What is voluntourism all about?
Let’s Unpack That is a series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, issues, and travel privileges to understand how they impact our travel experiences. Each week, we focus on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect. We will be covering everything from the white savior complex to ethnocentrism. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.
Now, we are unpacking another highly talked about topic in the travel world: voluntourism. This is also known as volunteering tourism. As someone who has done service-learning and seen value in it, I often question intent vs. impact. What are the ethics of this process? By definition, voluntourism is where travelers participate in voluntary work, mainly for charity, and use it to travel, which can be referred to as a “volunteer vacation.”
Using FAQs about this topic to guide us, let’s unpack that y’all!
Table of Contents
Voluntourism and its origins
What are the key terms to know when discussing voluntourism?
The Global North-South divide is partly based on geographic systems and partly based on socioeconomic and political alliances. Aside from the word “voluntourism,” it is important to unpack the definitions of a Global North country and a Global South country. This is necessary to understand the larger systems and history at hand. The Global North-South divide impacts who do the volunteering and who receives the services.
Global North countries are Australia, Canada, most Western European countries, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. Global South countries are Asia (except Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), Central America, South America, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East (except for Israel).
What is voluntourism and who participates?
Voluntourism was initially more activism-led than tourism-led. According to the National Service, it started in the 1950s and 60s when programs such as UN Volunteers and the Peace Corps. Later, international NGOs strapped for cash began to raise money through tourism. Organizing volunteer vacations became a way to fundraise for international NGOs to do their work and research. Travelers became willing to watch and work with practitioners in the field. They wanted to see what other professions do abroad and add them to their vacation. Hence the name volunteer vacation.
Who participates in volunteering tourism?
Voluntourism means people from the Global North go to the Global South to volunteer. Many people from the Global North pay thousands of dollars to do this work in the Global South. The majority of voluntourists are wealthy white people from the Global North. Yet, Black and brown people from the Global North also participate. On the receiving end of voluntourism are Black and brown people, most likely children. These volunteer vacations are led by international NGOs, researchers, tourism organizations, etc.
What are examples and phrases used in volunteer tourism?
– Teaching English, working at an orphanage, and providing medical assistance in the Global South are all examples of voluntourism. Many tourists who volunteer receive minimal training and have no background or experience in those areas.
– Paying thousands to an out-of-country organization to go abroad in the Global South to volunteer for two weeks and “make an impact” or “help people.”
– “Service-learning abroad” opportunities where college students from the Global North volunteer in countries in the Global South for college credit or as part of their study abroad. This is common in higher education.
Voluntourism, the white savior complex, and the tourism industry
How much is the voluntourism industry worth?
Voluntourism is a two-billion-dollar industry. Yes, you read that correctly. Volunteering tourism is a TWO-BILLION dollar industry. Over one million people participate in their experiences each year. This includes volunteering tourism with a charity of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Voluntourism opportunities received the name volunteer vacation because travelers go to a place for 2 weeks, volunteer, and then travel around that region for an extended period of time.
How does the white savior complex impact voluntourism?
As we previously unpacked, the white savior complex is a product of colonialism that is one of the many social issues in travel. The white savior complex occurs when you center yourself as the hero of someone else’s story. The entire volunteering tourism sector plays on that complex by attracting those who want to use their funds/privilege to “save” and “help” people. Often, volunteers have no experience in their area even though it can be a critical problem such as education or health.
Also, on many occasions, volunteering tourists take photos with the Black and brown people they serve. These photos are primarily with children that leads to issues of social media consent as well. Voluntourists use these photos to show off what they did on social media when they return home. Both these photos and their faux emotional connection with the children they just met are self-serving. This behavior is textbook white saviorism.
Have you volunteered abroad? Yes.
I am nothing if not transparent, which brings me to my own voluntourism experience. I have not volunteered in the Global South country. However, I did volunteer when I studied abroad in Spain. I went to a residential facility for adults with special needs twice a week during my 5 months in Spain. I talked to the residents and hung out with them in their arts and crafts room. It was more of a companionship situation because some residents did not have family members visit them.
Truthfully? I do not know if the residents felt as if I added to their lives. We talked and improved my Spanish. But, at the end of the day, it was still about my own personal development. I did learn about Spanish culture from them through our conversations. However, I question if it was the most effective use of my time or their time. In my eyes, there was not enough reciprocity.
The pros and cons of voluntourism
Benefits of voluntourism
At face value, many people think voluntourism is inherently good. It does bring money to the destination and the NGO. One thought process is that a country requires help. Thus, if people from affluent countries want to help, they have a right to use their resources. This is often the argument for philanthropies funded by rich people. At face value yes, it is commendable.
But here is the thing: we live in capitalism. Everything costs money. No one is going to say no to free labor. Therefore, if there is a plane of 25-50 tourists who want to come and work for free, of course, people in those countries would not say no! A Global North country would not say no either. Whether the volunteering tourism experience is for two weeks or a week, an NGO with limited resources will take all the help it can get. Is that not exploiting their weaknesses to benefit tourists who want to “feel good?” We have to think about intent vs. impact.
Negative effects of volunteering abroad
Though many focus on the individual experiences around voluntourism, we need to discuss the systemic implications. Yes, people who do volunteering tourism attain a different outlook on life. Yes, there may be a short-term change in the destination due to their work. It has happened. And perhaps a person from the Global North had their point of view changed in the process. Great. But, there is a larger, systemic issue that occurs.
Volunteering tourism is a two-billion-dollar industry aimed at improving the lives of people in the Global South. Has that been achieved in 50+ years? If there has been minimal progress, we should rethink the process, right? The problem is that many Global South countries have limited resources because of being exploited by countries in the Global North. Voluntourism is recreating a wheel of dependence between countries with affluence (Global North) and the countries (Global South) exploited for their affluence. That does not seem like a sustainable process.
The future of voluntourism and local-led projects
What could voluntourism look like in the future?
Volunteering tourism relies on a system that is literally funded by and marketed for volunteers, not the host country. However, some people are now working with voluntourism agencies to rectify the harm. Locals who are living in-country are trying to find ways to make it more impactful. Because, at the end of the day, going abroad for two weeks and serving like 100 people may seem fine. What if we help support to help train people in that country on the ground to do the service that a voluntourist is paying thousands of dollars to do? Then once people are trained and supporting themselves, the outside funds are no longer needed? Who knows the possibilities that could occur.
If I am considering voluntourism, what should I be thinking about?
I am not telling you what to do. If you are reading this, you are probably a grown adult who makes their own decisions. But, if you are on the fence about voluntourism, here is some food for thought:
– Is what you are doing sustainable? What will happen when you leave? It is an issue of intent vs. impact.
– Are local people being put out of a job or businesses because volunteers come every year to do a halfway job on a project? Can people in-country be trained to do these projects?
– If you are going to do a voluntourist experience, do deep research into the sponsoring organization. There are a lot of local organizations leading these types of experiences to change the narrative of voluntourism. However, still do your research. Make sure that you are not replicating harm that you do not want to be done in your own community or country.
This is like homework, but better!
You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, learn more! Check out the following resources to learn from resources that have even more expertise in voluntourism. They further break down the pros and cons of volunteering abroad.
– No White Saviors (NWS): NWS is my go-to source on all things related to white saviorism, voluntourism, colonialism, adoption, etc. They are based in Uganda and dedicate their platform to educating us all on these topics. NWS also has a TON of valuable information on their Instagram that they post weekly! Follow them to learn something new and expand your point of view.
– Invisible India: Abhishek & Jessica highlighted voluntourism in one of their episodes. A mixed Desi coupled with experience working in international humanitarian aid. They discuss the pros and cons of voluntourism. Their POV does a good job of showing that there are indeed a variety of opinions out there. Based on their experiences, they also are trying to find ways to redesign what it looks like.
That is all for this post on voluntourism in travel! Check out the video version of this topic below and tune in on IGTV @thesojournies for more episodes. This normally comes before the blog post if you need more. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below!
Want more? Check out this post unpacking accessibility privilege in travel!