By Published: Dec. 3, 2015

Generally, ‘voluntourism’ is a poor substitute for traditional development work. Most projects are short-term, organizations that promote voluntouring don’t always ‘understand the place where it happens,’ and travelers typically don’t have skills needed for particular projects, researchers find.

Before the early years of the 21st century, the idea of combining a vacation with volunteering was unknown to most Americans. A decade and a half later, more than a million and a half people spend nearly $2 billion every year to participate in the global trend called “voluntourism.”

What’s more, a whole voluntourism industry has arisen to meet rising demand, including companies that provide experiences for college applicants looking to buff up a personal resume.

Little surprise, then, that academics have been eager to examine the phenomenon. To date, there has been extensive research focusing on the motivations of travelers — are they altruistic, self-interested or a little of both? — and the outcomes of voluntouring for both travelers and tourist destinations.

But the researchers who contributed to a recent issue of Tourist Studies titled, “Traveling for a cause: Critical examinations of volunteer tourism and social justice,” took a different tack.

Tim Oakes

Tim Oakes

“We really didn’t want to repeat those previous studies. Instead, we wanted to look at the broader social implications,” says Tim Oakes, professor of geography and director of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Oakes, along with co-editors Harng Luh Sin, assistant professor of geography at the National University of Singapore and Mary Mostafanezhad, assistant professor of geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, worked out the “intellectual agenda” for the issue.

The papers in the issue took on two broad areas of inquiry: the relationship between tourism and development and the idea of global citizenship. In particular, the issue explores how volunteer tourism fits into a broader global trend of privatizing and individualizing the development work once carried out by governments and non-governmental organizations, and what it means to be a “responsible” tourist.

Generally speaking, Oakes says, voluntourism is a poor substitute for traditional development work, for a number of reasons. Most projects are, inevitably, short-term, organizations that promote voluntouring don’t always “understand the place where it happens,” and travelers typically don’t have skills needed for particular projects.

“You need to be well established and well located in the place where that kind of volunteer tourism work is going on. … We don’t want to be asking if it’s good or bad, but really, what does it accomplish if it’s done this way, what does it do if it’s done that way,” he says.

Oakes tells the story of his own daughter, who participated in a project to build a school cafeteria in their Peruvian village.

“The kids learned that what was most important to villagers wasn’t the cafeteria but that the village could be part of the tourism economy; most of the men in the village were already employed in the region’s tourism industry,” he says.

Why don’t you start local before you go international? Why go abroad if you can serve at the local shelter or homeless place locally.”

Too often, companies promoting voluntourism are “making money by attracting tourists who want to do good, but they are not using their position to get people to think differently about what it means to be responsible. There is a “general exuberance among Americans to do good,” Oakes says, but that can actually be a problem.

Researchers from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and the University of London recently studied the impacts of voluntourism and found that they often “leave distress behind” — abandoning an orphan they’ve gotten to know and even taking jobs away from locals.

Kenyan journalist and political activist Boniface Mwangi is just one critic. Following a 2015 visit to the United States, he was perplexed that so many young Americans feel a need to go to Africa to “save the poor” when there is so much poverty at home.

“You don’t know them. They don’t know you. They won’t listen to you,” he told New African Magazine. “We have people working every single day (in Africa) to deal with those issues. Why don’t you start local before you go international? Why go abroad if you can serve at the local shelter or homeless place locally?”

But Oakes says the point is not merely to take on the failings of volunteer tourism. He and his co-editors also are interested in how we define someone as a tourist or not, and want to examine the idea that non-volunteer tourism is somehow “irresponsible.”

“While volunteer tourism may itself be premised on a discomfort with pleasure and may be motivated by a discourse in which travel purely for leisurely pleasure is conceived as irresponsible, the study of actual volunteer tourism experiences reveals just how impossible it is to extract pleasure from the analysis,” they write. “What is also being raised here is a question about reconciling aesthetics and ethics.”

“What makes tourism a pleasurable experience, and what makes us want to work when we travel? At what point is that still tourism?” he says. “That leads me to the question of the artificial distinction between tourism and the rest of our daily lives. … How do we act as tourists on an everyday basis, and in tourism, how do we act as we do in our everyday lives?

Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.