Voluntourism: ‘Overpriced Guilt Trips’ or a ‘Real Chance to Save the World’?
Travel Blog • Michael Yessis • 07.31.07 | 11:49 AM ET
That’s how Time frames its recent story on voluntourism, or, as its headline states, “Vacationing like Brangelina.” Catchy, but not truly representative of the well-reported piece on a growing travel niche.
Laura Fitzpatrick writes:
With leading market-research firm Euromonitor International touting this niche’s growth potential, particularly among single travelers, Voluntourism.org‘s newsletter now boasts nearly 1,900 trade subscribers, up from a mere 30 in March 2005. Lonely Planet published its first volunteer-travel guidebook in June—which was good timing, considering that a recent Travelocity poll found that almost twice as many vacationers (11%) planned to volunteer this year as in 2006.
That rise in popularity has stimulated debate about the ethics and consequences of voluntourism. In the Time story, proponents argue that voluntourism can make a difference, both in the communities where it occurs—channeling tourism dollars where they’re not typically spent, for instance—and within the individual traveler. “It’s lifechanging,” 68-year-old voluntourist Barbara Jenkel tells Time.
Critics tell Fitzpatrick that it’s more about “making participants feel like do-gooders than to doing good.” Sometimes voluntourists can even do more harm than good, Fitzpatrick writes, by working on projects “considered at odds with the local people’s desires.”
Then there’s the question of finances. Fees for voluntourism can be high, a sore point that recently stimulated some debate at GoBudgetTravel. Time’s Fitzpatrick also addresses the financial aspect of voluntourism in her story. “It’s a new form of colonialism, really,” Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, tells her. “The market is geared toward profit rather than the needs of the communities.” As a result, Tourism Concern is working on developing an ethical code for voluntourism outfitters.
Xola Consulting and George Washington University’s International Institute of Tourism Studies have also just released a study that touches on the subject, “Emerging Best Practices In Adventure Tourism and Volunteering.”
The debate underscores something we’ve seen in Tara Swords’s dispatch An Island in Costa Rica, Rolf Potts’s advice on finding volunteer opportunities without high fees and other voluntourism posts on World Hum: Voluntourism, like other types of immersion travel, can be a complex, heartbreaking and rewarding experience. Those people going into it because they want to “vacation like Brangelina” might be in for a shock.
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