering “add-ons” to traditional trips, a low return rate of volunteers, and increased media scrutiny around voluntourism programs and their value to both the local community and the traveler. Despite the variety of diverse interests present in the room and the very real and open-ended debates that occurred around such issues, the general consensus was that such conversations are necessary within the industry in order to promote integrity and protect common interests. Plans have already been put into motion for a second conference in 2012.

Daniela Papi, previously of, spoke on the theme of learning service (trips where the focus is cultural so you can learn how to serve AFTER your trip, in a more effective, conscious way) versus service learning. She explained that an increase of voluntourism has seen the growth of orphanages in Cambodia due to increased tourist demand for hands-on experiences with “helping” indigenous children, resulting in 79% of the children in such facilities actually having parents who placed them there after being told their child is receiving better care. Her question around how to stop the focus on orphanage tourism / volunteer work and focus it on family care is especially poignant: “We wouldn’t allow this to happen in our country, so why do we allow it in others? We need to find a ways to harness [volunteers’] good intentions in a way that doesn’t harm.”

She also gives the example of schools in Cambodia which have been painted multiple times a year by well meaning volunteers, while there is no money to supply teachers – who’s annual salary is close to $100 U.S.

“Skilled jobs take skilled people. Travelers tend to learn this individually when they get there, but why not instead prepare them to learn instead?”

She points out that a large part of what people “know” about other countries, they learn through fundraising and travel campaigns by organizations and individuals in their community. This is typically a model where volunteers are properly prepared for the realities of the host destination. And, the journeys are marketed as more of a cultural immersion experience based on the assumption that the most useful ways to help will become apparent after the individual comes home from the trip. She also outlined steps to achieve responsible volunteer travel: Build relationships; Research & follow-up; Invest in people, including our travelers; Sell based on learning and FIT – not on traveler demand.

Dr. Kristin Lamoureux, a Research Associate and Instructor in ecotourism at George Washington University also explored the relationship between the host community and voluntourism in her talk Volunteer Tourism, Economic Impacts & Host Communities: Can We Do Better? A key question to her talk was how we as an industry can enable the local communities to be effectively vetting and overseeing such projects themselves, so that the most benefit is gained.

Dr. Lamoureux cited studies that show it is quite important to the tourist to know what kind of difference their money makes, and that volunteers actually spend less not only because their trips are packaged but because they feel guilty putting money into anything outside their volunteer projects.

She also said, “We as an industry are not educating tourists that their money is just as if not more powerful when spent locally [on travel and experiences] – it helps keep jobs and has more of a ripple effect.” She also admitted this economic impact is not easy to quantify, and that she will be spending the next year studying the subject. Dr. Lamoureux provided four destination models as positive examples of host communities effectively voluntourism projects based on actual local needs, which are being vetted and monitored:

  • Friend Of Volunteer Tourism Egypt
  • SAVE Center (Honduras)
  • SAVE Travel Center in Smolyan (Bulgaria)
  • Volunteer Support Network (Uganda)

Points such as these obviously challenge some of the practices of companies who run for-profit, less specialized voluntourism packages, but debate around principles was surprisingly transparent at the event. Some representatives defended that their marketing and preparation materials clearly state an emphasis around cross cultural interaction and understanding versus any type of long-lasting social or economic change.

Dialogue was opened up around whether the industry should be focused on “doing the most possible good or the least possible harm,” reflecting the spectrum of different voluntourism businesses represented, which can range from small, grassroots, specialized programs focused on one specific location and a need there, to large scale companies sending volunteers globally for a range of time from one week to several months. Another issue which came up was whether the focus should be on the volunteer’s experience as a customer or the host destination’s experience – while that seemingly obvious answer is both, the reality in this market is that different groups by nature have to favor one or the other.

Pepy challenged this idea when she said, “Why are we calling it volunteering instead of cultural exchange and then not even meeting the volunteer’s expectations?”

Nestora also posited, “How would a voluntourism guidelines tool best reflect this reality and add to the industry conversations around what are realistic expectations around transparency, local expectations and sustainability?”

Randy LeGrant of Geovisions, who led the roundtable on the topic of whether or not voluntourism has peaked, emphasized that it is the individual organization’s responsibility to prepare the customer for what they are really going to get, and that this type of volunteer work is more about “life-changing experiences”  – it is not aid or development work. He also agreed that the volunteer work should be safe, achievable, based on a genuine need and sustainable in the community.

In terms of trends in voluntourism growth, his take was that the influx of bad press recently is largely due to overexposure of the topic in media and the search for new angles. He also mentioned that while many mainstream companies are jumping on the volunteer trend, it is not in their core competencies and are often largely an exercise in “green-washing.” He also pointed out that the rise of these mainstream options actually points to people being interested in combining volunteer work with traditional vacations, but are seeking diversity of experiences (rather than a longer trip doing the same thing) and the option to “add-on” shorter volunteer terms to a trip – sometimes only a few hours or a day.

A natural extension of this trend seems that more specialized voluntourism groups, who are in a better position to analyze, vet and set up more legit programs, should find ways to market short term options to those major companies directly.

Other presenters included:

The slides from the presentations can be found on Alexia’s blog, as can a video compilation of some of the talks.

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