A critique of voluntourism

What follows is a reasoned critique of voluntourism from the Miami International Studies Journal, and it does identify risks and pitfalls – highlighting the need even more for choosing the right tour operator for your voluntourism experience.

I submit a response to the article at the end of the piece, and the original aricle is found here: http://www.canesinternational.org/?p=995


By Adrienne DiTommaso | November 19, 2009

In the past 20 years, there has been a strong call to service that has been answered enthusiastically across the borders of age, gender, and nationality. Coupled with a desire to travel the world, service minded individuals have begun to search for volunteer opportunities that transcend the traditional molds of volunteerism by seeking international volunteer projects. This pursuit has spawned a new segment of the tourism industry that marries service opportunities with classical international travel: voluntourism. While program operators and participants alike tout the unique opportunities of voluntourism, this combination of service and travel presents some potentially troubling complications that center around the identity of the participant as alternately “volunteer” and “customer”. Further challenges arise when considering the cultural implications of voluntourism.


An initial concern with voluntourism is the treatment of the participant as both a customer and a volunteer. These two labels necessitate different treatment of a person in regards to compensation for investment. The volunteer is thought of as someone who is making a social investment in others by donating their time and work efforts and traditionally, this implies that the person is not seeking compensation. However, voluntourism participants have made a monetary investment in addition to the investment of their time and work efforts, and are seen by the voluntourism industry primarily as customers. Often, volunteers pay a high participation fee in addition to travel, food, and lodging costs and expect a return on their investment in the program. This unfortunately can turn an otherwise selfless experience into one motivated by economics. The experiences sought by volunteers, and promised by tour operators, go beyond everyday service projects in order to justify the often exorbitant expense of the program. The idea that one must pay a certain price to help others is quite counterintuitive to the volunteer philosophy. Implied is the idea that those who can afford to pay high prices will come away with more valuable service experiences.


A second critical challenge the voluntourism industry involves the consideration, or lack thereof, of historically sensitive topics, including colonialism and local sovereignty. Aside from basic culture shock that is to be expected when traveling to any foreign country, participants need to be aware of the host country’s political and social history, which may not reflect favorably on the white Western clientele who make up the majority of volunteer travelers. Oftentimes, in an attempt to lure participants to an exotic and lucrative location, voluntourism companies hastily arrange projects that are ignorant to the local political, social and economic climate. This can leave participants in uncomfortable, polarizing situations where good intentions come off as ignorant or patriarchal. Tour operators and participants need to consider that the projects they work on could be viewed as meddling in local affairs or further colonial interference. Responsible tour operators and volunteers should avoid projects that undermine local cultural, political, and economic sovereignty. Furthermore, volunteers could run into trouble if local citizens view the volunteer projects as having a low priority to the community or if volunteers displace able, competent local workers. In addition to being culturally sensitive, an ideal project for both volunteers and the community would be one that is a necessary and high priority for the community, provides skilled labor that is otherwise unavailable, and takes a significant financial burden off of the benefactors.


If the logistical, financial and cultural considerations for the responsible participant seem daunting, it is precisely because they are. Fully trusting an unregulated, perhaps culturally ill-informed industry to supply a socially meaningful experience is at best naïve and at worst financially and socially reckless. The ordinary service minded traveler would do well to keep their volunteering domestic and when they do travel abroad, travel intelligently by supporting local industry and making cultural interaction a priority.

My response:

This is an important piece, and raises valid points in criticism of voluntourism.
As the founder of http://www.handsupholidays.com I am clearly biased and believe that voluntourism, if properly managed, can benefit local communities, and be an excellent, enriching and meaningful way to travel.
A brief response to some of the points raised:
1. “An initial concern with voluntourism is the treatment of the participant as both a customer and a volunteer.”
Payment is required because tour operators have invested a lot of time, money and energy into sourcing, evaluating, and promoting volunteer projects where both the participants and host communities can both benefit.
Moreover, many communities cannot afford the cost of materials for the project to be undertaken (such as building a house or library), and so this is included in the cost of the trip.

2. “A second critical challenge the voluntourism industry involves the consideration, or lack thereof, of historically sensitive topics, including colonialism and local sovereignty.”
This can certainly occur, and so it is vital for tour operators to consult with the community to ascertain (1) if they would welcome volunteers, and (2), of so, what they feel would be of benefit.
Hands Up Holidays never imposes what we think should be done – we leave it up to the communities to tell us, that is, if they want volunteers in the first place.
It is absolutely vital to be sensitive to the cultural and historical context.
3. “Fully trusting an unregulated, perhaps culturally ill-informed industry to supply a socially meaningful experience is at best naïve and at worst financially and socially reckless.”
This is unfair. Whilst we do support a Code of Practice or other regulation, it is not right to imply that all tour operators are unethical in the absence of regulation.
I am confident that Hands Up Holidays is not the only tour operator that is doing its utmost to be mutually enriching to both the travelers and the host communities.


4 thoughts on “A critique of voluntourism

  1. Joyce Major

    Voluntourism is definitely the hot topic. When I started traveling the world as a volunteer 5 years ago very little was written. Since then I teach classes on inexpensive volunteer travel to help people find local projects that need and accept help. There are so many of these grassroots organizations that I would encourage people to investigate them before giving a large sum of money to an organization that arranges the trips.
    First off, in all of those words in that article about what is and what isn’t, the very basic premise was lost. To help others is the goal. A certain byproduct of volunteering is that you help yourself. Gandhi, Mother Teresa understood that volunteering is not a concept or a marketing idea but a way to make life more meaningful.
    Second, cultural exchanges cannot really be programmed with specific outcomes as each individual brings their own beliefs and habits with them. Given time and a common goal however, there can be a moment of inspiration when people of different cultures left to work together learn exactly how much they have in common and how beneficial working together with these different values can be to learning, to opening eyes and hearts.
    I find that voluntourism is a gentle process of observation over time and that small bits of helping brings more global awareness and appreciation. These small bits of helping can unlock doors and open hearts.

  2. Daniela Papi

    I do though think all of you at Hands up Holidays ARE in the minority though, Chris. Even though I too run a tour company which offers service learning options among other educational experiences, I do not take this sentence as offensive: “Fully trusting an unregulated, perhaps culturally ill-informed industry…”

    Actually, I think it is a GOOD point. We shouldn’t fully trust this industry because, as you and I know there are a lot of entrepreneurial groups out there looking to make money off of placing volunteers, and many of these groups have have little to no care or in some case knowledge about placing volunteers in the RIGHT situations. Working with PEPY, our education program team gets call from these groups all of the time, looking to see if we want to take volunteers. Just last week I got an email from a group in the UK offering to send us volunteers to teach English at our school programs, and all we would have to provide is room and board. I went to their website and saw that they charge 6,000 pounds for the experience, and they expect us to pay food and board for a 17 year old with no teaching experience? Clearly, the answer was no thank you, in principle, and also because we don’t take foreign volunteers to work in our school programs.

    The point, there are a LOT of groups out there who I would say are giving volunteer service a bad name and in some cases being blatantly unethical. I would encourage people to not “fully” trust this industry – actually – don’t trust ANY of us on first glance. Do your research, ask for references, read blogs like these, and the groups who care, are self-reflective, and are looking to learn how to offer the most positive travel experiences for the communities and programs visited will come to the surface. Skepticism is not a bad thing, in fact I think it will be good for groups like ours who are willing to discuss these issues and be critical about the mistakes we see and have made ourselves.

    I think this is also why you and other contributed to creating voluntourism101.com – because we want to share our thoughts and learnings other operators but also with travelers to help them ask the right questions and find the best tour operators.

    I will be putting this up on our blog as well this week and will link back here so that more travelers can read up on this as I think the more informed travelers are about the potential negative aspects of their travel choices the more thought they will put into who they choose to travel with. Thanks, Chris.

    1. handsupholidays Post author

      As always you make excellent points, Daniela!
      We fully support regulation and/or a code of practice, and your Voluntourism 101 initiative goes a long way in the right direction.
      I just wanted to say thateven in the absence of something like this, the best possible outcome is not “at best naïve”…it is my humble submission that the best outcome in the current (albeit imperfect) status quo can still be very positive for all involved (and PEPY’s programmes are a shining example of this).
      Thanks for your input, Daniela.


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