How Voluntourism Works

Storm Image Gallery Volunteers from Australia and Canada dig a mattress out of the sand to help with tsunami cleanup in Thailand. See more pictures of storms.
Storm Image Gallery Volunteers from Australia and Canada dig a mattress out of the sand to help with tsunami cleanup in Thailand. See more pictures of storms.

What does the word "travel" mean t­o you? Your toes in the sand? Riding an elephant in India? Camping with friends in the Grand Canyon? Everyone's dream vacation may be different, but our reasons for taking one are usually similar. We want a change of scenery, to break from our daily lives and see something we've never seen before. 

And some travelers add another element to vacationing -- helping others. It's called voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and tourism. It's also known as volunteer travel or a volunteer vacation.


Voluntourism is a growing industry that attracts all sorts of people. Everyone from retired baby boomers to college spring breakers are interested in mixing travel with good deeds, and there are voluntourism opportunities available for just about any preference or interest. You can go to South Africa and study meerkats, travel to Peru for a community development project, work with doctors in Tanzania, or remain in your home country and help clean up national parks.

So what's the difference between voluntourism and, say, the Peace Corps or a mission trip? The latter sort of volunteer travel is typically associated with governmental efforts or religious organizations. Peace Corps volunteers may stay with the Corps for up to five years, working on long-term projects like teaching English or distributing medicine. Voluntourism, on the other hand, is short-term. Voluntourism vacations focus on specific and current issues, but also allow travelers the time to experience local culture. For example, one organization offers an eight-day trip to Cambodia, where volunteers help to build a rainwater collection unit. However, before they begin their service, they tour historical sites and visit the country's capital city [source: PEPY].

Voluntourism's recent upswing might be a reaction to significant world events. David Clemmons of points to disasters like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina as placing tourism in a newer context [source: Uzelac]. Tourism dollars are essential to bringing back a weakened local economy, so voluntourists help with both their hands and their money. And many travelers want to interact with a culture in a more meaningful way than tramping through its tourist attractions.

And don't forget the simplest reason -- people feel good when they're helping. Studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between health and volunteering. In fact, people who volunteer tend to have greater longevity and lower levels of depression [source: Grimm, Spring, Diaz].


Voluntourism's Origins

Duri­ng the late 1950s and early 1960s, the service organizations that sowed the seeds for voluntourism were created. For example, the United Kingdom's Volunteer Service Organization (VSO), founded in 1958, now sends volunteers all over the world to donate their skills in areas of poverty. Most assignments last from several months to several years. In the United States, the Peace Corps traces its genesis to a 1960 speech by President John F. Kennedy. The president challenged students to serve their country in a peaceful way by working in developing countries. These two landmark programs -- VSO and Peace Corps -- led to the formation of even more volunteer and service programs, such as study-abroad, ecotourism, and the U.K. "gap year," where students take off a year prior to university to perform charity work.

Most of the volunteer work done before and during the 1970s was more about activism than tourism, however. The stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer was idealistic, young and a free spirit -- someone able to make a huge time commitment. However, in the 1970s, another aspect of volunteering began to take shape.


Voluntourism Takes Off

Volunteers help with post-tsunami cleanup in Thailand.
Volunteers help with post-tsunami cleanup in Thailand.

In the­ 1970s, funding for scientific field research was beginning to dry up, and many projects were in danger of cancellation. An organization called Earthwatch came up with the idea to raise money through tourist dollars. It guessed that travelers would be willing to pay money to watch researchers work in the field, doing things like conducting archaeological digs or tracking wild animals. What Earthwatch didn't predict was that the travelers didn't want to just watch -- they wanted to participate. The organization quickly put their volunteers to work doing data collection, digging through ruins, even trapping animals and insects for study. Since Earthwatch projects were only a few days or a few weeks long, people could volunteer during their traditional vacation time. This sort of volunteer travel began attracting an affluent, slightly older crowd -- people who had the money to spend on a volunteer vacation but who had time constraints.

Today, voluntourism is an industry. And, in a 2005 travel survey, one-quarter of respondents said they would be interested in taking a volunteer vacation [source: Cornell].


Many organizations even open up their trips to entire families -- an alternative to the typical Disney vacation. There are thousands of programs from which to choose, hosted by dozens of different companies. Organizations range from nonprofit, charitable organizations to big-name travel agencies looking for a new marketing niche. Many traditional vacation Web sites now have dedicated sections for voluntourism. Potential travelers can search for voluntours that match their interests, read stories from other voluntourists and hook up with travel groups.

What to Expect on a Voluntourism Trip

If you're looking into a volunteer vacation, you may wondering how you should prepare for the excursion. So let's get the practical things out of the way first. When you're going on a trip that's longer than a few days, here are a few things you should take care of beforehand:

  • Hold your mail
  • Pre-pay bills
  • Obtain and make copies of your identification
  • Procure travel insurance
  • Make a list of any medical conditions or allergies
  • Get any necessary vaccinations

What's listed above are just general travel tips. Now let's get to tips specifically for volunteer vacations. First, learn as much as you can about the culture you'll be visiting. You don't want to unknowingly violate any cultural taboos. Something that seems perfectly natural in your culture could be completely offensive to someone in another. In Thailand, for example, people consider the head to be the most spiritual part of the body. Tousling someone's hair or patting a child on the head is a big no-no [source:]. In India, standing with your hands on your hips is a sign of aggression [source:]. Travelers should show respect to their hosts and make every effort not to be insulting.


The experts at also suggest reading up on group dynamics. Most voluntourists end up working in a group setting and also sleep in close quarters. You'll need to know how to interact as part of a team, as well as understand the dynamics of a group setting.


What kind of difference will you make?

Another important thing to remember is to manage your expectations. Voluntourism trips are usually short -- two weeks or less. You can't expect to see big community changes within such a short timeframe. If you find it important t­o have closure at the end of your trip, make sure you choose a project that has a beginning and an end -- for example, building a well or painting a schoolhouse.

Experiencing a community markedly different from your own can be a heavy experience. Be prepared to process everything you deal with. You might see extreme poverty, unclean living conditions, malnutrition, drought or severe weather conditions. On a brighter note, you can also expect some time to yourself where you can be a regular tourist. Many voluntourism packages include time off for exploring. You might get a free day or two at either end of the trip, or you may only be required to work a few hours a day, with the rest of the time to yourself. Every trip is different, so choose one that suits your preferences.


Voluntourism seems like a lofty and charitable idea. However, the concept does have downsides.

When Voluntourism Fails

A Canadian volunteer varnishes a long tail boat at the Cape Pakarang Boatyard in Thailand. After the tsunami, many traditional fishermen lost their boats.
A Canadian volunteer varnishes a long tail boat at the Cape Pakarang Boatyard in Thailand. After the tsunami, many traditional fishermen lost their boats.

Voluntourists like to believe they're making a positive difference with the work they do on vacation. But not everyone agrees with that sentiment. Critics have their doubts about the value of voluntourism.

Proponents point out that voluntourism not only funnels dollars into a local economy, but also assists in positive community development. This may be true, but critics feel that voluntourism may do more harm than good. They claim that short-term voluntourists often arrive unskilled and untrained, and as a result, don't have enough time to make an effective contribution. Another concern is that some work projects actually displace local workers, not to mention the insinuation that locals aren't good enough to do the work themselves.


In addition, critics believe that voluntourism doesn't contribute enough money to the local economy. If volunteers are busy working all the time, they're not out spending their money on tourist-related activities, which isn't good if the particular village or country depends on tourism dollars to keep its economy strong. As a result, some organizations are now trying to incorporate more touristy activities into volunteer work projects [source: Kuo, Fowler].

Because voluntourism is a relatively new business niche, the voluntourism market is largely unregulated. Some organizations do take advantage of this, operating tours that are profit-driven more than community-driven. After paying a lot of money, voluntourists have reported arriving on site to find that another group had already completed the projects they were to do. Some were even asked to perform work that was clearly at odds with the community's desires [source: Fitzpatrick].


Choosing the Right Volunteer Vacation

So how do you know if your volunte­er vacation is on the up-and-up? The organization Ethical Volunteering recommends you ask the following questions when evaluating a voluntourism opportunity:

  • Exactly what will I be doing? Is there a job description?
  • Do you work with a local partner organization in the community?
  • Does your organization make financial contributions to the community?
  • What are your policies on ethical and ecotourism?
  • On what time frame do you run your program?
  • Can you provide me with exact contact details about this program?
  • What support and training will I receive?

[source: Ethical Volunteering]


Satisfactory answers to these questions will help you to determine whether a program is ethical and safe.

Critics also warn against going on a voluntourism trip with the wrong motivations. Some voluntourism organizations discourage contact between volunteers and the aid recipients. This is to avoid putting people in the community in an awkward situation where they feel exploited or indebted to the volunteers. However, other organizations encourage bonding with the locals. Doing your research and following local customs is the best approach.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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