Tourism

Is voluntourism dead?

Daisy Doctor

Voluntourism has regularly been under the spotlight this year.

From putting an end illegal elephant riding and shuttering orphanage volunteering, the industry has definitely had its fair share of shake-ups in 2017.

See also: “The travel industry has an important decision”: TTC CEO

But is the industry on the brink of death?

A recent article from The Daily Telegraph touted ’empowerment tourism’ as a new and improved style of voluntourism.

The story focused on tour company ‘Hands on Travel’ and its founder Simla Sooboodoo, who pledged to distance herself from “the stigma attached to voluntourism”.

It is defined in the article as: “Not-for-profits and NGOs that rampage into developing communities, chuck a bag of rice at them, take a million photos, then vanish”.

According to the article, the distinction between ‘voluntourism’ and ’empowerment tourism’ is that “[empowerment tourism] starts by enlisting locals to help them find suitable projects because the locals know best”.

So what is the lifespan of voluntourism, and what shape does it take in 2017?

Travel Weekly sat down with World Expeditions Responsible Travel Manager Donna Lawrence to find out.

So is voluntourism dead, and what is the difference between “empowerment tourism over voluntourism”?

For Lawrence, it’s all in the name.

“If ‘voluntourism’ is to be touted as the practice of well-intentioned tourists arriving at a destination to assist marginalised segments of that society, but in reality helping very little or otherwise leaving behind a negative impact,” Lawrence said.

“Then yes ‘voluntourism’ per se is dead.”

“However, the motivation to do good in the world – to help those less fortunate than ourselves is widespread amongst travellers.

“So there is a positive future for ‘voluntourism’ or ‘empowerment tourism’ or whatever it is referred to, now that we are more informed about the pitfalls – and about positive ways to contribute,” she added.

In the article, voluntourism was criticised for its tendency to “rampage” and “throw rice at villages” then “vanish”.

Counteracting this stereotype, Lawrence emphasised the importance of “meaningful assistance”.

“Meaningful assistance requires a considered investment of resources – time, skill and/or money.”

“Visiting a family in need and leaving behind a bag of rice is a short-term solution to an ongoing problem.”

See also: Rethink orphanage tourism, travellers told

“However, investing in the family’s local community by educating them about how to grow rice or a food staple is a long-term, sustainable solution, and one that empowers the community to take an active role in the solutions to their problems.”

“This is a very simplified example but it highlights the deficiencies and dependencies that are created when short-term fixes are applied.”

Recently, orphanage tourism was cut from several voluntourism companies, and prior to that, activities which included riding caged elephants were also given the boot in regions known for volunteering programs.

See also: Intrepid ups the fight against orphanage tourism 

Looking forward, Lawrence recognised that change will be continual within the industry, and “learning never stops”.

“The best way to learn from the mistakes of the past is to enact CHANGE and stop behaving in a harmful manner as soon as it becomes apparent.

“We are always open to learning about better ways to operate more sustainable community projects.”

“We suspect that the next form of voluntourism to come under review will be some forms of animal conservation volunteering experiences, where the motives of the sanctuary or shelter are focused on profit rather than animal welfare.”

“Guidance from well respected animal welfare agencies like World Animal Protection should be sought.”

See also: “There’s no excuse for orphanage tourism” World Expeditions


Do you have something to say on this issue? Get in touch with Travel Weekly Editor Daisy Doctor here to share your thoughts.

SEE WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING

4 responses to “Is voluntourism dead?”

  1. Political correctness gone mad! We have hundreds of programs with NGO’s from the UK that have been operating for over 25 years and have all the infrastructure you could hope for. I agree with not riding caged elephants but not visiting an orphanage to assist a community whilst staying in that community is insane. No to the visitors from first class hotels that were some of your previous tour per say, that are treating an orphanage like a visit to the zoo, but honestly get real guys! and if you are really serious about animal conservation maybe you better stop visiting Antartica! Jane Johnston @travelwithacause #voluntourism

  2. Jane, unfortunately there have been plenty of reports, that some orphanages exist only to be shown to tourists. There are some unscrupulous locals, that have learnt that this is an easy way to earn an income. It goes as far as children being forcefully removed from perfectly intact families, so they have some children to show at the so called orphanage….

  3. Any attempt to uplift a community has to be driven by the community itself, for it to be effective, and yes, it is important to avoid creating dependencies and focusing on empowerment. At the same time, communities may identify needs, such as housing or access to clean water, that they cannot afford to do on their own, and this leaves room for a philanthropic-volunteer model where travelers fund the needs that the community has identified, and works in conjunction with the community in a hands-on way to get that need met (with the community doing the bulk of the work).
    In my experience at Hands Up Holidays, this has proven highly effective, engaging, respectful, and transformative.

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