Voluntourism (a portmanteau of volunteering and tourism) is a type of experiential travel where travelers participate in volunteer work to help out disadvantaged communities and offer their relevant skills for free.
This sort of volunteering is a growing trend, and many people are keen to try it, but it isn’t always as positive as it may seem.
Voluntourism sounds good on the surface, and it certainly does have its benefits, but there are some drawbacks to this type of volunteer work.
Like all attempts to do good, current and future volunteers must understand the local community and what they need, rather than being blindly undertaken by well-meaning but misguided individuals.
If you are interested in volunteer tourism or eco-tourism, you should start with some careful research into where you’re going, what the people need, and how you can help.
Thus, without further ado, let’s explore some of the pros and cons of these volunteer programs.
Pros of Voluntourism
Volunteer tourism has many advantages, even if it has acquired a bad name in recent years.
It is fundamentally grounded in the human desire to help each other and make the world a better place by tackling problems like environmental issues, and there’s a lot of good to be said for it.
Voluntourism Is Educational
At its heart, voluntourism is about learning, especially when a reputable organization like World Vision sets it up.
It offers people the opportunity to immerse themselves in the lives of others and participate in cultural exchange while they volunteer abroad.
Rather than simply visiting another country on a surface level and walking around looking at the sites, volunteer tourism allows people to participate in the community’s activities. It encourages outsiders to learn about the community’s struggles, challenges, and joys, as well as share their own experiences.
People can learn a lot by directly experiencing the lives of others and a new culture, and this is the kind of insight that volunteer travel seeks to offer. By making travel about integration, volunteer tourism educates both the volunteers and the local communities in the developing world.
Voluntourism Encourages Good Feelings
Volunteering abroad in developing countries in a way that is meaningful and has a clear, positive impact can be a life-changing experience. The volunteers feel they have made a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate.
The community they help also benefits from their visitors by gaining new skills, amenities, and insight into other cultures. Thus, by promoting friendship and cooperation, volunteer tourism encourages good feelings on both sides.
Voluntourism Can Lead to a Better Quality of Life
The right volunteer projects, like environmental conservation performed by a non-profit organization, are about helping to solve a problem for a community. They identify issues that require the help of others and bring in people who can assist with those troubles.
This aid can improve the lives of people who are suffering, and it often leads to donations and interest in the area from the traveler, even after they have left. Further assistance may ensure that the situation continues to improve and more people offer outside support and decide to volunteer abroad.
Cons of Voluntourism
There are, unfortunately, many issues associated with voluntourism trips. And these negative impacts often have to do with greed, ignorance, or a lack of long-term commitment.
The Work May Be Substandard
Often, volunteers can not adequately perform the work they are doing, meaning they are not actually helping. There are stories of locals having to redo volunteers’ work because they did it poorly, which hurts the local economy.
Thus, these volunteers waste materials and time in areas where this waste is devastating.
If you are going to try a voluntourism program, you need to make sure that the project has an actual impact and that you have the necessary skills for the work.
Voluntourism Companies May Be Dishonest
There are many reports of voluntourism companies preying on poor communities and creating issues or delaying help. They do this because they can make money by selling a vacation package that makes claims of volunteering opportunities.
For instance, orphanages that receive funding or help from well-meaning individuals have a growing interest in “recruiting” vulnerable children that are not orphans.
In fact, of the eight million children living in orphanages, most have at least one living parent. And the reason for this is partly because some voluntourism programs traffic these kids or use their own children to get free money and labor from visitors.
Therefore, it is crucial to check that the people truly need your help and to research the company thoroughly before signing up to provide support for a project.
Locals May Lose Work
In some cases, voluntourists end up taking jobs from local staff who would have completed the project themselves without external help. Often, what local economies need most is funding, not extra hands.
It costs people a lot of money to fly out for a volunteer program and learn new procedures, and if businesses instead spent that money on paying locals, they could do the same work more efficiently. Unfortunately, some people who engage in voluntourism are more interested in international travel and looking good than actually helping.
So, it’s oftentimes better to raise money for the region instead of paying to fly out and help in person. Unless the voluntourist has exceptionally high-demand skills, like in health care, there will almost always be local people who can do the job.
Usually, the issue is funds and materials, not labor. A well-meaning volunteer may be taking away work from the local people, who depend upon the income and may suffer financially as a result.
Voluntourism Creates Short-Term Development
The instability of the voluntourism trend can also be problematic. Because the flow of people is irregular and unreliable, local projects often suffer.
The “drop-in, help for a month and then leave” nature of voluntourism makes it unstable in regions of extreme poverty that need stability. For example, teaching for a month sounds admirable, but these short-term projects leave the school stuck when the teacher goes.
Similarly, people who only work for a few weeks can leave projects short-handed later. Unless the need is short-term and the volunteer tourists can finish the project and any other projects they are volunteering for before they leave for their home country, voluntourism can cause more harm than good.
Thus, sustainable development is what leaves enduring contributions and helps to alleviate poverty and improve well-being.
Overall, voluntourism has its place and stems from a desire to be helpful, but interested individuals must treat it with caution. If you want to undertake a volunteer project abroad, do thorough research into the host community and company and reach out to past volunteers to determine whether your presence will truly help the people who need it.
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