Adventures in Voluntourism-they have become part of tourism mainstream

A friend of mine recently spent a few nights in a hotel owned by an international chain and sent me an article on 'Adventures in voluntourism' afterwards that he had found in their official in-room travel magazine. I saw the picture of a smiling woman in hot-pants balancing wood on her head and thought that this may be the beginning of a whole new genre of erotic photography, a new type of locker-room pictures for aidworkers or something similarly inappropriate:

 Photo: A happy voluntourist (viatora fortunata nivea), unknown location with permanent summer

However, the actual article was slightly more balanced, yet for obvious reasons focussed on the marketability of the experience. It started with examples from the US and introduced a project that the Global Citizens Network runs in connection with the Quileute Nation peoples in Washington state. It sounds like a decent project, the historic Quileute Shaker Church gets refurbished in the process and in the end 'the voluntourism situation can open up the minds of people in the host community as much as it does for the volunteers' the Chairwoman of the Quileute Nation is quoted. Sounds like an interesting way of getting out of your holiday comfort zone and the author stresses the opportunities for first-time travellers to discover a different culture. However, there is this feeling in the back of my mind that voluntourism in small communities may become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Volunteers support the building of an 'outdoor amphitheatre to shwocase traditional cultural performances' which will attract more visitors in return. I could imagine a situation where such activities are not driven by the demand of the community, but basically turn into a situation where 'growth' is introduced in the process and the next thing you know, tourists build accomodation for more tourists. In a less regulated environment there are plenty of chances that the good intentions my get exploited. David Clemmons of is also featured with his organisation and the thought of a 'worldwide voluntourism industry' makes me cringe a little. The article also introduces two projects that the hotel company runs and at least they do not seem to do harm: One project encourages volunteering in an animal sanctuary ('Yes, you may choose to cuddle animals who need love and attention!') and beach cleanups that 'usually start at 9.a.m on Saturdays. Trash bags and gloves are provided, along with food, coffee and water'. The worst case is that it may deprive local children of some pocket money as they could probably cuddle with the animals or help cleaning up the beach...
Not surprisingly the article does not include any negative side effects of voluntourism other than quoting the director of the Global Citizens Network with some questions every volunteer should ask themselves, e.g. 'Can I function effectively while working with people suffering from malnutrition, disease or extreme poverty'? To be honest, I have doubts that I could...
So what do I take away from this article?
First, this was a timely reminder of how big voluntourism has become and that it has entered the mainstream of holiday-makers, tour operators and the hotel business. In connection with the right organisations on the ground and with limitations of such schemes in mind, many probably do little if no harm and can help assist communities mitigating the impact of tourism and Western culture (I guess this is a bit of a paradox...). Second, there is huge section that this article has not covered and that takes place outside the realm of organised holidays: Cuddling animals is one thing, engaging in the whole gap-year, teaching English in East Asia thing is a completely different ballgame. Third, the organised experiences may not be the worst, if we acknowledge that global tourism is often not sustainable and comes with its own baggage of problems. Picking up litter is one thing, making sure that local communities benefit from holiday dollars is another. There is a danger that it turns into a corporate social responsibility affair if global holiday companies make handsome profits often in connection with local elites. Fourth, voluntourism is not social work that replaces professional long-term engagement with communities and should not be the incentive to 'study development' upon the return. It remains a controlled experiment in experiencing global cosmopolitanism that should trigger interesting questions, discussions etc., but that should not be mistaken for 'helping the poor/world'.

Addendum 25 July:
Tom Murphy just shared a very interesting post about Daniela Papi and her 'Lessons I learned' blog about 'NGOs, Voluntourism, Cambodia & Life Lessons'. I agree with Tom: 
As someone who has cheered on the idea of admitting failure, it is encouraging to see someone who is willing to admit where she has gone wrong and freely share what the journey was like. People like Daniela can help to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
However, such an approach has limitations. As important as critical reflections are, they need to be put into the perspective of 'real life': Whether you run a business, research project or NGO, your work has an impact on many stakeholders, jobs, livelihoods, reputation and people's dignity. In short: Your great 'learning journey' may be somebody else's real life with long-term impacts beyond 'I should go back to grad school and learn more about development' insights. Your fascinatingly 'failed project' may not just be a great writing opportunity, but may have failed to deliver services, results, hope etc. to people around you. This is not directly addressed at Daniela, but more of a 'note to myself'. Admitting failure is great, careful planning, extensive listening and high ethical standards are even better when we engage with some aspect of people's lives. And more humility may not hurt either: You are young, you do not know everything, your great idea may have been tested before and just because you met a few weird aid professionals does not mean that the whole industry has failed.


  1. Dear Aidnograph,

    Got to love Bloggers and interpretation of a situation or maybe a shift in traditional aid. I thought that in the perspective of your previous post, your academic background, and your years of international work; you would have provided a better perspective of what volunteering internationally (including short term volunteering) represents in a changing world.

    I am just back from Mali Africa where I had the opportunity to present to an international audience about the potential that volunteering (voluntourism) represents for host countries.

    As you most likely know there are only three ways countries can make money

    1. TRADE - Dig the ground and sell stuff abroad
    2- REMITTANCES - Send people abroad and count on them supporting their families by sending money back home.
    3- TOURISM - Invite people to experience the culture, heritage, nature, food, and much more.

    Other than can count on ODA (not sustainable) and we know the track record of this investment OR FDI (well we all know that capital migrate where ROI are higher) <<< so they will come and leave quickly!

    Since your post is about #3 a form of tourism, I will focus on this one. As you also know, there are many forms of tourism / travelers. When it comes to mass tourism, the leakages could be as high as 80% <<not very sustainable! |Voluntourism bring a kind of travelers who is concerned with the impact of traveling and also comes with a project in mind that in 95% of the case, the community wants and needs this project.

    This brings me to address your other point - "needs based development" This past winter I drove from the North of Colombia to Lima Peru. I stopped in several small communities to talk about this new trend "needs based development". Well let me tell you that for the majority of communities, they don't even know what to ask for and that it is even possible to ask. The odd that they receive help is slim to none or often it will depend on their capacity to lobby their own government or hope that a BINGO (Big International NGO) stumble in their community.

    So far the world of development has done everything possible not to innovate. This has helped generate a growing movement of Do It Yourself – Foreign Aid. There is a serious discontentment with the lack of effectiveness of traditional aid and I think that the current activities and focus of the HLF-4 on Aid Effectiveness scheduled for fall 2011 is narrow in even trying how it measures impact.

    With all due respect, I think that your narrow perspective of what voluntourism can contribute to development and alleviation of poverty unfortunately represents the old view of the BINGOs and further drives people to stop supporting the traditional aid industry.

    Mother Teresa figured it out years ago when she opened the door to her orphanage to travelers and welcomed people who could offer 1 hour, 1 day, or 1 week of their time. She built a sustainable model and provided an opportunity for people to touch what international development.

    I think that advocate of BINGOs and ineffective aid should spend more time looking at mix model of development that engages the private sector and the public at large. Old models haven’t demonstrated any sustainable mechanism to-date.

    “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world?” Anne Frank

    Luc Lapointe
    Connexion Internationale

  2. Thanks for your detailed comment, Luc, and sorry for the late reply which is caused by a writing-induced Internet absence. The main focus of my post is my own astonishment how a global, renowened hotel and resort chain has added the term 'voluntourism' to its marketing material. My guess is that they would probably fall under the category of 'mass tourism' that you also mention and that we both agree is not very sustainable. There may be alternatives-and you are pointing some examples out. As long as we agree that it falls under the category 'tourism' I agree that projects deserves a case-by-case assessment about their positive impact etc. However, I am more concerned with 'vountourism' as a tool to make students pay for an internship in a developing country. There is demand to get 'work experience' and there seems to be a growing supply of opportunities. I find it difficult to regard this form of tourism as work experience. It's travelling-and there is nothing wrong about it per se-but shouldn't be abused to make students/graduates pay to live and work in a community for three weeks and suggest that they 'do development'. We may have slightly different audience in mind when we talk about 'voluntourism', but thanks again for sharing your reflections, Luc!

  3. Green Bug Adventures wrote an interesting reply to my original post (which, similar to Luc's comment, addressed a slightly different section of the voluntourism discourse):

    'A very interesting perspective on “Voluntourism“. I must say that there are very different ways of doing things than what is projected in this article. But it does give me some perspective in that I am glad I took the time to do my homework and find the wonderful partner that I did for operating the Voluntourism experiences that are available from Green Bug Adventures. The organization that we work with to provide volunteer tours in the Volta region in Ghana, build real, lasting relationship with the communities that they work in. They are there before and after you leave identifying how and where travelers to their country could be helpful to the communities, and working with the communities to identify their own needs and desires within the whole process.'

  4. Hi,

    I know this is a while after you wrote this, but I wanted to say - as someone fairly inexpert - I think you raise really important points.

    Luc - while there are of course potentially beneficially effects of voluntourism (that IS indeed the point) - there are also genuinely negative effects. See, for example, this al jazeera story:

    (On an anecdotal basis, I can tell you when I was in Cambodia I certainly saw some of the damage short-term volunteers could do - ESPECIALLY when children are involved. Mother Teresa, rest her soul, is not actually perfect and having people cuddle kids for an hour and then disappear, when those kids already have a potentially traumatic past of abandonment, is actually NOT always a good idea).

    I certainly agree with the Anne Frank quote you post, but I do think 'helping' is a complex art - even in inter-personal relationships within families and friends, let alone across cultures - and it can certainly cause harm.

    Anyway - I'm not saying there should be NO voluntourism, and I agree that it's a potentially fantastic source of revenue (usually less destructive than relying on natural resources for example), but only that such ventures should be done carefully and not in a some bumbling haphazard fashion where everyone naively believes that if they're there to help, what they're doing MUST be good.

    (Thanks Tobias and sorry for ranting!)

    - Leila

  5. Hi Leila,

    Thanks for your comment. One of the great things about blogging for me is that it creates an interactive repository of thoughts, links, comments etc. So your comment is always timely and most welcome! And orphanage voluntourism especially in South East Asia is one of the examples where voluntourism has created an inflated bubble/market.

  6. Hi

    After reading your post on PhDs, I am now happily perusing your blog and finding lots of things right up my alley! I particularly appreciate your attempt to carve out more space in that (small - but growing??) overlap between development practice and academy, which I think is crucial for both fields.

    I wrote my MSc dissertation critiquing voluntourism, looking mainly at the larger commercial providers who charge fairly extortionate amounts for often quite short trips, and in particular their discourse through internet marketing, participants' testimonials and imagery. My main concern is certainly not that 'voluntourism' is inherently negative - I think when done well, including self-reflexivity, research and critique - it can have great potential (speaking as a returned youth volunteer with VSO's 6-month GX programme). However, in line with Kate Simpson's work, my research showed overwhelmingly that these trips promote a radically depoliticized and dehistoricized vision of development and host communities, with little or no inbuilt space for reflection or debate. This is exacerbated by the short-term nature of trips in which I cannot imagine participants have a hope of settling in and learning more deeply about the place they are in. Images and text routinely 'othered' the 'grateful' hosts through exoticization and romanticization of poverty. The dominant trope evaded causality by focusing on 'good luck', the 'fortune' that "we" have to be born in the West with all its wealth and opportunity. Because of the typically localised nature of projects and destinations (e.g. kids in one school in a village somewhere), there is little scope for understanding wider or structural causality (policies of that nation's government, political economy of the region, how this fits in with Western government's policies and interventions, the seemingly disconnected and yet intricately connected actions of multinational corporations...). Lastly, as Simpson argues, programmes tend to focus exceedingly on 'doing' development, the physical, the concrete (how many animals or children cuddled? = smiling, gratified tourist), which is not only short-termist and questionable in itself, but also detracts from the bigger question of what a concerned person could spend more time on in their own society to have an effect on this system of injustice, which they may themselves be complicit in perpetuating, especially actions which feel less tangible and gratifying, such as campaigning, lobbying, altering lifestyle and consumer habits etc.

    Rambled away - sorry, but as you can see this topic gets my goat. Your comments on that photo are hilarious by the way! Maybe you should create a new hybrid space of development critique through stand-up?


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