Going to an exotic location, getting to know people in need, making a difference in their lives, then returning home with a renewed sense of purpose (and not to mention, an extra embellishment on the CV or a college application). The “volunteer tourism” industry, or “voluntourism” makes these potentially life-changing trips possible, and there are many who buy into it; the global voluntourism industry annually generates over 2 billion dollars, and attracts 1.6 million would-be altruists.
However, voluntourism has received a lot of negative attention in recent years. From the Instagram caricature of White Savior Barbie to an increased awareness of “checking your privilege”, the industry of aspiring volunteers has been greatly scrutinized for the supposed narcissistic nature of tourists more concerned with the appearance of doing good, rather than creating tangible change. Despite this, those wishing to give up their time to make a positive impact in underprivileged communities can still do so, but only if tourists and organizations select their missions more carefully, to ensure that their efforts are not in vain.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group defines voluntourism as “the combined act of tourism and volunteering, where volunteer services are delivered free at the point of delivery at the destination.” As the altruistic aspect of voluntourism is based on the labor provided for free, we can see how this could potentially be detrimental to local workers after looking at the industry through the lens of labor economics. The typical gap year student, while possessing secondary education qualifications, usually lacks the experience and skills for typical community service projects, such as building houses or schools. As a result, relatively incompetent voluntourists produce lower quality work at a slower pace. However, as their labor is free, they are preferred to local skilled workers who would need wages for their work. Even without considering the thousand of dollars in travel costs and accommodation, which could have paid local workers and bought more construction materials, the use of voluntourists as manual labor is generally inefficient. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, international disaster-relief volunteers built houses which cost 30,000 dollars apiece, whereas houses built by local Christian organizations only cost $2000 dollars. Thus, 15 times more houses could have been constructed if volunteers had directly donated the funds instead of offering their labor.
To make matters worse, voluntourist dollars can fund and enable institutions which exploit the people they are meant to help. For example, “orphan tourism”, or the clichéd experience of visiting orphanages to spend time with the children, has resulted in orphanages becoming an industry in itself. A study conducted by UNICEF found that in Cambodia, only 23% of nearly 12,000 children in orphanages were real orphans, as orphanages were incentivized to take in children from poor families, in order to provide more visitors with volunteer experiences. Thus, voluntourism can often result in a net social cost, rather than the positive change it promises.
So why does voluntourism still maintain its glamorous appeal? In theory, voluntourism should benefit everyone involved: volunteers gain meaningful experiences that can stay with them for a lifetime, and underprivileged communities gain the extra hands they need. Throughout the onslaught of negative press, it is important to remember that the voluntourist industry is fuelled by the desire for altruism, and this noble pursuit can still result in positive impact. When done correctly, voluntourists interacting with host communities at a grassroots level can yield genuine cross-cultural benefits and increased global consciousness for both parties— for instance, villagers in a voluntourist destination in Northern Thailand reported enjoying forming new friendships with foreign tourists, and genuinely appreciating the well-intentioned reasons behind their visit. By communicating and sharing diverse life experiences, both voluntourists and host communities can gain mutual understanding, coming away with meaningful lessons and new perspectives. Hence, voluntourist organizations should try to emphasize the educational aspect of their trips, through methods such as inviting guest speakers to teach visitors about the complexities of local issues, and illustrating how their work could impact the host community. In return, voluntourists should be willing to pay attention and take the time to deeply reflect on the causes they are working for, rather than superficial satisfaction in the mere knowledge of their altruism.
Voluntourists, along with the organizations which serve them, should also be selective with the service projects they choose to embark on, carefully forming a judgement on whether they would actually generate positive impact. For instance, organizations should check that providing accommodation for their customers does not harm the local environment, and that guides have a strong understanding of responsible and sustainable tourism practices. Voluntourists should also be honest with themselves about the skills they bring to their host communities, and whether their presence would actually be of benefit; doctors could help a village lacking medical care, but backpackers with a rudimentary knowledge of first aid may not be as effective. Finally, working with local, non-profit organizations could ensure that more funds go directly to the people who need them, rather than being consumed by transaction costs.
Trying to consider all the different factors affecting the possible impact of a voluntourist mission can get complicated, when taking social and moral implications into account. While not a completely perfect model, basic economic principles could be used to judge whether their potential trips would have a net positive impact. Cost-benefit analyses could clarify whether the noble aims of their projects are worth the possible negative externalities — for instance, the positive impact of helping an environmental project compared to the carbon footprint of flying to an overseas destination. The concept of opportunity cost can also be used— deciding whether the funds used for accommodation would be better spent on a direct donation to the charity. While the main onus is on tourist organizations to check their practices are sustainable and non-exploitative, voluntourists should also take on the consumer responsibility of making sure their time and money is not doing more harm than good.