What is voluntourism and why should it matter?

Is the craze to help others, while you are unwinding, helping the world or making it worse?

Volunteer vacations or “voluntouring” is a trend that has slowly gained momentum over the past few years. As the word implies, voluntourism combines holiday travel with volunteering at the destination that the tourist visits. In simpler terms, it involves travelling to a destination in order to improve the economic well-being, socio-cultural development, or environmental conservation of the destination and its people, by providing volunteer assistance and goods. Usually participants have to pay a fee in order to partake, and as with all tourism activities, any traveller who receives remuneration for their services are automatically excluded.

Image source: thesocietypages.org

Image source: thesocietypages.org

For the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and events) industry it is an opportunity to expand a company’s social responsibility, the chance to deliver purpose-filled team-building activities, or even providing co-travelling spouses with an alternative to destination shopping sprees. Travellers desire a sense of purpose in their leisure activities. Although laying on the beach still appeals to some travellers, many people crave a more meaningful and substantiated vacation. In voluntourism, volunteers can experience a greater sense of social responsibility by improving the lives and well-being of the locals.

Google the term and you will notice a few other terms also associated with this phenomenon: voluntourist, ethical holiday, travel philanthropy and more. These terms are directly linked to sustainable tourism, defined by Sustainable Travel International as “lessening the toll that travel and tourism takes on the environment and local cultures.”  Their motto is: Leave the world a better place.

As with most travel-related activities, if voluntourism is well-organized and planned, the traveller can indeed make use of their holiday to bring about some change in the world, and also gain some personal benefits. Some of the more obvious pros include:

  • Voluntourism enables busy people to make time for charity work, combined with their holiday time. The volunteering has the added benefit of providing families with a shared experience, and single travellers the chance of travelling in the company of others.
  • The extra man-power that such a holiday provides to many well-deserved projects can result in cost savings, and faster completion as an ongoing stream of fresh workers keep the momentum going.
  • Both volunteers as well as recipients have the chance of gaining insight into the world and the lives of others. Voluntourism is supposed to be a people-to-people experience, striving to create cultural exchange and understanding.
  • A short voluntour can have far reaching effects, such as inspiring family members and friends to get involved with a cause, or even convincing the voluntourist to return to the project or to get involved with another project.

But, unfortunately as with any activity that is not well-organised or thoroughly planned, voluntourism can just as easily end up as a disaster if the parties involved do not understand the complexities in ensuring the experience is successful and enjoyable. One of the major downsides is the possibility of people only getting involved for a short feel-good burst of service, resulting in a project getting completed but not leading to much useful help for the complex cause.

Although voluntourism is rooted in good intentions, maybe it is not the best idea for your next business trip or holiday, unless done through a reputable and sustainable organisation, with a determined, long-term commitment to continue with the good work after you have touched home ground.

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