Volunteer travel

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Volunteer travel, volunteer vacations, volunteer tourism or voluntourism is travel which includes volunteering for a charitable cause. In recent years, "bite-sized" volunteer vacations have grown in popularity. Volunteer vacations vary widely in scope, from low-skill work cleaning up local wildlife areas to providing high-skill medical aid in a foreign country. Volunteer vacations participants are diverse but typically share a desire to “do something good” while also experiencing new places and challenges in locales they might not otherwise visit.

There are also other types of traveling that engage people with scientific research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. Participants cover a fee that would include expenses on the different sites worldwide, and engage in projects according to their interest or location.


Originally most volunteer vacations were undertaken by people with a direct connection to a particular cause and were considered more as short term, intense volunteer projects rather than vacations.[1] Many of these organizations were long-standing international development assistance organizations which placed short-term volunteers on community development project sites.

Inception of volunteer travel can be linked to International Voluntary Services in 1953. These services and that of the U.S. Peace Corps, established in 1961 during the Kennedy administration, paved the way for volunteer travel and volunteer vacations throughout the world. However, some would argue, and with good reason, that the connection between travel and volunteering in the Modern Era can be traced back to the work of Herb Feith in Indonesia in 1951. Feith's contribution, the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, today known as Australian Volunteers International, may very well have paved the way for the connection between travel and volunteering that has evolved in the 60 years since.[2]—During the 1960s and 1970s a movement of volunteerism and study abroad programs became popular among college age individuals. The first known volunteer travel operation began with Earthwatch in 1971.[3] Earthwatch wanted to engage the general public in the scientific process by bringing together individual volunteers and scientists on field research projects. This grouping of scientists and volunteers provided an alternative means to funding, as well as provide a dedicated labour force for field scientists [4]


During the 1990s the travel industry developed niche products and firms to provide volunteer vacations to people who had no previous experience with a cause, and to cater to the increasing number of young people taking gap years.[citation needed] These providers expanded the market but also drew criticism for the impact of their methods. At the same time, the first edition of "Volunteer Vacations" by Bill McMillon was published, featuring under 200 non-profit organizations which facilitated such service opportunities. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 55 million Americans have participated in a volunteer vacation, and about 100 million more are considering taking one.[5]

Volunteer base[edit]

Volunteer tourism appeals to a wide variety of travelers, but the majority of volunteers are made up of high school and college students. Many students use these trips to boost their resumes, travel with friends, and as a way to gain world experience and see new countries. Recently there has also been an increase in baby boomer volunteers. One possible explanation for the increase is that baby boomers are transitioning into a new stage of life and their focus may shift toward finding activities that give their life new meaning. Voluntourism is therefore appealing, as it is specifically targeted at travelers who want to make a positive change in the world, while still providing a tourist experience.[6] People generally volunteer in order to increase their international awareness, to contextualize poverty and its effects, as an education opportunity, and to help people while having a morally rewarding experience. Many believe that the trip will change the way they think when they return home. However, others are just looking to give to others and do not believe that their experience will cause them to think twice about their lives back home.[7]

Rebecca Tiessens recent work with Canadian gap year students suggests that volunteer experiences are becoming viewed as a commodity that can be bought for a price for use in future college or job applications. She also suggests a correlation between conspicuous consumption and volunteer work. People may do what they perceive as good deeds primarily for the recognition of their peers rather than out of good will.[8]

Vacations have been hit hard by the recession. However, voluntourism has remained stable because it offers individuals the opportunity to take a guilt free vacation. As criticism for excessive, lavish spending increased, volunteer vacations have become an attractive option. As many volunteer vacations include tourist activities at the end of the trip, these vacations provide volunteers with an enjoyable vacation that has an enhanced value. Families participating in volunteer vacations may feel better about spending money on their trip while still enjoying the bonding time vacations provide.[9]

A survey by CheapTickets.com of 430 US adults 18 and older found that half of their respondents would consider voluntourism for their next vacation. In addition, 55% of respondents would consider adding volunteer activities to an already planned vacation. While 48% had heard about volunteer vacations, only 5% of applicants had actually participated in one.[10]


While some experts on volunteering welcome the expansion of volunteer vacations as an opportunity to provide more resources to projects and to encourage a volunteer ethic in people,[citation needed] others have pointed out that the business methods used by tour operators, such as exclusivity deals, and catering to the needs of the volunteer rather than the volunteer project, exploit the communities the projects are intended to help.[11] In many different provinces in these third world countries where voluntourism is most prominent, orphanages often take children out into the main city where they play in the streets with one another or play instruments, in an attempt to garner donations from tourists and volunteers. Many also invite potential and actual donors to visit the orphanage itself, and many then ask them to volunteer there. What these donors do not know, is that orphanages network themselves with volunteer organizations to ensure a steady flow of money and volunteers to their organizations. In addition, in order to ensure that such funding is never reduced and to promote additional donations, some orphanages are deliberately kept in decrepit conditions despite having adequate resources for dramatic improvements.[12] Some news organizations have done inside reports on the volunteer industry finding exploitation.[13]

Economic effects on host countries[edit]

Claims by volunteer tourism organizations that these activities contribute to improving people's lives and contributing to development goals are yet to be evaluated in the vast majority of cases. It is true that many countries have greatly benefited from the influx of tourism. Local economies and businesses have benefited as volunteers stay in their hotels, eat at their local restaurants, unwind at local bars, and stroll the local markets. However, it is possible that volunteer travel might exacerbate existing problems in the host community.[14] Dr Anna Mdee of Voluntourism.org contends that while there is still a lack of understanding of the direct impact volunteering overseas has on development activities, there is a much larger value that can be gained from working and living in another culture.[15] Such value is often gained by the volunteer individually. However, short term volunteer vacations may serve to strengthen the ‘us and them’ dichotomy instead of acting to bring people from different backgrounds together. While solidarity between the volunteers and recipients is part of the goal, the actuality may be that volunteers see a deeper divide between themselves and those they helped. In addition, voluntourism may help reinforce stereotypes and preconceived ideas rather than providing a deeper understanding of other cultures. This is especially likely to occur if volunteers lack knowledge about the country in which they are volunteering, and about how the policies and history of said country have affected poverty or development. In order to make a genuine change, it is essential that volunteers are qualified and reasonably well-informed.[16]

Social and psychological effects on the orphans[edit]

A Human Sciences Research Council report suggests that voluntourism companies treat orphans like commodities and that the projects can create "adverse emotional and psychological effects" on the children.[17] If a child is in need of a stable home environment, the use of "voluntourism" fails to provide this as each set of travellers soon departs and is replaced by new tourists.

Abuse at orphanages[edit]

At the beginning of 2011, the government of Cambodia began inspecting orphanages, almost all of which are privately operated and funded, due to claims that many orphans in fact had at least one living parent. More than 250 orphanages are under review after one study found that only 28% of the 12,000 children in these orphanages had actually lost both parents. UNICEF has publically expressed concern as the number of orphans has doubled in the past five years. Coincidentally, trips to orphanages have proven to be one of the most popular, and best-selling, volunteer vacations. In fact, “the rate of growth in the number of Cambodia’s orphanages over the past five years matches the increase in the number of tourists visiting the country during that same period.” [18] In Ghana, a government study found that almost 90% of orphans had at least one parent and that only 5% of orphanages were licensed. UNICEF estimates that less than one-third of the money orphanages receive, through both income and donations, actually goes to child care.[19] Similar abuses have been observed in Nepal.[20][21]


Much of the conflict regarding volunteer tourism is that these trips are not sustainable. There will always be groups who want to partner with international organizations and individuals who desire to spend their free time helping others, but the trips and projects these people choose should focus on development that both involves the locals directly and caters to their most important needs. Volunteer trips that benefit communities through the construction of new facilities and community spaces may or may not involve the help of locals. Those that do not prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs and those that bring their own resources fail to support the local businesses and economy. Sustainability is especially important in cases where projects are initiated by volunteers and left in the hands of locals to finish. Volunteer groups should be certain before beginning a project that there is enough funding and support for the project to be completed once they leave, in order to avoid letting their hard work waste away as a pile of rubble or their supplies sit in storage unused.

For example, voluntourism blogger Alexia Nestora found a village in Kenya that had been significantly impacted by voluntourism. This village had approximately 500 residents and as a community had built a school and furnished it with the necessities, such as individual classrooms and blackboards. The village was using this schoolhouse when a well-funded NGO came in and decided to build the community a larger school, complete with a very expensive commercial kitchen. Volunteers flew in and the NGO purchased expensive building materials and built the second school right next to the first. The community then decided to use the second schoolhouse as their school, and now they use their original schoolhouse for storage. A second group then came in to build a third school and they began construction right next to the second school. However, they ran out of funding before it was even time to build walls and have not been back to complete their work. Talking to the locals in the village revealed that they never wanted a second, much less a third, school and had no need or desire for an expensive commercial kitchen. However, they could have benefited from new teachers or an additional source of funding in order to pay teachers already on staff.[22] Many other villages in Kenya lack adequate structures for schooling and would have welcomed the help of these NGO and volunteer groups had they offered to build a school for them. In many projects like this one, NGO and volunteer organizations often overlook one of the most important steps – talking to the locals and asking what they need.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McGray, Douglas (February 2004). "Going the Distance". Travel and Leisure Magazine. Retrieved 2008-01-20. 
  2. ^ Australian Volunteers International, 2011 www.australianvolunteers.com/
  3. ^ Our History - Earthwatch Institutewww.earthwatch.org › Home › About Us
  4. ^ http://www.earthwatch.org › Home ›
  5. ^ "YIA Voice of the Traveler Survey Results". 
  6. ^ Rogers, Mark (2007-09-17). "Voluntourism is on the Rise". Travel Agent (PDF) 331 (3): 20–4. 
  7. ^ "Youth as Voluntourists: A Case Study of Youth Volunteering in Guatemala". Undercurrent: The Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Development Studies 7 (3). Fall–Winter 2011. 
  8. ^ Tiessen, Rebecca (February 2012). "Volunteering in the developing world: the perceived impacts of Canadian youth". Development in Practice 22 (1): 44–56. doi:10.1080/09614524.2012.630982. 
  9. ^ Cohan, Andrew (June 2010). "Voluntourism: The Human Side of Sustainable Tourism". HVS International Journal: 1–7. 
  10. ^ Rogers, Mark (2007-09-17). "Voluntourism is on the Rise". Travel Agent (PDF) 331 (3): 20–4. 
  11. ^ Alex Klaushofer (August 16, 2007). "Gap-year 'voluntourists' told not to bother". U.N. World Volunteer Web. 
  12. ^ Birrell, Ian (2010-11-13). "Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do". The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna). 
  13. ^ http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201205242102-0022218
  14. ^ Jo Ingram (October 2008). "Volunteer Tourism: does it have a place in development?" (Unpub. thesis). 
  15. ^ Anna Mdee. "Wisdom & Insight: Additional Perspective on Development and Volunteer Tourism". 
  16. ^ Raymond, Eliza; Michael Hall (2008). "The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism". Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16 (5): 530–543. doi:10.2167/jost796.0. 
  17. ^ http://www.hsrc.ac.za/HSRC_Review_Article-195.phtml
  18. ^ Carmichael, Robert (2011-03-25). "Cambodia's orphanages target the wallets of well-meaning tourists". The Independent. Retrieved 2011-11-27. 
  19. ^ Birrell, Ian (2010-11-13). "Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do". The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna). 
  20. ^ http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html
  21. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/may/27/nepal-bogus-orphan-trade-voluntourism
  22. ^ Nestora, Alexia (2011-01-18). "A Tale of Three Schols". Voluntourism Gal. Retrieved 2011-11-27. 

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