Monday, March 14, 2011

The Challenges of "Voluntourism"

Last week, the Boston Globe published an article talking about the rise of “voluntourism” among the baby-boomer generation. Voluntourism is travel that mixes a volunteer project with more traditional tourist pursuits such as sightseeing or nights on the town, usually on a short-term (less than a month) basis. The popularity of voluntourism is rising in all age groups, begging the question – what impact are these programs having on communities?

Much has been written about the damage voluntourism can do in communities. In September 2010, a study entitled “AIDS orphan tourism” was published in Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies Quarterly. This article detailed the harm that voluntourism does to young orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa, who form attachments to the volunteers only to be continually abandoned. According to the article, for young children who have already lost their parents, this continual loss of volunteers does deep damage to their ability to form meaningful connections later in life.

An editorial in Canadian newspaper the Star details how voluntourism in developing countries can actually take jobs away from those who need them most—the unemployed in that country. In Haiti, the unemployment rate exceeds 50 percent and people are fighting for dangerous, low paying jobs. Yet every day unskilled volunteers, many of whom paid handsomely to take the trip, descend on Port-au-Prince, ready to help. In truth, the money could go much further if donated to a respected aid organization or put into microloans for Haitians trying to rebuild their lives.

Voluntary Service Overseas’ (VSO) UK director, Judith Brodie put it plainly in saying would-be volunteers “would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet."

Despite the possible negative effects of voluntourism, with research and careful planning, an international volunteering experience can be one that is enjoyable and beneficial for all involved. For example, every spring, thousands of college students participate in Alternative Spring Break, a program in which they forego partying and use their break to serve others. Though a vacation, such a program is based primarily in service, not tourism with a day or two of service squeezed in.

In general, embarking on a long-term volunteer experience will allow you to do more good than a short term vacation, but that is not always possible. The best advice when planning for an international volunteer experience, be it a gap year or a two week vacation, is to choose your organization carefully. provides guidance on what to look for when choosing an organization to volunteer with.

If you choose to take a volunteering vacation, be sure the organization matches your skills and interests, and ask yourself why you want to volunteer on your vacation. Do you really want to help those less fortunate than yourself? Or do you just want a “different” vacation? Going into the experience for the right reasons can make a huge difference in the connections you make and the quality of the experience you have.

What do you think? Have you gone on a volunteering vacation? Have an opinion on the rise of voluntourism? Let us know in the comments!

More Thoughts on Voluntourism

Voluntourism: Making a Difference through Tourism

Tribewatned: Sierra Leone

‘Voluntourism' Proves a Hit with the over 40's as Bookings Rise 51% In 2010

When Americans Volunteer Abroad, Who Really Benefits?

Voluntourism: Hip or Hype?

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

Voluntourism: Good or bad?

Disaster Tourism and Haiti

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